Barak Im gonna kill you!.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Our political leaders learned an invaluable lesson about media relations this week: When you decide to hold a meeting in a cave and invite the press to cover it, don't whisper politically embarrassing statements to the person next to you.
Given the sensitivity of current microphone technology, you'd think that by now they would have learned not to do so in any setting where the electronic media is present. Yet last Sunday, when the cabinet decided to hold its weekly meeting inside the burial caves of the Beit She'arim National Park to promote "Love Nature, Water and the Environment Week," there was National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin (Fuad) Ben-Eliezer, caught by a Channel 2 News camera complaining to Agricultural Minister Shalom Simhon about their party leader, Ehud Barak. Bemoaning the defense minister's go-it-alone tendency and his refusal to consult with experienced political and communications advisers, Ben-Eliezer commented: "If he wants to commit suicide, he can commit suicide. If he continues this way, [Labor] is finished."
And this, mind you, was a discussion between two of Barak's biggest supporters in the party.
While it was his Likud rival, Binyamin Netanyahu, who just two weeks ago was running the media gauntlet over revelations of the cost of his London visit during the Second Lebanon War, it was Barak's turn this week, as Fuad's comments to Simhon sparked off a series of reports about growing dissension in the party over his performance, including his media strategy - or lack thereof.
No big surprise there. Like many former generals who parachute into politics, Barak has often seemed uncomfortable dealing openly with the press and developing a real communications strategy, something the top military brass rarely bothers to do while in uniform.
At least when he first ran for prime minister in 1999, Barak had the sense to assemble a top communications team around himself, including local PR "boy wonder" Tal Zilberstein and such renowned American strategists as the former Clinton team of James Carville and Stanley Greenberg. But he eschewed their advice in deciding to hold a snap election two years later, and paid for his overconfidence and arrogance by being crushed by Ariel Sharon at the polls.
Now Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, despite all his legal travails, is creeping up in the latest surveys against both Barak and Bibi, which is perhaps not surprising. The PM may lack the storied military CV of the former and natural charisma of the latter, but he's a shrewd politician who's much more willing (I've seen this myself) to seriously listen to advice from such professional communications professionals as Zilberstein, who now works with him.
Olmert's eager willingness to play the "spin" game may earn him satirical brickbats from TV's Eretz Nehederet program, but this is an essential part of how the political game is played in democracies. A good case in point was the decision to hold the cabinet meeting in the Beit She'arim caves, which I've no doubt was the result of Olmert's communications team seeing poll numbers showing that green issues are increasingly popular with Israeli voters.
Of course, those who disdain Olmert in the first place dismissed and derided this as exactly the type of meaningless PR stunt that demonstrates his lack of substance. But the fact is that all the broadcast and print media still prominently used the images of the cabinet meeting, and it did probably help the government pick up some brownie points from environmentally-minded voters.
Bibi is certainly no less aware than Olmert of the need for creative communication strategies; his problem is a prickly personality that over the years has driven away some of the best minds in the consulting business, such as reclusive American political operative Arthur Finkelstein and local communications strategist Eyal Arad.
The latter - who is credited, along with advertising maven Reuven Adler, with helping Sharon win two landslide elections - also happens to be one of the advisers that Ben-Eliezer told Simhon he had tried in vain to get Barak to consult. After a week like this one, though, the Labor leader may well start thinking that he is going to need some good media advice not only in order to hold on to his present position, but to return to his former one in the Prime Minister's Office.
ALTHOUGH I'VE written much here about Al-Jazeera in the past month, there was a development last week at the satellite news channel that deserves mention.
When Al-Jazeera English started, one of its most eye-catching hires was Dave Marash as chief anchor of its Washington bureau. While Marash is a respected broadcast veteran who spent years as a top reporter for ABC-TV's Nightline current affairs program, New Yorkers of a certain age (like myself) also remember him way back in the 1970s as anchor of the local CBS-TV newscast.
Two years ago, I caught Marash on a panel in Washington DC, in which he defended his decision to join Al-Jazeera, saying he was given assurances of its journalistic independence and impartiality.
Last year, I happened to get a request to be interviewed by the station while back in Washington, and went up to its studio there, where I met with Marash. Before we went on the air, he told me he wanted to talk about evangelical Christian influence on Israeli policy. I responded that while Jerusalem welcomed this support, the Sharon and Olmert governments' readiness for territorial compromise proved this wasn't much of a factor, and suggested it would instead be more pertinent if we talked about political divisions inside Israel. Marash agreed with this assessment, a small sign to me, at least, that his journalistic openness and integrity remained intact in his new position.
Too much so, apparently, as this week he resigned from Al-Jazeera. His departure had nothing to do with Israel, nor with the charge that his initial hiring was a token gesture by the Qatari station to defend itself against charges of bias.
"Other than the fact that my Jewishness may have reflected positively on them, I have no evidence of that," Marash told AP. "I don't think anti-Semitism is a charge that AJE should plead guilty to."
Maybe not, but he did object to what he perceived was a growing "reflexive adversarial editorial stance" against America at the channel, as it shifted to becoming a more "authentically Middle Eastern" news operation - like its increasingly virulent anti-Israel Arabic mother station.
Last week, Yediot Aharonot published an opinion piece by Avi Weinberg, secretary-general of the Israel Press Council, titled in "In praise of Al-Jazeera," in which he wrote about recent Israeli government sanctions on the station: "Here is a rule of thumb that is almost always applicable: A journalist subjected to a boycott is a good journalist."
Really? Even when they become propagandists in the service of another state, such as Qatar?
I'd suggest another rule of thumb: When a journalist of the stature of Dave Marash quits a news operation and cites editorial bias as one of the reasons, now is not the time to praise Al-Jazeera, but to offer constructive criticism.