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For the past few days, a surprisingly large part of public discourse in this country has focused on an opinion poll presented at the Sderot Conference for Society of the Sapir Academic College. It purports to be no less than a ranking of politicians' corr uptness, based on how they are perceived by the public.
The credence given this poll is almost as disturbing as the phenomenon it claims to measure, since such polls are notoriously inaccurate. The latest case in point is the Labor leadership primary, i n which pollsters predicted a landslide victory for Shimon Peres only to discover the next day that Amir Peretz had upset all forecasts.
Yet more troubling is what the poll does seem to show, even if its full accuracy cannot be relied upon. It reveals pu blic perceptions that anyone in the know would recognize immediately as spurious. These perceptions fly hard in the face of our legal records and recent chronicles.
It boggles the mind that, if this poll is to be believed, the general public could confer the "most honest minister" title on no other than Labor's Housing Minister Isaac Herzog, chief strategist in the prime ministerial campaign by Ehud Barak in 1999. The next year's state comptroller's report exposed an unprecedented network of bogus charit i es set up to funnel illicit sums to that campaign, and imposed a record fine (NIS 13.8 million) on Labor for the scam.
It is equally surprising that the public could judge Likud's Tzahi Hanegbi the country's "most corrupt minister" and that it could ra n k Prime Minister Ariel Sharon only in the fifth "corrupt minister" slot, below those suspected of far less than what is allegedly attributed to him.
Following Hanegbi and preceding Sharon in the ministerial category are Yisrael Katz, Limor Livnat and E hu d Olmert. In the MK category, the "most corrupt" epithet went to the premier's son Omri Sharon - hardly surprising as he had just been convicted of a range of felonious campaign financing violations on behalf of his father and about which the elder Sha ron pleaded total ignorance.
Omri Sharon is followed by Shas's Shlomo Benizri, currently embroiled in bribery charges. Surprisingly, however, these front-runners are curiously followed by Binyamin Netanyahu and Roni Bar-On, neither of whom were ever indi cted for anything.
Both, however, were much-maligned in affairs that are in retrospect widely perceived as having verged on harassment, including televised and extraordinarily hyped dawn raids on Netanyahu's apartment and tendentious leaks from both poli ce a nd prosecution. Most memorable is the commotion surrounding the tin pin, valued at 50 agorot, that Sara Netanyahu received during a tour of the diamond exchange.
Proving that slung-mud sticks, the poll's results were interminably rehashed on the air wav es yesterday. They weren't treated as perhaps betokening flawed perception but, rather, almost as proof of guilt or of laudable civic hygiene.
This inevitably raises questions of how such arbitrary impressions became fixed in people's minds. Here the fin ge r must incontrovertibly point at the media.
Those whom it chooses to pillory, even unjustifiably so, evidently become guilty-by-insinuation.
Those on whose allegedly or demonstrably improper conduct it chooses not to dwell heavily, by contrast, emerg e s queaky clean, purified by omission.
This anomaly was noted yesterday in a radio interview by Uzi Dayan, of late an anti-corruption campaigner, and one of the Sderot Conference organizers. Dayan cautioned listeners "not to assume the poll reflec ts reality because, for instance, respondents obviously overlooked the fact that Herzog refused to answer investigators questions in the Barak NGOs case." (Herzog escaped with a hefty slap in the wrist from the attorney-general. Only two Labor small fries were ever indicted.) Asking rhetorically whether the poll's respondents were unaware of all this, Dayan argued that a politician's refusal to cooperate with a police investigation should itself be considered unacceptable and corrupt.
If the public truly measu res corruption almost solely by the sheer volume of corruption-related coverage a politician receives, then both the media and the public have some soul searching to do. As a watchdog, the media is, alternatively, lying down on the job or barking u p the w rong tree. In the meantime, if this poll is to believed, the public is not able to look beyond the sheer quantity of reports to their substance, with political reputations suffering or benefitting accordingly.ggur