A 1924 journalism ethics handbook edited by Kansas academic Nelson Crawford quotes the Detroit News press code, according to which the Friday prior to a Tuesday election day is the last time a “candidate or party should be permitted to print new charges or statements.” The principle behind this is that “no paper should print anything about anybody without allowing ample time for an answer.”
Almost a century later, here in Israel it would appear that any ethically- imposed restriction is ancient history.
The media is constantly bucking the laws of the land which seek to assure fair and objective coverage of the ultimate political process.
This 20th Knesset campaign was highlighted by many media stories which ignored Israel’s current Electioneering Law. This past Sunday, for example, Channel 1 television’s HaMusaf program hostess Geula Even had Avigdor Liberman, Aryeh Deri and Ofir Akunis in the studio for interviews that, for the most part, were election propaganda.
This format was repeated many times on the other two main television channels as well as the two national radio networks and over a dozen regional ones. The only thing lacking was a “vote for me” proclamation accompanied by party jingles.
Undoubtedly, though, it was Ari Shavit who, in a March 9 interview with Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog published in Haaretz,
summed up this year’s election campaigns: “But the array of powers that work in Herzog’s favor is often reminiscent of the one that brought Netanyahu down in 1999... The anti-Sheldon Adelsons are generous in their financial support. The media is doing all it can to smear Netanyahu.”
A stark example of this anti-Netanyahu effort by the media in the service of a political ideology was the press conference conducted by the Likud’s Benny Begin and Yuli Edelstein last Sunday. This came in the wake of what was perceived as a devastating piece of investigative journalism by Israel Prize winner Nahum Barnea, senior columnist for the Yediot Aharonot
media empire. Begin and Edelstein, known for their integrity, flatly claimed that Barnea was a liar.
In the Yediot weekend edition, Barnea, under a front-page headline, revealed a supposed August 2013 “document of concessions” to which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he asserted, had agreed. It included basing talks with the Palestinians on pre-1967 lines with land swaps, and leaving Jewish communities under Palestinian Authority control. This was headlined with the trope “Netanyahu’s lack of credibility.” Barnea’s integrity, as noted many times in this column, is questionable. This was not a news item but a blunt attempt to convince the public that a certain political contender should not receive their vote.
The Likud spokesmen were also blunt, indeed scathing, in their response. Begin related how 20 years ago Barnea, presented with facts in connection to diplomatic issues, refused to publish them since they served the camp to which he did not belong. Barnea’s current piece, Begin said, as reported in this paper, served those who “want to blacken the name of and cause damage to the prime minister and Likud.” Barnea “fathered a lie,” he added. Edelstein also proclaimed that “the document is a lie.”
They further pointed out that Dennis Ross, a former adviser to three US presidents engaged in the American peace initiative, had declared that Netanyahu never agreed to pre-‘67 lines, dividing Jerusalem or giving the right of return to Palestinian refugees and their descendants.
Why didn’t Barnea check his story with Ross? In a March 8 interview with i24 TV, Barnea offered this explanation: not everyone is aware of all the documents. In a second column, published on the Ynet website, Barnea wrote that Netanyahu’s reaction “was a panicked response in which he, unfortunately, did not tell the truth.”
Could this be just another case of Barnea suppressing information which does not fit his worldview? The media vs. Netanyahu has always been a subtext in Israel, but the eruption this year of spiteful attacks, most of them simply irrelevant to the political, security and social issues facing the electorate, has been astounding in breadth and depth of animosity. In this context, it is also illuminating that Channel 2’s election-evening program will be a normal, open-studio news show – but will also star the station’s left-wing satirical ensemble, Eretz Nehederet (It’s A Wonderful Country). In the eyes of Channel 2, the elections are entertainment. But only when colored appropriately.
No less pervasive is the ignorance of some of our reporters and interviewers.
On the afternoon of March 4, Yossi Sarid was interviewed by Benny Bashan on the Army radio station. This was a very interesting type of interview; Sarid not only answered but also asked most of the questions, while Bashan merely chuckled.
Sarid declared at one point that one reason he was critical Netanyahu’s speech before the US Congress in Washington was that “the word ‘peace’ was not mentioned once.” However, as we all heard, during the speech the prime minister said: “The difficult path [that]...will make all the difference for the future of my country, the security of the Middle East and the peace of the world, the peace we all desire”; and that we cannot “ignore aggression in the hopes of gaining an illusory peace.” Bashan did not call Sarid to order. Was he too mesmerized by a fellow comrade in ideology? Was the program’s editor asleep? Was a correction offered the media consumers? Even when some of the media’s own icons are honest enough to note that the attack on Netanyahu is not always justified, they do not relent. Author David Grossman, who not only opposes Netanyahu’s reelection but also lambasted him for interfering with the process of awarding the Israel Prize, told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica’s Fabio Scuto that, “The points raised in [Netanyahu’s speech]...are important and must be heard...Iran threatens the entire world; this time Netanyahu is right.”
He also characterized the American position as “clumsy” and one of “criminal naivete.” Is it surprising that these comments of Grossman were not the first item on the news? At times, one felt that they were a well-kept secret. After all, hadn’t Tzipi Livni clarified that the prime minister was sacrificing the future of Israel for his personal political gain? It was just not “right” to allow Grossman to spoil the party.
One speech that Central Elections Committee chairman Justice Salim Jubran did not subject to a delay was that of Yair Garboz, who appeared at last Saturday night’s anti-Netanyahu rally. He railed not only against the prime minister but against all those who supported the right-of-center political agenda in terms recalling Dudu Topaz’s 1981 “riff raff” speech that denied Shimon Peres an election victory.
The surreal aspect of his words, calling right-wingers ignorant, racist, piggish pleasure-seekers and destroyers of democracy, were in his summary: “So how is it that the handful rules us? How is it that... the handful has turned into a majority?” In truth, Garboz was just describing, and rather accurately, the reality of our media.
The authors are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imw.org.il).