An issue that occupied the media last week was the warning by Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) head Nadav Argaman, concerning a threat of foreign interference in Israel’s election campaign. As this newspaper reported on January 8, Argaman said a “foreign country is trying to use cyber abilities to interfere in Israel’s upcoming elections.”
The press had a ball. Cyber experts, political experts and pundits discussed the appalling repercussions from such an intervention. Everyone wanted to know what should be done to prevent it. After hours of discussion, it became evident that the threat is not really significant. Israel’s elections are not electronic, we all vote with envelopes and so the foreign hackers cannot change that. What then?
The Associated Press on January 9 quoted Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler of the left-wing Israel Democracy Institute, who noted a view shared by many pundits that Israel “could still be vulnerable to other types of pre-election intervention, like hacking into party databases, spreading disinformation through social media and leaking personal and embarrassing material on the candidates.”
We just do not understand. Who are these foreign hackers? What differentiates them from our local media that for decades have been doing just that: creating disinformation, leaking private information to further their own goals and ideology and publishing unreliable polls? Altshuler should have reminded the AP that the real danger to the democratic process is the manipulation of news and views by the local media. The threat of foreign hackers pales in contrast.
We have witnessed these past few weeks many examples of the danger from Israel’s media establishment. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu notified the press on January 7 that he would be making an important announcement later in the evening, and then, in a follow-up social media tweet, notched that up as “dramatic.”
After his appearance, the denizens of the world of media commentators decided his charge – that the police refused his requests to confront the witnesses who reportedly testified against him saying, indeed, he was to be suspected of taking bribes – was not dramatic. Not even his demand that his comments be broadcast live was honored fully. One network, Channel 10, cut off the live broadcast before the end.
THE NEXT DAY, this being Israel, the media attacked Netanyahu for exerting unethical and perhaps illegal pressure on the police and the attorney-general. Hackers interfering? No, the media, openly. In fact, some thought Netanyahu was threatening them and, at the least, brow-beating them. That viewpoint was dramatic enough to deserve discussions over radio, on television, in newspapers and on news websites. The media were battering him to and fro. They were engaged in creating a drama that was non-existent.
This is how Gideon Levy in his last Thursday’s Haaretz described the events: “The prime minister says he will make a dramatic announcement that evening. Media outlets are free to ignore it, but choose to highlight it. Discussions, guesses, live broadcasts, sky-high ratings. Netanyahu appears and offers pointed arguments: not the drama he promised, but arguments he has a right to make, and the chorus erupts in anger. How dare he? Look how he deceived us... Media that never hesitate to inflate incidents into mega-news... are shocked when a prime minister does the same thing for the same purpose: ratings.”
But our media weren’t finished. Some suggested that next time Netanyahu should not be permitted a live broadcast to begin with. Others mused that it all depends on what he is saying. From reporting the news to managing the news, and now, to censoring the news, Israel’s media are descending into professional anarchy while fulminating over the apparent fact that Netanyahu, despite their attempts and machinations, is still in office and seems to be destined to win the upcoming elections.
Israel was always considered as lagging behind the United States, but not recently. President Donald Trump is suffering from the same elitist media attitude. There, Trump’s addresses, CNN’s Don Lemon said on his program, need to be countered by drastic measures, like a broadcast delay, to enable the media to edit out what they consider as his “propaganda.”
So what have we? Yet again, Israel’s media assume a holier-than-thou attitude considering it as their right not only to select which news the media consumer gets to see and hear through questionable editing procedures, but even when something gets through that they did not want, their duty is to prevent it from turning into a dramatic development. The policy is not guided by professional decision-making. In this case it is the personal animosity of central media figures to Netanyahu.
AS LEVY, quoted above, added in his column, “The righteous anger against Netanyahu contains blood lust and an odd desire for vengeance, disproportionate to the seriousness of the allegations.” Could hackers do a more thorough job of manipulating news and the election campaign?
A meeting took place prior to the public announcement of the “New Right Party” of Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked. Leading figures in the religious-Zionist media were invited to consult with them about the move. They included Haggai Segal, editor of Makor Rishon and Emmanuel Shiloh of the B’sheva weekly. Both came to the meeting knowing that it would be off the record, and both kept their commitment. Yet the general media, which of course were not in on the meeting, shouted “gevalt” when it became known.
Are we back to the days of political party newspapers where editors and politicians worked hand in hand? How could Shiloh and Segal do this? Segal was frightened and went into a winding explanation about how he was sorry and that he realized his error. Shiloh was different, noting that participating in off-the-record meetings is the bread and butter of the media, everyone does this, and rightly so. It helps the editor to present news and events in a more professional way.
This is but another example of how the media manipulate, exert pressure and distort a very innocent and positive event related to the coming elections. Public personalities – Shaked and Bennett – before acting, wanted to hear the response of supposedly serious editors, perhaps feeling that they are closer to the public and know its needs. Instead of respecting this, the media try to stop it. Segal is weak and accedes; Shiloh is proud and realizes the fallacy of the accusations.
In connection with Segal’s editorial decisions, last week his paper’s Shabbat supplement contained 11 pages, including the cover photograph, devoted to Amos Oz, not known for sympathy for the paper’s outlook nor for his intellectual honesty. This week, Segal’s political column contained 100 lines of text, half a page, discussing the legacy of the late Moshe Arens who, when he was an MK, turned down a ministerial appointment because he disagreed with Menachem Begin’s peace initiative. It would seem that the true hackers are our media “lights” who shape public opinion and try to mold it to conform to their personal needs.
Israel does not have to worry about foreign hackers. It is the local ones who are the real danger.
The writers are members of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imediaw.org.il).
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