(photo credit: REUTERS)
The media likes to consider itself the watchdog not only of the democratic process but of democracy itself. It justly seeks to investigate and review the actions of government as well as other central arenas of public activity.
The most crucial period in a democracy is elections, when the lists vie for the public’s support with campaigns played out mainly in the media. Even the Supreme Court has agreed that during election periods, the need for equality can outweigh the hallowed principle of freedom of the press. Israeli law prohibits election propaganda on the airwaves during the 60-day period prior to Election Day. The heads of the Israel Broadcasting Authority have prohibited its employees from expressing their private opinions during this period.
Even Arieh Golan was forced to forgo his daily personal opinion comments, which open Kol Yisrael’s 7 a.m. news program.
However, does the media stand up to the norms democracy expects of it? Let’s consider some recent examples.
On February 22, Nati Tucker of Haaretz reported that: “One-third of political reporting is on the prime minister, compared with only 10 percent for main challenger, Isaac Herzog.”
This damning statement was based on a study carried out by the Ifat Agency for Haaretz. A study was not undertaken to ascertain the quality of the coverage, whether negative, positive or neutral; it is much easier to count items than to objectively determine their quality. We would guess, though, that the negative coverage of Netanyahu far outweighed the positive.
One could argue that the density of news stories involving Prime Minister Netanyahu, whether about his upcoming trip to the United States, his attempt to change some Israel Prize Committees or questions regarding his handling of the Prime Minister’s Residence and his private Caesarea home was so high that the media had no choice but to devote more coverage to Netanyahu. In “normal” periods, this would be true, but in the run-up to an election the media should be making a conscious attempt to mitigate these objective circumstances. The media must report, but it is not at all necessary to regurgitate the issues with an infinite amount of commentary, most of it by people whose sources are not more or less than the news reports we all hear.
Indeed, some serious journalists have been criticizing the media for concentrating on unimportant issues and not letting in-depth discussions take place on the central issues, such as Israel’s preparedness in the face of Iran’s occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights. Or the question of whether there should there be one or two states between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea? Should Israel annex areas in Judea and Samaria or exchange populations? The economy is critical in elections in the US, whereas here, it is not discussed in any depth. Will there be added taxation? Are there policies to be implemented regarding housing? What will government policy be regarding the Jewish presence in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria? Will there be Jewish construction in these areas? Will the Levy Report on land issues become government policy? What will the attitude be toward the Arab and haredi (ultra-Orthodox) minorities? What will be done to fight anti-Semitism abroad? Is Israel prepared for a wave of immigration? How will Israel respond to European and US pressure? Indeed, Israel is facing unprecedented external and internal pressures, yet the media is focusing on recycled bottles.
There are other aspects which should also be dealt with. Too many in the media are not capable of overcoming their own prejudices. Arieh Golan can be trusted to give conservatives a rough time and provide an almost open mike to liberals. As noted by listener Sinai Alexandrowicz, on Monday, he “interviewed” MK Yariv Levin (Likud), over the decision of Supreme Court Justice Salim Jubran to throw out the Likud’s complaint against V15 and fine the Likud a hefty sum. The session lasted 10 minutes, with Golan taking up approximately 40 percent of the time with “questions.”
Golan can also be relied upon to tell the politicians that they are not allowed to use the microphone for political propaganda, and then let them continue to do precisely what the law prohibits.
A recent pair of interviews conducted by Esti Perez on Reshet Bet’s noon program is characteristic of the common lack of professionalism in Israeli media. First, she had an eight-minute discussion with Labor MK Shelly Yachimovich. The latter, an experienced journalist and radio personality, took advantage of the situation to violate the elections law time and time again. Typical statements were: “The chair of my party has many positive traits. One which no one can deny is his excellent political abilities which include bringing together different [individuals] and creating coalitions that no one ever thought possible. These characteristics will become very obvious on the night after elections. I don’t doubt we will get more mandates to produce these capabilities that will be reflected immediately after learning of the night has been the results and I have no doubt that we will get more seats...
voters who consider themselves as left-of-center who want a sane state and do not want Netanyahu, must vote for Herzog.”
Perez had a duty to stop Yachimovich at the outset and warn her that she was violating the law, but the only response was silence. During the eight minutes, Perez asked six questions and three times interrupted Yachimovich.
MK Gila Gamliel of Likud was next on air. She got 10 minutes, during which Perez asked 24 questions, four times as much as in the previous “interview.” At times, Gamliel was not allowed to say more than five words before being interrupted. It reached the point of Gamliel telling Perez: “I want to express myself without interruption, just as MK Yacimovich spoke here without being interrupted.” This did help, for the next minute or so.
Evelyn Gordon perceptively noted in her February 16 op-ed in this paper that the elites of a society are for all intents and purposes power centers.
These include culture, academia and the media. In Israel, the political center-right has failed to mobilize resources to adequately challenge the Left’s dominance. She then added, echoing a position that IMW shares, that despite bitter complaints of leftist primacy specifically in the newsrooms of radio and television, “center-right governments have repeatedly refused to enact legislation opening the airwaves to competition.” Nationwide news broadcasts are monopolized by Kol Yisrael and Galatz and as in the case of Channel 10 television failing left-wing broadcasters are rescued instead of being allowed to collapse.
At the end of the day, the Israeli media does not live up to its self-image as the watchdog of democracy. It fails where it is most crucial – election time. Is this a big loss for our democracy? During the past 20 years, most elections ended with a victory for the center-right, so perhaps not. On the other hand, one could argue that the political camp suffering from the bias would have gained more votes without it.The authors are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imw.org.il).