In a normative reality, the media would be reporting on and following news stories, and columnists and pundits analyzing and commented on them from a variety of political and economic outlooks.
If the editors or publishers of a private or commercial media outlet have a specific policy they wish to promote or a candidate they seek to support, they are free to print or broadcast editorials. There is the news and there are the views. To mix them creates bias.
Bias is unfair to the media consumer who by nature has limited sources of information.
The consumer usually has no direct link to events, and thus blurring the line between news and opinion denies him or her the ability to make a reasoned judgment.
The responsibility of state-sponsored media networks to provide objective reporting as well as a plurality of opinion is even greater since, in essence, the public is the editorial board. The directors and editors have no right to unfairly influence the consumer through their broadcasts.
Two weeks ago, this critical observation was made regarding the media: “Nobody wants to associate with anybody who doesn’t agree with them politically... You can’t have a conversation, people won’t listen to each other, they listen to different media, and those different media [outlets] tell different stories about the very same thing... You cannot run a great country like that.”
Sound familiar? Probably it does. But this wasn’t said by an Israeli; those were the words of former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, spoken during the Conference for Women gathering in California last month. They do most certainly, however, touch on the problems media consumers here face in trying to be informed and to make their own decisions on what to do, how to vote and how to forge their own lives.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip to Washington to speak at the AIPAC convention and, at the invitation of the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, to address a joint session of Congress has been one of the main media narratives of these Knesset elections. Is our media reporting the story objectively, with full background and with no agenda but to provide news and balanced commentary? In the fallout from the NBC news anchor Brian “I was there” Williams debacle, Nicole Hemmer, a visiting assistant professor at the universities of Miami and Sydney, wrote in a recent issue of The New Republic of an “evolution in the media bias argument” promoted by the Right. She claims that according to conservatives, mistakes made by journalists and which editors fail to correct are due to a “liberal worldview” that “kept them from questioning assumptions and double-checking information.”
But is that not true? For example, one of the main arguments against the Netanyahu speech is the supposed damage it will do to American-Israeli relations. But the annual Gallup World Affairs poll, conducted February 8-11, indicates this may not be the case. As reported, Netanyahu’s favorable rating has improved in the US, and nearly twice as many Americans view Israel’s leader favorably (45 percent) as unfavorably (24%). Moreover, his favorable score is up from 35% in 2012.
In other words, the stories based on a threat that Netanyahu is doing damage are inadequately reflecting an issue considerably more complex and quite undecided. The support could potentially affect how Americans vote for their representatives in Congress and therefore affect how those politicians, seeking reelection, will be reacting to Netanyahu’s arguments.
A different media line is: “Netanyahu has a credible case to make. Any nuclear agreement that allows Iran to maintain a native uranium enrichment capability... an empire-building, Assad-sponsoring, Yemen-conquering, Israel-loathing, theocratic terror regime is a dicey proposition. The deal that seems to be taking shape right now does not fill me – or many others who support a diplomatic solution to this crisis – with confidence.”
Those lines were from pundit Jeffrey Goldberg, and appeared in The Atlantic this past Sunday. Goldberg is the columnist that first reported the “chickensh**” slander of Netanyahu by a high Obama administration official. Goldberg himself is not favorably inclined to Israel’s prime minister. Indeed, he has not suddenly become a Netanyahu devotee, and still does not approve the prime minister appearing before the joint session of Congress.
But he does attempt, as a professional, to include multiple angles in his writing.
Unfortunately, that cannot be said of too many Israeli journos and pundits, who allow their “anyone but Bibi” ideology to override their professional responsibilities.
Last October, Gershom Gorenberg, quite an opponent of Netanyahu’s, upset about a lack of fact-checking in the media wrote in The American Prospect about his concern over the commitment of journalism to pursue truth. For him, “Putting the truth inside the news report, right after the quote, is the only way to be unbiased.” But that requires an intelligent reporter, a wise editor and a system which assures that lies or misrepresentations are caught before publication. If a news outlet is already prejudiced against its subject, no system can be effective.
Netanyahu’s speech to Congress is a litmus test case for the professionalism of Israel’s media. Sad to say, the result is not heartwarming.
The radio broadcasts (whether the IBA or Army Radio) were interspersed with comments by the anchors. Yonit Levy of TV Channel 2 News, as usual, could not let Netanyahu talk without contributing her two bits of personal opinion. The idea that the consumer should be allowed to first hear the speech, free of any outside influence, did not even occur to the editors of these outlets.
As usual, too much of the ensuing discussion revolved around the silly questions, such as counting ovations, who sat and who stood, how does this influence elections in Israel. The really tough questions, on all sides, just did not come to the fore. Netanyahu has been talking about the Iranian problem for the past six years, but can he show any positive results? The Iranians are amassing on the Golan Heights, what is Israel’s reaction to this? Is Israel prepared for an Iranian-supported attack from the Golan? How does the Iranian threat impact Israel’s budget? Will the various politicians from all parties be able to responsibly divert funds from the defense budget to important social issues? One might argue in their favor that the TV stations have all put pressure on the prime minister to participate in a televised debate with his opponent, Isaac Herzog. But instead of just calling upon them to debate, they should present the public with the questions they intend to ask. But it would seem that the main aim of the networks is not really providing the electorate with important information, but rather with gaining a few more shekels from advertising.
Our recommendation to the electorate is to ignore the commentaries, and try to get the news only. The rest is not worth the effort.
The authors are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imw.org.il).
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