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In one of the scenes from the 1994 movie The Paper, which describes a hectic day in the life of a daily newspaper in New York, the editors meet for their daily conference and the foreign affairs editor begins to read out a long list of major events around the world. After every natural disaster or coup d'etat she adds loudly â€œno New Yorkers involved.â€ The message is clear: a local tabloid isn't interested in momentous happenings abroad, regardless of numbers of casualties or long-lasting effects, unless it has some kind of local connection.
I am reminded almost every morning of this scene when I tune in to the Army Radio morning news show with Rafi Reshef. Undoubtedly, this hour-long show uses up the station's entire international phone-call budget. Reshef just doesn't seem capable of starting his morning without an interview with a young Israeli backpacker stranded somewhere in South America, and the producers' phone book has the numbers of all the Israeli consuls who, after coming last in the Foreign Ministry training course, were sent to while away their careers rescuing tourists in some obscure backwater.
Reshef is so insatiable for these materials that if for some reason he can't make phone contact with our man in Honduras or Burma, he will interview instead the tearful mom back home. The show also recycles its items by interviewing the victim three times: while stuck, after reaching safety, and back home in Israel.
Reshef can of course claim that he is only performing a service for the worried listeners and that in a nation whose youngsters have an inner biological device that compels them, like migratory birds, to go off in their early twenties to the most disaster-prone spots on the globe, it's only natural that a current-affairs program should be dealing with these issues. Of course his isn't the only show that does that, but he seems to have never heard of a correct news mix.
Hurricane Stan that ravaged Central America last week was by all accounts no less horrific than Katrina that devastated New Orleans and southern Mississippi a few weeks earlier, but for some reason the Israeli media only really noticed it when it turned out that the mud-slides had endangered a group of Israeli hikers, whose representative naturally was the interviewee on Reshef's show on Sunday morning. It was of course impossible to disregard the tens of thousands killed in the South Asia earthquake this week, but I'm pretty sure that coverage would have been much more comprehensive if Israelis had been in the disaster areas.
The main problem with this style of coverage is not that it interests only the backpackers' friends and families, but that it creates a distorted view of the world's troubles. Israeli viewers and listeners rarely learn about the millions dying of starvation in North Korea or being butchered in Sudan, aside from translated news features on the excellent Saturday night foreign affairs show on Channel 1, and it seems to have a lot to do with the fact that Darfur and Pyongyang are not on the map of the young Israeli embarking on his â€œafter the armyâ€ journey.
The choice of news coverage reflects the belief that Israelis are navel-gazers, interested only in their local swamp, and it's seen also in the meager number of pages that the tabloids, Yediot and Maariv, give each day to foreign affairs. Television shows more but that's only because footage of disasters is regarded as â€œgood visual stuff.â€
The Jewish saying â€œthe beggars of your own city come firstâ€ works well in a newsroom, and seven people killed on Highway No. 1 will always be more interesting and important than a thousand dying in floods in Bangladesh, to those who use the same road every day.
But news coverage should also have another, more educational element. In the National Holocaust Museum in Washington there is a display on the ongoing genocide in Sudan, with the understanding that the lessons of the Shoah must be learned worldwide. I find it depressing that no Israeli news organization has yet sent a reporter to Darfur.
THE ANNOUNCEMENT at the beginning of the week that MK Avraham â€œBaigaâ€ Shochat is leaving public life was greeted with rare universal good wishes from reporters and pundits, all of whom were quick to extol his good manners, honesty, professionalism and ideals. One commentator, with scant economic knowledge, immediately described Shochat as â€œone of the best finance ministers the country ever had.â€ No one saw any problem in his moving to the business sector.
Barely a year ago, another senior Labor politician, Avraham Burg, made the same decision, but in his case the press fired with all barrels and excoriated Burg for forsaking public service and for being on the make.
There are a number of reasons, some factual, others in the realm of psychology, that the press loves to love Baiga while it takes such satisfaction in tearing into Burg. Shochat managed throughout his entire career to maintain the image of the good old Mapainik, a beneficent treasurer, a chubby jolly uncle, not threatening anyone. Burg, on the other hand, personified naked political ambition, was a pompous self-justifier and had about him just a whiff of corruption that arose from the reports of his crazy spending as Jewish Agency chairman and Knesset Speaker.
That doesn't justify the media treating him as a pariah while Shochat's identical move is shown as an honorable retirement. One of the main problems with Israeli politicians is that they don't know when to move on. The press would do well to encourage them to learn from Burg and Baiga.