Media icon Mordechai “Moti” Kirschenbaum passed away suddenly at the age of 76 on September 25. Immediately, the media competition was on for who could eulogize Kirschenbaum more dramatically and favorably.
Kirschenbaum left his mark on Israeli society and media. He was awarded the Israel Prize for Media Art in 1976. He was one of the founders of Israeli television and his special strength lay in his ability to present, direct and orchestrate satire on Israeli society. His successful career led to his appointment as director general of the Israel Broadcasting Authority in 1993 by communications minister Shulamit Aloni of the left-wing Meretz Party. However, as in many cases, the quality of his legacy is debatable.
Indirectly, Kirschenbaum is responsible for the establishment of Israel’s Media Watch. In the wake of the Oslo accords, one of us (EP) organized and participated in a demonstration in December 1993 attended by almost 100 academics, members of Professors for a Strong Israel, who protested the biased coverage of the accords by the IBA. Never before had such a large number of professors gathered together in Israel to protest over a political issue. Yet the demonstration, which took place directly across from the Israel TV building, in the street aptly named “Torah from Zion,” was not even mentioned in any of the IBA’s reports.
We met Kirschenbaum to demand an explanation and were told it was his policy not to cover demonstrations outside of the TV building so as to discourage such events, which he said disrupted the lives of the staff working there. He added that while we were complaining about the biased media coverage, so did prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. If everyone was complaining, he felt, he must be doing his job well. Finally, he noted that he had the big picture while we did not and, knowing fully what was going on in the IBA, he could be certain it was acting professionally.
This last comment served as one of the sparks which led to the formation of IMW. Israel did not have at that time any organization which consistently monitored the media not only qualitatively but quantitatively.
In a country which had only two TV stations and two national radio stations, this was not too difficult to carry out, and was an essential need. Without any checks and balances the media could skew any issue, and it did not hesitate to do so.
The demonstration of December 1993 was our first experience of Kirschenbaum’s dictatorial policies and his successful attempt to politicize the IBA. Indeed, Kirschenbaum’s tenure at the helm of the IBA was characterized by the stifling of any attempt to criticize the Rabin and Peres governments and the Oslo accords.
One of the central “news and views” shows at the time was Popolitika. The “discussion” on the screen revolved around the question of who could shout more. The program was hosted by Dan Margalit, who together with his regular panel members Tommy Lapid, Amnon Dankner and Yisrael Eichler were all in favor of the Oslo accords.
They were so in favor that prior to the 1996 elections, the Supreme Court ordered them to refrain from using their podium for the sake of political propaganda, an order that they ridiculed and violated. Where was Kirschenbaum? A second incident which involved the Supreme Court had to do with Amnon Abramovitch, then the premier commentator of Israeli TV, who also used his position to drum up support for the Oslo accords and to stifle any criticism. Israel’s Media Watch petitioned the Supreme Court and, contrary to a recent misleading statement of Abramovitch’s, the court upheld our brief – yet accepted Kirschenbaum’s claim that Abramovitch was balanced out by others “over time.”
In fact, this case was a clear victory for those forces that demanded fairness and balance in the public media, a principle which Abramovitch violates to this very day. However, our issue here is not Abramovitch but rather Kirschenbaum. His assertion was, to put it mildly, not precise. No one provided any balance to Abramovitch and in fact, a few years later, when Kirschenbaum was no longer director general, Abramovitch was forced to leave the IBA.
But these instances cannot compare to the IBA’s programming in the six weeks prior to the assassination of prime minister Rabin and in its immediate aftermath.
IBA TV produced a piece, orchestrated by IBA reporter Eitan Oren, depicting a swearing-in ceremony of the fictitious Eyal organization, whose leader, Avishai Raviv, was a Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) agent provocateur.
One of us (YM) realized the severity of this report and IMW immediately complained to the IBA. We did not know of course that Raviv was employed by the security services, but it was clear to us that the whole scene was orchestrated. Yet Kirschenbaum stood behind Oren and allowed a clip to be broadcast which indicated that assassination would not be outside the realm of possible actions for this organization. Had Kirschenbaum followed some basic journalistic principles, not only would he have canceled this infamous report, but would have gone to the police and demanded an immediate investigation. Yet, he did the opposite.
Prime minister Rabin was assassinated six weeks later.
Following this tragedy, Kirschenbaum orchestrated a week-long bout of programming which could not even be called one-sided. Rather it was what one might have expected from the Communist media when Stalin was in power. The Right was “guilty” of the assassination.
Religious people were attacked in the streets, yet the IBA would have nothing to do with allowing any attempt by the accused to defend themselves.
No less damning was the IBA’s reaction to the Arafat tapes affair.
In late January 1994, MK Benny Begin became aware of the existence of video footage of speeches by Yasser Arafat in which he expressly stated his intention to violate his commitment to peace with Israel. Begin repeatedly attempted to interest the IBA. As he later recalled, some four months passed before he was afforded air time on Channel 1. Even then the angle that interested the news editors was Shimon Peres’ claim that Begin was presenting footage that had been tampered with.
Kirschenbaum was also not forthcoming when it came to IBA finances. He fought against any attempt to open the IBA’s books to the public. His budget was not balanced and not surprisingly, the missing funds, to the tune of hundreds of millions of shekels, were always approved by the Rabin government. He also tried to minimize the powers of the ombudsman of the IBA.
His legacy then was a politicized IBA, one which manipulates the news according to the personal views of its heads and their political bosses. Fairness, professional journalism and balance were all lacking. With hindsight, one may argue that Kirschenbaum’s tenure as director general signaled the twilight era of the IBA. This is also part of his legacy. Like most leaders, Kirschenbaum made important contributions to the Israeli media, yet his failures were no less spectacular.The authors are vice chairman and chairman respectively of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imw.org.il).
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