The media have suffered two stinging attacks in the past week over their coverage of the investigation of two of the country's most senior political figures, President Moshe Katsav and former justice minister Haim Ramon.
In the case of the president, it was Katsav who launched the broadside, a bitter and furious diatribe at reporters of the print and electronic media who allegedly conspired to bring him down because he came from the wrong side of the tracks and was an Oriental Jew, a new immigrant, and the resident of a development town.
In the Ramon case, it was the court itself which criticized the media, accusing them of trying to influence the judges in Ramon's favor by publishing evidence including the testimony of witnesses and crucial photos of the minister and the female soldier before the information was released to the public or even, in some cases, heard in court.
So was the media fulfilling their mission of publishing all the news that's fit to print, or did they violate those very responsibilities by allegedly taking sides in the legal disputes and assuming the role of judge and jury?
According to Yitzhak Zamir, the chairman of the Press Council and retired Supreme Court justice, the media broke the law and their own ethical code in their coverage of Ramon. "It is the duty of the media to report what is happening, but not to express opinions, such as saying that this witness told the truth and the other one lied."
Zamir gave the example of three female employees in the Prime Minister's Office who came forward after the court had finished the stage of hearing witnesses and asked to testify on Ramon's behalf. "Even before they took the stand, the papers wrote about them and one of them took them for a polygraph test," said Zamir. "None of this should have happened. The defense and the prosecution are entitled to have the trial conducted on the basis of the evidence before the court, and not by the media. The media did not honor this principle." According to Zamir, the intense competition among newspapers over the past few years has caused them "not to be sufficiently strict in observing the law and journalistic ethics."
Zion Amir, Katsav's defense attorney along with David Liba'i, told The Jerusalem Post that the court's criticism of the media in the Ramon case equally applied to their treatment of his client.
"There was a clear attempt to demonize the man and his behavior as if his alleged conduct had already been proven and to suggest how he had carried his actions out as if they were fact, even though nothing has yet been proven," said Amir. "The media presented quotes from all kinds of places. In one case, a newspaper sent a woman whom it interviewed for a lie detector test even though it knew not only that the results were inadmissible in court but also that one of the crucial factors in these tests is who sends the person to undergo them. The paper then published the results of the test."
Sam Lehman-Wilzig, professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, did not take the court's criticism of the media too seriously. "Judges don't like the media looking over their shoulder," he said. "They are extremely circumspect. On the other hand, the role of the media in general is not to be circumspect but to be the watchdog of democracy. So you have an inherent conflict between the court and the media, or at least different perceptions of what the media should be doing."
Lehman-Wilzig added that the judges were familiar with the sub-judice law prohibiting the media from providing details regarding a criminal trial which could influence the outcome of the procedure. They know it's on the statute book and want to see it enforced. But according to Lehman-Wilzig, "the law is a complete dead letter and has become even deader in recent years. It contradicts the nature of Israeli society, where anything goes."
He added that Israel chose the system of trial by judges rather than trial by juries precisely because judges are professionals who are trained to ignore extraneous information and focus solely on the evidence in making their decisions. Since that is so, "how can they claim that the media are influential?" he asked. Who exactly are the media influencing? After all, there are no juries. So, I don't buy that argument."
Amir disagreed. Although in his opinion, the judicial system is better than the jury system, judges are only human. "Quantity can win over quality," he said. "There is a limit to the degree that a judge can manage to remain uninfluenced when the legal process is spread all over the pages of the newspapers, including confrontations between witnesses and classified material. A judge would have to be made of steel not to be affected."
Orit Galili-Tzuker, who teaches political communications at Bar-Ilan University, said there was no point in asking whether the media had behaved properly in their coverage of the two affairs. The question had become a moot point. Right or wrong, that is the way things were and would remain, she said. The media would continue to cover stories like these in the same way because of the ratings war, she said. The media were no longer the "watchdog of democracy" but money-making institutions.
As a political scientist, she was more interested in the way politicians cope with this new media, she said. In his appearance last week, Katsav utterly failed because he lacked the qualities the media like to favor, she said.
Nevertheless, even though Galili-Tzuker felt there was no point in passing judgment on the media's manner of coverage since it had become inevitable, she was nonetheless infuriated with their coverage of the Ramon trial. This was not because of their conduct but because, in her opinion, they favored the wrong side for the wrong reasons.
Instead of taking the side of the woman, whom, in her opinion, was Ramon's victim, they supported him because he was a member of the elite, because he was charming and popular, and because many journalists liked him and wanted to do him a favor by supporting him.