On May 31, a journalist employed by a public broadcasting network revealed that he had received a covert call offering him a role as a spin doctor for the head of the Labour Party in preparation for the upcoming election campaign.
He was told that “the party knows it has a problem and is determined to fix it.” The leader was suffering “presentational difficulties”and he “needs advice, and it has to come from someone with sufficient stature to ensure he’ll listen to it.” The journalist replied first by politely expressing thanks for being considered, and then by saying he “remained committed to journalism” and did not desire to enter the political arena.
All who saw the second part of Anat Goren’s documentary on Isaac Herzog (which we commented on in our May 28 column) noticed the presence of Sefi Rechlevsky, Haaretz op-ed columnist, intimately engaged in the activities of Herzog’s inner sanctum. But Rechlevsky wasn’t the journalist referred to above, and neither was any other Israeli journalist.See the latest opinion pieces on our Opinion & Blogs Facebook page
The people involved in the above telephone conversation were BBC commentator Nick Robinson and the former, but now resigned, chairman of the British Labour Party, Ed Miliband. The two are Jewish, as are Rechlevsky and Herzog, but the similarity ends there.
To be fair to Rechlevsky, political involvement is a problem endemic to journalism. The media, without a critical public and with at best impotent supervisory bodies, can at times be no better than the unethical subjects they cover. Nevertheless, it appears that a different set of ethical standards was at work in England, but not only there.
In a column last month titled “Stop Hiring Political Operatives as ‘Journalists,’” Hamilton Nolan reviewed the controversy of, in his words, American “political pseudo-journalist” ABC news anchor George Stephanopoulos.
The latter was discovered to have made undisclosed contributions to the Clinton Foundation while employed by ABC. Nolan eviscerated the network’s managers for ignoring that Stephanopoulos, who had “forfeited all trust as a newsman,” had not only worked as communications director for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign and as an adviser to the Clinton White House but also recently interviewed Peter Schweizer, author of an anti-Clinton book on the family’s financial dealings, without disclosing his links. For Nolan, “the scandal is that George Stephanopoulos was ever hired as a ‘journalist’ in the first place.”
A JOURNALIST need not be a past political operative or a former employee of a politician to endanger democracy or hurt the public’s right to know. Bob Schieffer, speaking on Fox News Channel’s Media Buzz, conceded that the awe-struck press had given Barack Obama an easy ride in his 2008 presidential campaign, stating: “I think the whole political world was struck by this fella...
maybe we were not skeptical enough.”
There are other dangers. In the Herzog documentary there is a scene in which consultant Tammy Henchman is on the telephone with someone, to whom she says, “We’re putting out a release, and you’ll give it headline treatment.” She then tells a staffer to put out the release to “Miranda,” noting that “Miranda” would publish the statement prior to its being uttered by Herzog.
It turns out that “Miranda” is Amnon Miranda, deputy to the chief editor of the Ynet news website, a subsidiary of Yediot Aharonot. Did the company’s antipathy to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pave the way for Miranda to use the unethical road of publishing news that hadn’t quite happened yet? Another example of unethical and unprofessional journalism occurred on Kol Israel’s Reshet Bet radio last week on the 15th anniversary of the IDF’s retreat from Lebanon. As both Besheva’s Amiel Ungar and Makor Rishon’s Haggai Segal commented in their columns, in two hours of air time not one guest who thought that the move was a wrong decision was given the courtesy of the public microphone.
Segal added that he had texted the program’s editor complaining about the one-sidedness of the program, hosted by two journalists who openly took credit in the past for supporting the pro-withdrawal campaign. The two were Shelly Yacimovich, now a Labor MK, and Carmela Menasheh, Kol Israel’s military affairs correspondent.
The reply Segal received was: “Do you really want that we should return there, Haggai?” That question revealed the incompetence of the editor, who did not understand that Segal’s demand was for pluralism and balance, and nothing more.
There are also media-industry links which are disturbing.
On June 2, the V15 group tweeted to Nadav Perry, who had resigned from his position as political correspondent for Channel 10 News after 17 years working in the media to act as a publicist for tycoon Yitzhak Teshuvah, the following message: “Success! Thanks for the devoted work!” The media elite were upset with Perry’s crossing the lines, but the real gem was the crossing of swords between Perry and MK Micky Rosenthal. Rosenthal, who worked in the past with Perry as an investigative program producer, tweeted that Perry’s new monthly salary was to be NIS 160,000 and expressed outrage that Perry had “sold out.”
Rosenthal had to quickly backtrack and admit that he was mistaken: Perry would be earning “only” NIS 60,000 per month. Perry then tweeted, “It is scary to think that this is your level of professionalism and fact-checking with your past investigative work.”
Our last example is Ilana Dayan’s TV Channel 2 interview with US President Barack Obama. Dror Eydar asked the pertinent questions in Israel Hayom: “Did Dayan present the interest of the public, or those of an imaginary journalism community? ...The interview amply demonstrated Dayan’s identification with Obama’s views. She didn’t challenge him ideologically and sidestepped potholes of controversy....”
Ruthie Blum was more acerbic there, writing, “A tough investigative journalist like Dayan could have made better use of the microphone. But for this, she would have had to avoid slipping into idolatry mode and keep herself from fawning like a high-school girl in the presence of a movie star whose poster hangs over her bed.”
Media consumers have the right to know if the news they pay for is corrupted, biased, the result of sloppy journalism or delivered in the service of a person or political outlook. Sefi Rechlevsky’s sojourn in the close company of Labor’s Herzog – and it makes no difference that he claims he was there merely as a guest of political adviser Reuven Adler, the excuse he fed his Haaretz employers – should not have been allowed to happen. Journalists must be open to oversight no less than the subjects they cover.
Time and again, we witness the media’s double standard.
They demand journalistic freedom in the name of the public’s right to know yet they refuse to apply the same principles to their own work. All too often some engage in devious behavior, at times bordering on the criminal. Their colleagues do not call them to task. Ethics are not only for the journalist. They exist, equally so, to protect the media consumer.
The authors are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imw.org.il).