(photo credit: Knesset Website)
With each passing day toward the finalization of party lists for the election of the 18th Knesset, another journalist leaps from one side of the microphone to the other. Though the phenomenon is not new - take the late Tommy Lapid, for example, or the very much alive Shelly Yacimovich - that it practically characterizes the current campaign makes it noteworthy. So much so that the old ethical questions surrounding the extent to which the press is in bed with the political echelon are being replaced by a dilemma that could be deemed "retroactive."
Now the debate is centering on whether this particular move on the part of many individual members of the media doesn't cast a shadow on the profession as a whole. The argument, raised by Uzi Benziman in this week's on-line issue of "The Seventh Eye," is that when a person whose public persona is that of a fact finder and presenter suddenly comes out of the closet as a proud, card-carrying partisan, his so-called neutral work up until that point becomes suspect.
To illustrate, Benziman points to attorney Talia Sasson, who has just joined the Meretz list. This, he says, necessarily adds an "ideological tint" to her scathing report on illegal outposts that was commissioned in 2004 by then prime minister Ariel Sharon - a hue that calls the integrity of her research into question.
Also worrisome to Benziman is the "warm embrace" most of the media have been giving their career-shifting colleagues. Rather than subjecting the issue to the intellectual scrutiny it warrants, he charges, the press is more amused than alarmed. Thus rests the prosecution, as it were.
Then there's the defense. In an interview with Ynet's Daniel Adelson, Israel Press Council chairwoman Dalia Dorner says that not only is there nothing wrong with journalists going into politics, but they are a welcome addition. Furthermore, she suggests, the ideas of the specific candidates in question are "no secret," which makes their party affiliations of little surprise. This is why she doesn't see a need for a cooling-off period, like that required of politicians who emerge from the military. "If we look at the history of this," she remarks, "we can see that those who came from the army and went into politics tended to go for the ruling party or the party with the greatest chance of becoming the ruling party - in the past Mapai, today Likud."
Journalists, on the other hand - rules the former Supreme Court justice - "operate in accordance with their worldviews. They aren't entering politics for the [Knesset] seat or their careers."
THESE POSITIONS share a common flaw. They are not based on any understanding of human nature in general or of what makes members of the media tick in particular. Pretty funny coming from two experts in the field. But then, each is hilarious in his or her own way, however unintentional the humor.
Let's start with Benziman's concern for the profession's integrity as a whole, due to the behavior of a number of its parts who are now jumping ship for broader horizons. Hot news flash, buddy: That ship sailed a very long time ago. Gone are the days when reporters pounded pavements and the keys of manual typewriters. You know, the times when the story of the day was told by the press, not about it. Today, the media boast about being key players in "setting the agenda," rather than merely providing an account of it. Today, print journalists move freely and openly between the news and opinion pages, writing reportage one day and analysis the next; as broadcast journalists so easily alternate between moderating panels and participating in them that one is often hard put to remember who was a host and who a guest on any given current events program.
And that's not the only game of musical chairs going on. In addition, journalists rarely restrict themselves to one medium, writing a column here, having a radio show there, with the most successful, of course - those who've really "made it" - being granted the privilege of appearing, as regularly as possible, on screen.
To top it all off, since reporters have become pundits, they are frequently invited to lecture at home and abroad - seeking or being sought out for book contracts. In short, journalists are celebrities the cherry on whose icing is being credited with high intelligence, inside dope or both.
Acknowledging and adjusting to this reality is the challenge at hand, not holding on to an outdated charade that nobody buys, least of all the press itself.
But neither does the public see it otherwise, which is why figures such as Channel 1 anchorman Ya'acov Ahimeir generate the same kinds of stares on the street as Tzipi Livni.
Nor is the public stupid when it comes to recognizing political slant. This is why one could laugh out loud at Benziman's comparison to Talia Sasson. Because it is not her joining Meretz that casts aspersions on her famous - or infamous - report; that report had "Meretz" written all over it from the get-go.
I therefore agree with Dorner's assessment that nobody is under any illusions about the political leanings of, say, Yediot Aharonot columnist Uri Orbach, who is running on the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi ticket. I mean, all any of us has to do is read or listen to what any of these guys has been saying, and we know what side of the spectrum they're on.
I also contend that there is nothing inherently wrong with members of the press opting to put their ideas into practice through the political system. As Dorner says, this is a democracy, and the more the participants in the endeavor the merrier.
But the assurance that because journalists are ideologues, they are not motivated by their "seat or their careers" is about as far-fetched and ludicrous as saying that Bernie Madoff wasn't in the Ponzi business for the money. Just listen to members of the media interact, and you will hear almost incessant one-upmanship, sometimes veiled, sometimes not, with phrases along the lines of: "As I wrote last week..." and "My agent says..."
This does not mean that journalists are all disingenuous. On the contrary, the media attract many talented, serious and dedicated people who actually consider what they do a calling. But make no mistake: Very few of us would ever touch a keyboard again if our names were removed from our copy.
HEREIN LIES the most glaring omission in the discussion on the flocking - like moths to a flame - of Haaretz's Daniel Ben-Simon, Channel 10's Nitzan Horowitz, Yediot's Ariella Ringel Hoffman and others to the political arena.
What our leading champions of truth and integrity would die before admitting is that fame, like power, is as addictive as it is a bottomless pit. In the current cultural climate, journalists and politicians are in unspoken cahoots with one another. This is not to say that the media purposely promote politicians, though many do so, whether overtly or covertly.
No, the collusion I'm referring to cuts across party lines and has nothing to do with ideology. It is more of a circular arrangement that is mutually beneficial to journalist and politician simultaneously. The journalist serves as a vehicle for the prominence of the politician; the politician's utilization of that vehicle, in turn, enhances the reputation of the journalist. The bond, depending on the protagonists, might be friendly or hostile, but it is first-name-basis unmistakable - as one need only attend a press conference or watch one on TV to witness.
FINALLY, TO answer a question I keep hearing bandied about, regarding why someone with freedom of the press would want to subject himself to the reins of parliamentary politics and procedure: A media personality pursued by the head of a party would have to be made of steel to resist the overtures - especially one whose fans have been telling him all along that, with his ideas and integrity, it is he and others like him who should be in politics making a difference, not all those incumbent "bozos."
There is nothing as seductive as a stroke of the ego, after all.
And speaking of egos, why politicians court pundits in the first place is not only because the latter add a touch of class or celeb value to a party list. The fact is that journalists often articulate the positions of a leader better than the leader himself. There is little doubt that, after reading Daniel Ben-Simon at the breakfast table, Ehud Barak used to say to himself, "Wow, I'm pretty impressive."