A potent mix: Elections and the media

By ELI POLLAK
February 14, 2019 00:34
BENNY GANTZ gives his inaugural speech last week

BENNY GANTZ gives his inaugural speech last week. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

 
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How important is the media factor in an election campaign? One explanation can be found in Bernard Avishai’s article published in the latest issue of a hard Left publication in The New York Review of Books.

Noting that “Now the only hope to mobilize a united opposition appears to be [Resilience Party head Benny] Gantz”, Avishai, author of The Tragedy of Zionism and the 2005 article “Saving Israel from Itself,” fears that Israel has succumbed to “religious-inflected nationalism”, and added, “alone among the leaders in the center, he looks like a head of state.”

If, indeed, Gantz makes an impressive showing in the elections on April 4, we can recall the words of Shakespeare’s Othello: “For she had eyes and chose me.” Our “seeing” the candidates and parties is facilitated by the media. Are we able to meet the challenge of the filtered view that is presented to us? Are our faculties of listening and viewing critical enough to be able to catch biases and distortions of the truth?

Let’s review an example from the United States, where the media can and did get a story very, very wrong, such as in the now infamous Covington Catholic schoolboys story last month. Andrew Sullivan, though unsympathetic to President Donald Trump’s assault on the media, nevertheless wrote in the New York Weekly on January 25:

“How did this grotesque inversion of the truth become the central narrative for what seemed to be the entire class of elite journalists on Twitter? That’s the somewhat terrifying question…This is the orthodoxy of elite media… increasingly the job of journalists [is] to fit the facts to the narrative and to avoid any facts that undermine it… Our mainstream press has been poisoned by tribalism,” he said.

Sullivan continued: “There’s a threat to liberal democracy and it is deepening, largely because its racial animus and rank tribalism… the raw imposition of power by one tribe over another.”

In Israel, is there a new tribalism promoting mutual hostility assisted by the media? Is the media seeking pure power? Is this period of elections being exploited in order to highlight and aggravate the gaps that exist between the various social and political camps?

Let us look at some examples.

Haaretz published an op-ed on February 10 under the headline, “The High Court of Justice’s Treason.” Ever since the onslaught on the national camp in 1995, where it was accused of being responsible for Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s murder since in demonstrations it employed the word “traitor,” that term has been a red cape permitting the user to be pilloried to the utmost.

In this case, however, the writer is David Zonshine, who happens to be the B’Tselem board chairman, formerly a leader of the Courage to Refuse group that foments conscientious objectors in the IDF. In other words, someone from the heart of the hard Left progressive camp.


But the main problem is the judgment of whoever authorized publishing his column. Was the editor ideologically color-blind? Are only right-wingers using that term considered inciters? In this election campaign, words will fly. If only one side is held to a standard of ethics by the media – that is bias and interference in the democratic process.

Moshe Nussbaum, Channel 12’s police reporter, provided background on the horrendous murder of Ori Ansbacher, stated that the murderer left his home in Hebron with a knife, adding that this “does not necessarily mean it was a nationalist crime, perhaps every day he leaves his home with a knife.”

THE 1992 elections were decided, to a great extent, by the reactions of the public to the horrific stabbing of Helena Rapp by an Arab terrorist in Bat Yam. Rabin portrayed himself as Mr. Security. Mr. Nussbaum is supplying the public with commentary, which downplays the security concerns of Israelis. Is he doing this to prevent sympathy with the settlers, sympathy which might later translate into votes? Or is he trying to say that a certain party has a better approach to protecting the population? Not only is this subjective reporting, it reeks of interference in the elections.

A major playground of the media during the election campaign is public opinion polls. A multitude of polls appear, some that contradict each other within a period of a day or two. The electorate appears to be merely a crowd of onlookers at a tennis game, with the ball being hit back and forth at high speed. In the worst case scenario, it becomes the ball.

Polls are a media gimmick used to draw readers and viewers. In every election that we have been commenting on since 1996 in our columns, the vast majority of polls have been wrong and unreliable. We, in fact, pushed for legislation to halt the publishing of polls in the last few days of the election campaign. But the media is stronger than a few idealistic citizens and the polls continue to pile up. The least the media could do is educate the public and itself as to how polls work. The way things are now, they leave the public as the victims of complex statistics.

On February 5, Haaretz published a poll, headlined as “worrisome” for Benjamin Netanyahu. It indicated that only 47% of the public saw him as the next Prime Minister. However, in Israel since candidates are not chosen, rather political lists, Israel’s parliament has never seen a party gain 51% of the votes, even in David Ben-Gurion’s day. Actually, a level of 47% doesn’t seem so bad.

Former IDF Chief Benny Gantz, now head of the Israel Resilience Party, hardly said a word until last week but showed impressive numbers in the polls. Early this week, a poll conducted for the “Meet the Press” TV show found that if the elections were held on that day and Gantz’s party joined up with Yair Lapid’s party, and former IDF chief of staff Gabi Asheknazi joins too, then they will win 36 Knesset seats, the most of any party. Besides the many “ifs,” as well as the element of “today,” the poll’s value is meaningless if not misleading. The least that the pollsters could do is compare the three “ifs” with another: if the Likud, Bayit Yehudi and the National Union parties joined forces, for example.

There is more to be said about the polls. A 4% margin of error for the polls is a much larger error when considering small parties. The various predictions of disappearing or reappearing parties should be taken with a grain of salt. The most meaningful statistic, namely the number of people polled and the number of people who actually participated remains a secret. Why? Because if the public knew the answer, it would realize how speculative the polls actually are.

For the media, however, elections are all about business and power. Truth, education, and supplying information without giving it a slant are not part of the game. Wouldn’t it be great to have elections every two years instead of four?

The authors are members of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imediaw.org.il).

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