Stymied, frustrated but seeking to campaign forcefully against the media’s bias and unethical practices, Israel’s Media Watch (IMW) was launched 20 years ago, in March 1995.
Two fundamentals guided the monitoring of the media from the outset. The first, to assure objectivity, was that precise quantitative analysis would be employed. Programs were recorded, names of politicians and personalities noted, transcripts were prepared, comparisons were analyzed and broadcast durations registered.
Day after day, program after program, the evidence was collected and reports were issued. The second aspect of IMW’s work was that the criteria used to ascertain the level of fairness and professionalism would be based on Knesset legislation and the professional codes of journalism ethics. These two principles would guarantee that the review would be objective and non-partisan.
Examples abound. One of the easiest aspects to review was gender balance. Twenty years ago, the main radio programs interviewed males 90 percent of the time, and females were usually asked questions about cooking or sexual abuse.
A woman expert in foreign affairs or security or economics was a rare event. The response of radio program host Dalia Yairi was not friendly. IMW was attacked, with Yairi claiming that she was a woman and that was sufficient. But times change, and today we note that gender balance is much improved, though not yet perfect.
A second example is political. In those early years, Israel had only two TV broadcast channels and the broadcasters felt they could do whatever they wanted.
The absolute majority of hosts and panelists of Channel 1 TV’s main talk show, Popolitica, sided with the Oslo accords.
Even a decision of Supreme Court Justice Theodore Or who was chairman of the Central Elections Committee ordering the program not to deal with political issues during the week prior to elections was publicly treated with disdain by the show’s Dan Margalit and Tommy Lapid.
Here, too, one notes today a much more pluralistic approach on talk shows, thanks to the increase of platforms and to the public’s awareness.
Perhaps the most frightening experience of those early years had to do with the events which led to the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. The Eyal organization run by Avishai Raviv was “allowed” to receive exhaustive TV reports on its activities, in which the group explicitly incited to violence. IMW complained, a month before the assassination, but the IBA responded with disdain. This was a clear example of hand washing hand.
Raviv, as we now know, was an agent of Israel’s Internal Security Agency, or Shin Bet. The program portraying a swearing-in ceremony in a cemetery was most certainly organized by Raviv’s manipulators, all in an attempt to discredit the substantial part of the population that were against the Oslo accords and used democratic means to express their misgivings. Such dictatorial manipulations would be much more difficult nowadays.
With time and experience, IMW’s activities branched out. The need for a media review organization became very clear when the ombudsman of the IBA, Victor Grayevsky, requested IMW’s help in assuring that Knesset legislation would not undermine his authority. IMW demanded in the Knesset education committee that the ombudsman’s mandate at the IBA would be no less than that of the public complaints commissioner in the Second TV and Radio Authority. This was accepted fully by the committee and its chairman, MK Immanuel Zisman.
This legislative experience was the first of many. IMW can take credit for quite a few laws and regulations which came into effect during these 20 years. Commercials directed at children were banned during the day. A law was passed by then Education Committee chairman MK Zevulun Orlev which imposed a content rating on TV programs. The Knesset finance committee forced the IBA to submit a full annual budget proposal and report. The Army Radio station was forced to follow the law and submit a report on its advertising. It was also coerced into appointing an ombudsman.
We reported quite a few times in the past few years about IMW’s successes in influencing the new public broadcasting law. IMW’s demand that the TV tax be abolished and be replaced by the annual car license tax was fully enacted. For the first time, everyone will participate in the tax, including the Arab sector and the haredim (ultra-Orthodox). The law-abiding citizen of yesteryear will be paying much less.
Arguably, the most important contribution of IMW is its complaints form page on its website. In the early years, complaints were treated very leisurely. The rules of the game changed the minute that the various authorities became aware that the complaints would be public and that attempting to ignore them would lead to further steps. Now, the answers are published and treated with much greater seriousness.
These complaints have led sometimes to dramatic changes. The regional Arab radio station “Shams” no longer runs a program of greeting to terrorists serving time in prison. Gender discrimination has been all but abolished at the Kol Barama haredi radio station.
As reported only last week, IMW has for the past 15 years awarded the Abramowitz Israeli Media Criticism Prize. The award ceremony has often led to headlines. Only this last Sunday, IMW presidium member Erez Bitton testified at the ceremony how as a member of the Israel Prize committee for literature he had to struggle against political intervention. Former IMW president Minister Yuval Steinitz reminded the audience that prime minister Rabin took away the Israel Prize from Professor Yeshayahu Leibovitz and no one at the time thought that this was “political intervention.”
Israel’s Media Watch broke the ground and in its wake, numerous other media review organizations were created. The extreme Left created the Keshev organization whose mandate was to show that the Israeli press is right-wing. The Israel Democracy Institute created the Internet-based Seventh Eye media review journal. Israel’s Education TV has a media review program, Tik Tikshoret, which incidentally has never found it necessary to interview IMW representatives (so much for the professional standards of that program). Israel’s Right created the Tazpit organization whose mandate was to expose left-wing bias in the media. Foreign media review organizations such Honest Reporting and CAMERA have also created daughter organizations in Israel.
IMW has not only worked from the outside. Its members often themselves became regulators, whether in the IBA plenum or the Second TV and Radio Authority.
IMW reps were members of national review boards, and have testified and presented numerous position papers to governmental committees on a wide spectrum of issues. The main theme has always been to increase pluralism, reduce governmental involvement and foremost, have an open ear for the needs and desires of the public, instead of dictating content to it.
Where will IMW be 20 years from now? Will it still be needed? The answer is yes, because without diligence, the old habits will return. Media bias must be balanced by the media consumers.The authors are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imw.org.il).