Media Comment: Truth? Who cares?

The gross violations of ethics practiced daily by the Israeli media and often recounted and analyzed in this column are of far larger impact on public opinion.

By ELI POLLAK
June 19, 2019 22:11
A CAMPAIGN poster with an image of Betzalel Smotrich on it during the last elections.

A CAMPAIGN poster with an image of Betzalel Smotrich on it during the last elections.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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The Seventh Eye website, founded by the Israel Democracy Institute but now an independent operation, published a long article on June 11 titled: “Israel’s media justifiably deserves the public’s lack of trust in it.” Authored by Oren Persico, it describes a recent spat that took place in the Globes economic newspaper.

Journalist Eli Tsipori, who previously had served as deputy editor of Globes, posted on his Facebook page a column that he had published in the newspaper. Only there was one small difference. On the Facebook page, Tsipori described Sara Netanyahu’s violation of the law stemming from the “PM’s Household Affair” as not “criminal,” whereas in the paper itself, so reports Persico, such absolving of Mrs. Netanyahu from any criminal action did not appear.

The powers that be in Globes were furious. In the newspaper, they inserted a clarification stating that the Facebook version of the article did not represent the newspaper and was Tsipori’s responsibility alone. This, though, was not enough.

On Monday, June 10, the Jerusalem Press Club held a meeting revolving around the topic of the public’s trust in the written media. The members of the panel discussing the topic included Globes Editor-in-Chief Naama Sikuler, Haaretz Editor-in-Chief Aluf Benn, Yediot Aharonot commentator Shimon Shiffer and publicist and KAN radio host Asaf Liberman. The panel did not include any notable right-wing columnists. The organizers claimed, Persico noted, that some were invited but declined to attend.

During the discussion, Sikuler commented that she specifically pointed out to Tsipori that “Globes has an ethics code, Globes has values and a whole envelope of who and what we are. What you have done... is not right and not precise. It is fake news.”

During the same discussion, Shiffer also attacked Tsipori. Years ago, the latter publicized a column in which he claimed that the homogeneity of Israel’s media is a result of the fact that children of media stars pass the difficult test needed to be accepted to Israel’s best media school – the army radio station Galatz. A test, we add, that has been criticized for the discriminatory nature of its cultural content. However, it appears that Tsipori erred. His article claimed that a Hadar Shiffer was Shimon Shiffer’s son and was an example of this unfair practice, while in reality, Shiffer’s son is Gil Shiffer, not Hadar.

ALL OF this, though, is inconsequentially relevant. The gross violations of ethics practiced daily by the Israeli media and often recounted and analyzed in this column are of far larger impact on public opinion. But let us stay with the “little stories.”

As already mentioned, one of the panel members was Haaretz’s Benn. It so happens that on June 11, one of his “star” writers, Nehemia Strassler, wrote a scathing article, attacking MK Bezalel Smotrich. Strassler made a few “interesting” claims, among others. One is that Smotrich evaded service in the army by spending years in the Kedumim yeshiva. He married and continued studying in the yeshiva instead of serving in the army, but simultaneously studied law at Ono Academic College. He passed the bar examination “while the IDF soldiers were running on hilltops to guard him.” Only after having three children did he enlist in the army. His profile is 97, but he served as a minor clerk for the general staff.

Like Tsipori, but with a difference, Strassler is not a stickler for details. Strassler also attacked in that article Religious Services Minister Yitzhak Vaknin, writing: “What does Vaknin from Shas care to call upon the army to enter Gaza? His sons evade army service.” But Vaknin’s children are all daughters. He has no sons, as reported on the B’hadrei Hadarim website and recorded in his Wikipedia biography, a quite accessible resource. Moreover, his daughters did National Service. Did Benn demand a retraction from Strassler? Not that we know of.

Now, let us consider what the yellow journalism of Strassler really is about.

Smotrich did not evade duty. He was exercising his legal right to study in a yeshiva and thus defer his army service. One may argue whether the state should or should not give such deferments, but as long as such a special arrangement is legal, as are many others – such as those for athletes or the Atuda program for university students – one cannot accuse Smotrich, as Strassler did, of “evasion.” Strassler wrote that “Smotrich made a circus of the draft and escaped to a city of refuge.” But that is not really the truth, is it. There was no circus involved; rather, only a legal right to stay in the yeshiva. The title of the article, “Smotrich the evader,” is fake news.

There is, though, an additional disturbing aspect to this whole story. Let us accept the fact that Tsipori erred with respect to Hadar Shiffer. No one, not even Globes, accuses him of purposefully attempting to degrade someone under the guise of fake news. The worst that he did was to claim that Hadar Shiffer might not have been accepted to Galatz had he not been related (in fact, he is not) to Shimon Shiffer. His comment that Mrs. Netanyahu was not liable to criminal proceedings even if wrong (here too, we know from this week’s events that in the end, although the original charges were considerably reduced – and Magistrate’s Court president Avital Chen refused the prosecution’s request to amend the decision that only “private guests” benefited from the meals – Sara Netanyahu was indeed convicted of misuse of funds, and she now has a criminal record) did not cause her any harm. Strassler, on the other hand, purposefully and spitefully used fake news to try as much as possible to harm both Vaknin and Smotrich.

And succeed he did. Haim Yoavi-Rabinovich runs a newsletter which he posts to approximately 20,000 people. His post on June 12 was headlined “Smotrich resign, you are not worthy of representing religious Zionism since you evaded service in the army using a false deposition.” He most probably isn’t the only one who, based on Strassler’s Haaretz piece, distributed on their social media platforms an inaccurate and false picture.

Various websites follow politicians, noting their errors and sometimes how they promulgate fake news. In fact, TV Channel 11 has a new daily show, From the Other Side, hosted by Guy Zohar (son of high-profile lawyer Eli Zohar), which does precisely that. We have wondered previously in our column why more newspapers do not follow the practice of a daily “Corrections” corner as does The New York Times. Unfortunately, ombudsmen and readers’ representatives have long ago disappeared. Perhaps what is sorely needed is a dedicated website that follows journalists and presents their errors. It would need, however, a supervising board truly representative of Israel’s society to oversee its output.

 Would this increase the public’s trust in the media? In the long run, possibly yes. Perhaps editors will learn – maybe the hard way – that they must, unlike Benn, put truth and veracity ahead of ideology to assure the public trust.

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