A Different Perspective: Elections mean votes, not ratings

Outstanding personalities in the American news media never became candidates for elected office. And rightly so.

By JAY BUSHINSKY
January 19, 2012 21:30
Yair Lapid

Yair Lapid 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Should a successful career in the news media catapult ambitious journalists into the political arena as candidates for high public office? The answer is no.

That is not the way it is in the US, UK, France or any of the world’s other genuine democracies.

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None of the 44 men who was elected to the American presidency since 1789 was a newspaper reporter, radio correspondent or television anchor.

Nor have the British or French recruited national leaders from the ranks of their respective news media.

There is good reason for this.

Coverage or analysis of current events in democratic countries requires objectivity, honesty and independence. Journalists who engage in this activity cannot have ulterior motives or secret agendas. If such duplicity were exposed these individuals would lose credibility.

That is why outstanding personalities in the American news media such as Edward R. Murrow, William L. Shirer and Walter Cronkite never became candidates for elected office. Their popularity and renown might have won them impressive victories at the polls, but never has there been a single case in which this presumed advantage was put to the test.

And rightly so.

One need only consider the mental pressures that political ambition would have generated in the back of these men’s minds. One of them presumably would be to avoid offending key people whose support or funding they might require once they threw their hats into the political ring.

And since the psychological, intellectual and practical preparations for a crossover from news media to politics do not take place overnight, the self-imposed restrictions on the scope of their reporting would undermine its quality if not its honesty or fairness over a relatively long period.

These considerations surfaced dramatically in Israel when Friday night TV anchor and newspaper columnist Yair Lapid announced that he will run in the next national election.

He was following the example set by my his late father, Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, my close friend and esteemed colleague, whose popularity as a panelist on Channel 1’s Popolitika and columns in Ma’ariv enabled him to bring the Shinui party to prominence, win a seat in the subsequent Knesset and rise to a cabinet post in the next national election.

Yair Lapid’s decision was probably facilitated by the fact that Israel’s political world has become a playground for journalists-turned-politicians.

The Labor party’s chairwoman, Shelly Yachimovich, was a familiar voice on Israel Radio for decades. Daniel Ben-Simon and Nitzan Horowitz transformed themselves from Haaretz correspondents to members of the Knesset, the former for Labor and the latter for Meretz.

Before their switchovers, Nachman Shai of Kadima, who served as Channel 1’s military affairs reporter, had already qualified as a veteran parliamentarian, as had Uri Orbach of Habayit Hayehudi, a right-wing stalwart who previously worked as a columnist for Yedioth Aharonot and as a co-host for Army Radio’s The Last Word program.

All of these journalists-turned-politicians have a common shortcoming: None of them entered politics at the rank-and-file level, but only as full-fledged parliamentarians with relatively secure seats and guaranteed salaries – not to mention the lavish perks available to Knesset members.

They never experienced the challenges of working their way up their respective parties’ ladders to popular leadership or the coped with subtleties of interpersonal relations with active and influential party colleagues who do not necessarily hold prestigious governmental offices, local or national.

Nor did any of them ever hold public office before making their debuts as Knesset deputies. That shortcoming differs sharply from the careers of such genuine national leaders as Franklin D. Roosevelt, who served as governor of the State of New York prior to his entry into the White House, or Winston S. Churchill, who was a member of Parliament and a cabinet minister before his unexpected elevation to the premiership in 1940 (due to the exigencies of World War II and Great Britain’s precarious military situation).

New and especially charismatic candidates often have unique objectives.

If Lapid had emerged as the champion of the grassroots campaign for “social justice” this would have been easily understandable. Likewise, if he had come up with a serious and reasonable solution to the dispute with the Palestinians of the West Bank (other than “two states for two peoples”) his candidacy would have attracted considerable interest if not innocent curiosity. Even more impressive would have been for him to have advocated a formula for dealing with the Gaza Strip’s Hamas regime and its potentially deadly launching of homemade Kassam rockets and Grad missiles at Israeli territory. Had he done so, his cause would have attracted considerable support.

The bottom line is that entry into national politics should not be reduced to the level of a popularity contest based on the impact of personality rather than on original ideas or proposals which might solve urgent problems.

By the same token and with all due respect and sympathy, Noam Schalit’s surprise announcement that he too decided to vie for a Knesset seat as a veteran and loyal Laborite – this after the entire nation had agreed on a nonpartisan basis to jeopardize security by consenting to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s decision to trade more than 1,000 Palestinians imprisoned for terrorism for his son Gilad, who had been kidnapped by Gaza Strip gunmen.

There seems to be something inherently wrong in the widespread notion that the relentless and ultimately successful public relations drive Noam Schalit conducted along with his wife, Aviva, proved his ability to succeed in politics.

Since when is a public relations success a logical prelude to political activity? Do his fellow Laborites expect him to introduce new techniques and skills to their seemingly hopeless bid to restore the preeminence their party enjoyed from 1948 to 1974? A footnote to all this derives from the hackneyed saying, “Tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are.”

Lapid reportedly is backed by former prime minister Ehud Olmert, a man who is waging desperate legal battles against charges of corruption and malfeasance, not to mention several cronies prominent in the realm of dubious financial or business activity to whose inner circle he reportedly belongs. If this is true, Lapid may be a marked man once his political ambitions are put to the electoral test.


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