As more reports originate from the Israel Police appear, some leaked, regarding the investigation into several alleged cases of embezzlement, bribery and government corruption, the contest for the public’s trust between the media and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is both accelerating and increasing in pitch.
Yardena Schwartz, a freelance journalist and Emmy-nominated producer based in Tel Aviv, formerly with NBC News, called Netanyahu a “media puppeteer” in the prestigious Columbia Journalism Review (February 21).
In his public appearances during his visit this month to the United States, Netanyahu avoided any reference to the legal situation he is embroiled in. It was only mentioned through impromptu remarks to the press, such as “we are attacked all the time – every hour, every minute... I won’t keep silent, I will tell the truth.”
It was but a year ago that he declared, “There is no country in the world where the press is freer [than Israel]. There is no country in the world that attacks its leader more than the Israeli press attacks me. That’s fine. It’s their choice. They are free press and they can say anything they want.” It would seem that even Netanyahu is feeling the pressure.
Some pundits have sought to compare his media wars with those of US President Donald Trump, doing so in a negative, even sneering fashion. But there is more to that comparison.
Andrew Klavan, an award winning mystery novelist whose books have been made into films, wrote on February 4 in New York’s City Journal
, an urban-policy magazine, that “a press that has shown itself willing to publish anonymous anti-Trump leaks that sometimes turned out to be false – has made it clear that they do not want you to know what they do not want to know themselves.”
Taking a similar position, The Wall Street Journal
editorialized on February 7 that “Some of our media friends are so invested in the Steele dossier, or in protecting their Fusion pals, or in Donald Trump’s perfidy, that they want to ignore all this [the FBI’s wiretap application based on a source working at the direction of the Clinton campaign]. But journalists ought to tell the complete story.”
In quality journalism, a good story is a balanced one, with input from all sides and a “fair” representation of facts and opinions. Are we in Israel receiving professional, impartial, objective, ethical journalism? Or does our press attempt to use its power to forbid us to even think that our editors, reporters and analysts could be, like their American counterparts, less than fair, objective and even knowledgeable?
Robert Lacey is one person whose approach should put television viewers on the alert. He is the historical consultant for The Crown
, the Netflix television period drama, and author of many popular histories and biographies. In her December 18, 2017 Town & Country
interview with him, Caroline Hallerman observed, “For Lacey, there can be truth without fact.”
In his own words, Lacey said, “I say, ‘I don’t like the word “false.”’ I’d rather say is it true or is it invented? ...History is a truth, but there are other truths that are conveyed in the drama.”
While the specific context is docudrama, this type of thinking has infiltrated “straight” journalism. It is standard practice for “expert analysts” who appear on hard news programs. The framework setting attempts to convince the viewer or listener that the speaker is objective and disengaged from the subject she or he is spouting off on. Moreover, these observers always seem to tell us media consumers what the future will be. Not only are the results unimpressive, but the media never seems to check up on how good their “experts” really are. Never has there been a case of a commentator being laid off as a result of false perceptions or predictions.
There is another problematic aspect to modern media, related to how the public engages with the news.
According to the UK Trinity Mirror
’s digital editor-in-chief at its regional titles, Alison Gow, many online readers scan headlines and then go to the comments thread without bothering to read the copy (the facts). “People,” she said, “will actively not read a story because they will have a view... If the news pages are full of the personal opinion of reporters, why are they any better than my opinion?”
The Netanyahu case is a classic example. The Israeli press is stumped: after two years of Netanyahu bashing, with one story after another, public opinion polls show, consistently, that the public is not impressed. If one believes the polls, Netanyahu is electorally stronger than ever. Why?
One answer has to do with the perception that too many people in the media have an agenda and therefore cannot be trusted.
In Israel, the public knows there are certain politicians who are protected by the media. Israelis know that MK Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) did not divulge his information about the 1999 election campaign funding (the “Amutot” affair), yet the media did not attack the police nor the attorney general for not following through. Herzog went on to become the chairman of the Zionist Union.
Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party, has been caught repeatedly “misrepresenting” facts. In the latest case, Lapid appeared in front of a camera with a person disguised as a haredi (ultra-Orthodox). Lapid did not divulge this information. True, nothing illegal, but has the media asked itself whether this is a person who can be trusted?
The media after but a scant few days closed the story about the possible criminal implications of the behavior of judges Esther Hayut and Hila Gerstel. Gerstel claimed she had been asked by a Netanyahu crony whether she would be willing to assure, if she became attorney general, that she would work in favor of the Netanyahu family. She also claimed she had mentioned the matter to Hayut who did not even report the matter to the police. Are justices immune from press criticism? Or are only certain judges, with certain political opinions, liable to be victims of a press onslaught?
Former president and prime minister Shimon Peres was the crony of many millionaires, aggrandized himself while still alive, yet no one clamored for his relationships with financial moguls to be investigated. Many Israeli politicians worked hard to get the daily newspaper Israel Hayom
removed from our newsstands, pushing legislation and receiving positive coverage in Yediot Aharanot
, yet hardly any of them were called to task.
The Israeli public is wise enough to understand that even if Netanyahu has broken the law, what is demanded from him is unique. Others under these circumstances would go scot-free, especially if, like prime minister Ariel Sharon, they bribe the press with an expulsion of Jews from Gaza and northern Samaria.
It is this one-sidedness and lack of truth that is helping Netanyahu. Israel, though, is losing.
The writers are members of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imediaw.org.il).