IBA English News’s departing chief reflects on 25 years behind and in front of the camera

Fade to black.

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October 4, 2015 13:11
STEVE LEIBOWITZ takes a final look around the IBA studios last month

STEVE LEIBOWITZ takes a final look around the IBA studios last month. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

 
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Almost every work morning for the past 25 years, Steve Leibowitz has risen at 6 to the strains of Reshet Bet’s news bulletin. But as of October 1, the newly retired head of the Israel Broadcasting Authority’s English news department began to sleep in, no longer compelled to keep abreast of the day’s breaking developments.

“No, I won’t follow the news as closely,” says the grinning, silver-haired 64-year-old veteran journalist before hesitating.

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“Well... maybe. But I don’t think I’ll get up anymore at 6 a.m.”

Sitting over coffee in the cafeteria of the ramshackle IBA news headquarters in Jerusalem’s Romema neighborhood a couple of weeks before he left the building for good, Leibowitz recounted the peaks and valleys of a career that has become synonymous with English TV news in Israel.

As one of the founding staff members of the daily English news broadcasts – which have been a lifeline for many non-Hebrew speaking residents and visitors to the country – Leibowitz went from being a rookie reporter in an action-packed newsroom to head of a department that has since been marginalized and reduced in size to a shadow of its former self.

He didn’t have to leave just yet if he didn’t want to, but an attractive early retirement package, coupled with uncertainty about the future of the IBA, were sufficient reason for Leibowitz to bid farewell to what had for so long loomed so large in his life.

“I feel like a beaten-down worker who has been abused and taken advantage of by his employer,” he says. “With the future being so uncertain not only for the IBA, but particularly for the English news, being given a buyout option helped me make the difficult decision.”



Leibowitz is the last of the original team brought in by Joseph Barel, founding father of English-language television news in Israel and a former head of the IBA’s Arabic television department. Knowing the importance of Arabic language broadcasts, the Egyptian-born Barel could well appreciate the importance to diplomats and business people of Israeli news broadcasts in English, so he spearheaded the effort to launch the broadcasts in 1990.

Leibowitz, a former sports editor at The Jerusalem Post, spent eight years in the 1980s working at the Government Press Office, where he met Barel. Sensing that English TV news was only a matter of time in Israel, he had already prepared himself by getting a master’s degree in communications.

Leibowitz was working as a freelance sports writer and editor for the Post, and had recently launched an effort to bring American football to Israel when he was approached by Barel to join the IBA English news team.

“I was one of the least experienced and the least talented. I had to learn from scratch the technicalities of working in TV. It was a battle for survival to be noticed by Anan Safadi,” he says, referring to the founding director and editor of IBA News.

“He was tough and demanding,” Leibowitz goes on. “You had to prove yourself every day. I pushed and pushed to get as much work as I could from him because I was at the bottom of the totem pole.”

He quickly climbed that pole and ended up outlasting all his colleagues with the exception of staffer Dennis Zinn, who was already an IBA employee when he moved over to the English broadcasts.

IN THE first few years of its existence, the IBA News was generously staffed and given prime-time prominence on Israel Television, with nightly 8 p.m. broadcasts.

Back before the days of cable TV and local commercial TV, Israel Television, as it was known before it became Channel 1, was the only game in town.

“Unless you wanted to watch Jordan TV, you watched us,” says Leibowitz, adding: “There was a realization among the decision-makers that English needed a presence on Israel TV in prime time – for Israel’s image and for the sake of local English speakers, the foreign press and diplomats.”

With personalities like Steve Edwards, Yohanan Elrom, Len Edwards and Carolyn Ben Nathan, the daily bulletins provided news-hungry Anglos with a touch of home, and quickly established itself on the TV landscape. But the heyday was relatively brief.

With the November 1993 launch of commercial television, Channel 1 had to confront competition from Channel 2 (and later from Channel 10) and all the foreign cable channels, and it turned inward.

“We became the bastard child.The Hebrew lobby within the IBA pushed us into a much narrower slot,” Leibowitz says, recounting a demoralizing, multi-year reverse progression that included erratic and increasingly earlier time slots for the broadcasts, reduced air time and eventual banishment from Channel 1 to Channel 33.

But Barel, who went on to become director-general of the IBA, was able to guarantee its survival, and Leibowitz soldiered on. When Safadi left his post in 1995, he proposed that the once green but now experienced journalist take his place.

“I begged to differ and said that Steve Edwards was a much more experienced and talented journalist than I was, and I suggested that he appoint Steve as the head and me his deputy,” Leibowitz says.

Safadi demurred, and the “Steve and Steve” team was in place until Edwards’s death in 2005, when Leibowitz, the natural successor, took over the helm.

The ensuing years have been a challenge, as Leibowitz and a dwindling, yet talented, staff, including stalwarts such as former Post staffers Elli Wohlgelernter, Arieh O’Sullivan (recently appointed as Leibowitz’s successor), Brian Freeman and Eren Viner keeping the listing ship afloat against the many obstacles in their path.

“I usually answer the phone ‘News without Crews,” laughs Leibowitz, lamenting the slashed budget and manpower of the IBA News. “We’re only given a film crew to use for what we want one day a week. Otherwise, we have to piggyback on what we get from Mabat and Arabic News.”

He said it’s especially frustrating because the potential of the English news broadcasts from Israel is massive, and plans to expand them had been repeatedly raised over the years, only to be shot down.

“I have plans in my drawer that outline the expansion of English news to three hours a day,” he states. “I told numerous IBA heads that we could be the English equivalent of Al Jazeera and could fight the hasbara (public diplomacy) battle through solid Israel-perspective journalism.

Just give some staff, a crew or two a day and some studio time, and I can make IBA English into a relevant channel on an international level.”

ANOTHER SETBACK for Leibowitz was the short shelf life of one of the feathers in his cap – the hour-long Close Up show.

Together with longtime staffer Leah Zinder, who was his deputy, Leibowitz developed the political debate and interview show that was anchored by Zinder, with his occasional participation.

The show, which featured timely debates (including a fiery one between the Post’s Caroline B. Glick and columnist Gershon Baskin that has become a YouTube favorite) went off the air in 2011 when the IBA refused to renew Zinder’s contract.

It was equally devastating for Leibowitz a couple of years later when the IBA refused to renew the contract of news reader Elrom, a top-class American professional who was regarded by Leibowitz and many others as Israel’s Walter Cronkite.

But even in the darkest times, when it seemed like the plug might be pulled on IBA News, salvation was found in the support of those for whom the broadcasts meant the most – the viewers.

When Yair Stern was head of Israel Television, he made no secret of wanting to get rid of what he perceived as a nuisance.

Yet when it seemed as if the bell was about to toll for IBA News, viewers took matters into their own hands, and organizations such as the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel, Hitachdut Olei Britannia, Telfed – The South African Zionist Federation (Israel), Bridges for Peace and the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem began to bombard Stern with letters, faxes, phone calls and emails.

He got the message and told Leibowitz: “Call off your dogs. You’re staying on the air.”

Interestingly enough, according to Leibowitz, the IBA English News today has many more Christian viewers than Jews, thanks to broadcast deals with Christian networks across the US.

Despite the added revenue track, the plans to minimize the IBA News haven’t abated. With the Knesset’s decision last year to liquidate the IBA and establish another public broadcasting service in its place, Yona Wiesenthal was appointed IBA interim director-general for the duration of the transition period.

At their first meeting, when Leibowitz objected to being moved to an early time slot, when people were not yet home from work, Wiesenthal told him there was “no need for English news on the IBA.” The interim head added that in the digital age, it certainly didn’t matter what time slot it was given because people could watch it online at their convenience.

But Wiesenthal, according to Leibowitz, was missing the point.

“Tens of thousands of people set their clocks by us; they never miss a broadcast, just like they never miss a copy of The Jerusalem Post,” he says. “For many, especially older immigrants who don’t regularly go online, we’re their only connection to what is happening in this country, and their main source of information.”

TIRED OF the long, frustrating fight, Leibowitz is bowing out with a combination of bitterness and satisfaction.

His says his most rewarding moments were as a field reporter, something that occurred less and less frequently over the years as he took on more management responsibilities.

“The most fun was when Anan would send me out on reports and just coming across some of the people I got to meet and interview,” he says. “All of the wars and elections, of both which were plenty, were all highlights and most rewarding for us as reporters.”

When asked who his most memorable interview subject was, the notorious sports junkie immediately smiles.

“Howard Cosell.”

The late American sportscaster with the abrasive personality made Leibowitz feel “as small as a coin. His on-air personality was authentic, and he constantly made me know who the star of that interview was.”

While pleased that he is going to have more time to devote to his passion of spearheading the Israel Football League, Leibowitz says he’s still contemplating staying in journalism. He was offered a job by a foreign media outlet, but he declined.

“I don’t want to be a foreign correspondent in Israel,” he explains. “I want to report news from an Israeli perspective.”

He’s been doing that for past 25 years, he insists, adding that he has always been careful to mark the dividing line between news reporting and Israeli propaganda.

Although he came of age in a right-ofcenter Beitar political environment – and was criticized by some friends from that era of having betrayed Jabotinsky’s principles by attempting to remain objective – it proved that he had succeeded in doing the right thing professionally.

“Looking back,” he says, “I’ve been gratified with the work and wouldn’t have traded it for anything. At the same time, I feel frustrated that we weren’t able to take it that extra mile.”

Finishing his coffee and getting ready for one of his last daily editorial meetings, he says: “For decades, we really have been the window to Israel for so many people. But we could have done so much more.”

Despite the disappointment, Leibowitz has a lot to be proud of. He’s earned his right, finally, to sleep in.

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