Media Matters: If a tree falls...

Holidays like Pessah present a major challenge to the press. And though the news may go on, there's no one home to hear it.

April 16, 2009 20:11

The 18th century philosopher George Berkeley was the first to raise the question: If a tree falls in the forest, and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Along those lines, I would pose a similar riddle: If current events take place, and nobody is watching TV or reading the papers when they are reported, do they count? The answer to both is yes... and no. Unless you are a philosophical purist, or maybe a mystic, who asserts that there is no such thing as reality - there is only our perception of it - you would agree that if a tree falls, well, it makes noise. Even if there are no Pessah picnickers present when it happens, or no camera crews on location in the forest at the time of the toppling. On the other hand, let's face it: In the absence of the above, the tree may as well stay put. If it doesn't, few notice and nobody cares. It is thus that holidays always pose a major challenge for the media, in general. And weeklong ones - requiring that the press produce not only the regular daily output, but additional supplements and other feature-like fare as well - constitute a news-gathering nightmare in particular. To make matters worse, all this is done with the knowledge that much of it won't even get read, listened to or viewed. Coupled with that already trying task is the fact that, like much of the rest of the population, many journalists go on vacation during Pessah. What this means is that there's double the workload with half the workdays, a third of the workforce and possibly a 10th of the readership and viewers. You do the math. It's almost as complicated and frustrating as figuring out how to best go with the flow of the fluctuations on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. TWO KINDS of problems present themselves to the press in such a situation. One has to do with being on the ball in terms of reportage, and the other involves editorial originality. Where the first is concerned, the shortness of staff can be overcome by certain tricks of the trade, among them copy and feeds taken from wire services. The ongoing saga of Somali piracy in international waters off the African coast this week, for example, did not require local reporters in the field - or, in this case, the sea - for it to be given the coverage it warranted. In some ways, the second - originality - is more taxing. Coming up with creative ideas for "color" is no small feat. Every year at this time, the same themes are done to death. So much so that the media seem to compete for which outlet is most proficient at scraping the bottle of the barrel for dregs, sometimes linking the three typical Pessah issues - freedom, food and cleaning house - to create trite and overly forced metaphors. I sometimes wonder when the public is going to start burning newspapers along with their hametz, after reading yet another anecdotal article about the paradox of celebrating freedom from slavery by entering into voluntary bondage by way of mops and dusters. And let's not forget the endless recipes, using matza meal instead of flour, alongside an equal number of articles on nutrition and methods for sticking to diets while stuffing one's face. During Hol Hamoed, the themes don't change, but their context does. The freedom-bondage issue is merely moved out of the kitchen and onto the highways, with discussions about why the people of Israel are willing to be trapped in their cars, bumper-to-bumper, for hours on end in order to arrive at tourist sites packed with others doing the same. These travelers, at least, listen to the radio while making their exodus to barbecue-land, for reports on traffic jams and other related stories. Which means that if a tree had fallen in one of the country's forests, not only would someone have heard it fall, but the rest of us would have known about its having gone down. THIS IS not to say that nothing newsworthy was going on this week. On the contrary, there were three serious stories that made the Hebrew headlines. But they would have made a much greater carry-on had the bulk of the public been paying attention. One was that of the decision on the part of Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch to appoint former Southern District chief Uri Bar-Lev as the Israel Police's representative in Washington. Bar-Lev had been fired by Insp.-Gen. Dudi Cohen, and took his dismissal to the High Court of Justice. Aharonovitch's move, his first in office, is seen as a slight to his predecessor, Avi Dichter, who had supported Cohen in the feud. This provided fodder for op-ed writers, as well, chief among them Ma'ariv's Ben Caspit, who was probably relieved to find something - anything - to write about in his column during such a week. Another was that of the brewing battle between Hosni Mubarak and Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, with the discovery of Hizbullah cells working within Egypt. This has led to speculation in the local media about whether it's good, bad or irrelevant for Israel - with Ma'ariv and Haaretz suggesting that though it can't hurt to have tensions going on that are not directly connected to the Jewish state, this incident doesn't necessarily mean that Egypt will take better care to prevent weapons smuggling from its border into Gaza. Yediot Aharonot, on the other hand, has taken a more sensationalist approach, indicating that Eilat is the target for those terrorists, and not Egypt. Still, none of this seems to have affected Pessah tourism to the Sinai - in spite of severe warnings against it. Whether this is due to arrogance, fatalism or merely another incidence of not hearing the tree drop is anyone's guess. The third story that would be resounding a lot more forcefully in a normal week is that of the Palestinian fishing boat, carrying hundreds of kilos of explosives, that blew up off the coast of Gaza, in what was possibly a failed attack on Israeli patrol vessels. Though no one was hurt in the explosion, apparently set off by remote control, nevertheless, it was what would have been, media-wise and otherwise, a pretty big deal. IF GEORGE Berkeley, father of the theory Esse est percipi - "To be is to be perceived" - were alive today, he might be updating his dictum by applying it to, say, missile launchers in urban areas, instead of trees in forests. But his principle would live on... as long as it were publicized when somebody was around to hear it.

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