Between the Lines: Is the media 'occupied territory'?

It's all too convenient to blame the media for the fact that a majority of your fellow citizens don't necessarily agree with your views.

October 2, 2008 19:16
Between the Lines: Is the media 'occupied territory'?

Olmert 224.88. (photo credit: AP [file])


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Recently, two of the country's more publicly prominent academics penned pieces examining the state of the local media, offering both intriguing comparisons and what may seem as contrasting conclusions. In the latest issue of the MERIA Journal (Middle East Review of International Affairs) at, Bar-Ilan University professor of communications Eytan Gilboa examines the "Evolution of the Israeli Media" in a comprehensive survey. Although this is a proper academic article chock full of interesting statistics about the changing reading and viewing habits of the Israeli media consumer, its basic points are contained in its opening and final paragraphs: "Since the late 1980s, Israeli media has undergone a complete transformation. Most of the political and ideological party newspapers disappeared, and the single public television channel has lost substantial audiences to new commercial television channels and to cable and satellite services. New media has stormed the country, and the ratio of Israeli households connected to the Internet is one of the highest in the world." Despite this, Gilboa concludes: "At present, the dynamic Israeli economy is able to support the independent newspapers, the commercial television and radio networks and new media channels. The media needs to take into consideration recessions and other potential damaging events and processes such as wars. The trends show continuing decline in revenues for the print media and substantial increases for the new media. Newspapers are coping with this challenge by starting to develop on-line editions, but this may not be sufficient if they continue to cut back on talented editors and reporters. In sum, the Israeli media is one of the most advanced and freest in the world and has a very good chance to further develop and serve well Israeli society." A far less positive picture of the local media is offered up by Guy Bechor of the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, a Middle East expert who writes on a variety of topics. In a polemical piece entitled "Down with the Occupation" posted on his Web site, (in Hebrew, though Arutz Sheva has translated portions on its own English site), Bechor charges that "with the collapse of the Left in Israel's political system and the tremendous disappointment from the 'peace process,' a strange process began gathering force in the Israeli media, which was, to begin with, a closed club numbering about 20 movers and shakers. Strange as it may sound, this media, which is supposed to cover events and report them, took a step forward and took upon itself to represent the Left, which had lost popular support. It became a political party. The more the Left in Israel shrank in size, the greater its influence became in the media, although [this influence] was always hidden and camouflaged. Thus the Israeli media crossed the lines and moved away from its Western counterparts. Thus it also betrayed the Israeli public, which expected, and expects to this day, that it will cover events." Bechor expounds on this phenomenon by arguing that the openly partisan positions of the now-defunct party newspapers cited in Gilboa's study - Labor's Davar and Mapam's Al Hamishmar - have now found their way into such public and privately owned media outlets as Channel 10, Voice of Israel, Army Radio, Ma'ariv and Haaretz, which are presumed by the public to be more "objective" in their approach. He thus concludes: "Because we are not a healthy society, this process proceeds smoothly. The more powerful it becomes, the more the undemocratic disease spreads. It is time to say 'no more.'" Although these are familiar complaints from the Right, they deserve some response, given the respectability of their source. Bechor, as he often does, makes some legitimate points, and I would agree that the media here often fail the test of being "fair and balanced" in their approach. But his arguments lack the rigor and specificity to be very insightful or useful, even by those who might agree with his political perspective. It's not at all clear, for example, what he means by the "Left" in this context; the left-of-center politics of Kadima-Labor, the leftism-Zionism of Meretz or the anti-Zionist radicalism of Hadash? Certainly the positions of the latter two don't typically find too much expression in the mainstream media here - except perhaps among certain contributors to Haaretz - so presumably he's referring to the former. If so, though, why argue that this "Left" has "politically collapsed," when it emerged victorious in the last election and is (according to the polls) still at least a viable contender in the next one? Also prominently missing from Bechor's list of media offenders is Yediot Aharonot, which is by far the most influential print media outlet in the country, and which many of his own fellow travelers on the Right point to as an indispensable journalistic supporter of the present government's polices. One reason for this may be that the Bechor himself is a regular contributor to Yediot's opinion section - a little fact that by itself contradicts his image of a monolithic leftist-"occupied" media that stifles other political expression. Other than Haaretz, which has always expressed the viewpoint of an ownership that belongs firmly to this nation's intellectual-academic elite, I would instead argue that the country's commercial media outlets and public broadcast outlets - as elsewhere in democratic societies - generally reflect the majority viewpoint at any given time, reflecting and perhaps reinforcing a political-social consensus, rather than decisively shaping it. Of course, if one doesn't agree with that consensus from either a Left or Right perspective, it's all too convenient to blame the media for the fact that a majority of your fellow citizens don't necessarily agree with your views. What's more, the declining penetration of mainstream print and broadcast journalism cited by Gilboa's study, along with the fragmentation of the media market and growing multiplicity of news and opinion sources found on the Web - such as Bechor's own work, for example - allows for a wider variety of journalistic expression than was possible in the past. Still, Gilboa seems to strike an excessively optimistic note to this journalist in declaring that the current situation offers the local media a "very good chance to further develop and serve well Israeli society." The current commercial state of the news media is far too uncertain and shaky to be so sanguine. And in contrast to the academic world, as the professor fails to note, in this rapidly changing media landscape, journalists don't have the benefit of getting tenure.

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