Media Comment: It’s election time, again

August 15, 2019 00:47
FAREWELL TO the Knesset

FAREWELL TO the Knesset. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The elections for the 22nd Knesset are upon us, although we would not be incorrect to write that Israel’s media never really stop reporting on politics as if elections were a constant background subtext. That is comprehensible, as for over a decade now the media have been engaged in its own campaign of bringing down Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Election time is just another phase in their activity.

Academic research on election news reporting in democracies has found that the coverage, wherever it is, highlights political leaders; that the coverage of personal lives of politicians has expanded; that negative editorial treatment of politicians has increased; and news coverage is focusing more on the conduct of politics rather than its substantive content. In Israel, that suits our media just fine.

Before reviewing some recent media performances in the political sphere, we cannot skip over the fiasco of KAN’s rather popular police docudrama, Jerusalem District, broadcast on Channel 11 television.

As we all now know, the production team was engaged in the manufacturing of a fake portrayal. With police assistance, an Arab had his house in Isawiya turned into a location of storage of an illegal weapon, one that was planted for “effect.”

Somehow, the Koda Production Company didn’t think that even slightly unethical, if not actually criminal. Odder still, the head of that company is Ram Landes. Landes, incidentally, is married to former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak’s daughter, herself a lawyer. Did nothing of that profession rubbed off on him?

Moreover, in 2014, it was he who was responsible for the commission whose job was to dissolve the old Israel Broadcasting Authority. He led the call for far-reaching reforms. The tone was “holier-than-thou” even though we at Israel’s Media Watch noted the conflict of interest and the fact that once the new broadcasting corporation would be established, Mr. Landes would be a prime subcontractor. 

Who supervised the production at Koda? What was the extent, if at all, of KAN’s involvement? Will actions be taken? While the identities of the Arabs who were filmed were blurred, was the hiding of the weapon unbeknown to him and without his agreement or was he part of the mock scene?

What we do know is that Yuval Karniel, former Meretz activist, past general counsel of Israel’s Commercial Television and Radio Authority, head of an ethics committee whose job was to redefine the IBA’s ethics code, and current lecturer in media law who was hired by Koda to assist it during this crisis. And help, indeed, is required, as it now appears that KAN knew fully well in advance about the planting operation according to an article in Globes on Monday by Anat Bein-Lubovitz.

It seems that KAN’s aghast reaction to Koda’s staging may also have been fake. Karniel surely has some explaining to do as to why, beyond the expected remuneration, there is a reason to aid an organization whose wrong activities are clear to all. One does not need an “ethics” expert to acknowledge the violations. Koda needs to fire all of those responsible. It is the media consumer, yet again, who is left with the impression that whether it is entertainment or news or opinion, the last thing the media concerns itself with is the rights of the consumer.

AN EXAMPLE of this, to return to the election coverage, is an August 4 tweet by former Likud MK Yehuda Glick. He became part of the media chatter on the Likud’s so-called “allegiance pledge” that Netanyahu is the party’s sole candidate for prime minister. That document was born in the aftermath of Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman suggestion which envisioned that post-election stalled coalition negotiations could lead to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein or another Likudnik assuming the mantle of Israel’s leader.

As expected, for several days the media pumped the story, making fun of the Likudniks kowtowing to Netanyahu, and sought as many reactions as possible. Glick informed his followers that he, too, had been approached for an interview. As per the usual practice, a pre-interview conversation was conducted by a researcher. Glick was asked, “So, what do you say?” to which he replied, “I agree with the signing.” The next question was, “And you do not think the whole situation embarrassing [for Netanyahu]?” to which Glick answered “Not at all.”

The researcher thanked Glick but informed him there was now no need to interview him. In other words, the interview program was pre-programmed to air anti-Netanyahu voices. A more informative method of covering the story would have been to analyze whether Netanyahu regularly keeps his promises or even if MKs in general, and not solely Likud parliamentarians, do so. But as noted above, the media focuses on the personal and more on the conduct of politics rather than its substance.

Another case is that of Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich (Yamina) who fell into a media trap of his own making this week. A court decision to disallow a gender-separated event in Afula spurred Smotrich not only to attack the judge and his ruling, but he also fulminated against Netanyahu. He accused him of being “weak,” and displaying “zero leadership” in facing down “judicial activism.”

Instead of a calm, rational discussion about the value of court intervention in this case and respect of the rights of all minorities within Israel’s society, the media could not but whip up a storm.  The focus was not on the issue and whether Smotrich’s criticism, as derogative as it was, was worthy of consideration, but on the character of Netanyahu. Is Netanyahu indeed weak? Will he fire Smotrich? (He didn’t.) Is Smotrich a firebrand extremist or, having a law degree, was his reasoned disassembling of the judge’s ruling, as he partially presented it on the Reshet Bet radio’s Kalman-Liberman morning program on Monday, worthy of debate on its merits?

Everything is political, and so also Education Minister Rafi Peretz (Yamina) found himself again on the firing line. This time it was his decision not to renew the appointment of professor of political science Yossi Shain of Tel Aviv University as a member of the powerful coordination and budget committee of Israel’s Council for Higher Education. Shain consistently voted against anything having to do with Ariel University and so his firing was seen as politically motivated.

In reaction, another committee member, Prof. Ishi Talmon of Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, voted “in protest.” Of course, no one considered whether Peretz’s action was necessary. Shain chaired the committee responsible to aid Israel’s humanity studies with a budget of NIS 100 million. Two years later, the money has not been used and Shain’s committee is paralyzed with nothing accomplished.

Talmon may have claimed that he resigned in protest but there is good reason to believe that knowing his six-year tenure ends in October, his resignation now would prevent the planning committee from doing anything to aid Ariel University until after the elections. The media discourse was not factual but personal, clamoring that Peretz belongs to the “dark ages.”

It would appear the media run our election campaigns, not the parties.

The writers are members of Israel’s Media Watch,

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