What? Us apologize?

Channel 10’s apology could have been a watershed, a turning point at which responsible journalists say let’s stop and think about where we’ve gone wrong.

sheldon adelson 298 (photo credit: Judy Siegel)
sheldon adelson 298
(photo credit: Judy Siegel)
Just how unusual is it for members of the media to issue apologies? In the US, at least, the answer is not very.
In late June, Chris Wallace of FOX News apologized for asking US presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann whether she thought she was a “flake.” Last September, Michael Catherwood, on the E! gossip show The Daily 10, quipped that openly gay singer Adam Lambert “probably wouldn’t have too bad a time” in jail. He was quickly forced to apologize. In July, Reuters columnist David Cay Johnston announced on air that “there’s no excuse ... this is a big screw-up on my part” after proclaiming that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.
had received $4.7 billion in tax refunds from the US government when the truth was the opposite. Johnston took full responsibility, informing his readers, “I apologize ... [I was] 100 percent dead wrong.”
In late November 2004, the highly respected Dan Rather resigned as anchor of CBS Evening News after previously admitting he had made “fundamental flaws” in a documentary report on President George W. Bush’s military service. CNN journalist and editor Octavia Nasr was reprimanded for a Twitter comment she published, and then formally asked to step down. National Public Radio’s Juan Williams was fired for airing unacceptable opinions.
These cases are not unique, and indeed why should they be? What else should be expected of a professional who has erred or fallen short of the standards that his audience expects and his employers demand? But what about the Israeli media? THIS PAST week there was a big brouhaha when Channel 10 was forced to apologize to Sheldon Adelson. In a 25 minute “documentary” broadcast last January, Channel 10 claimed Adelson had not payed a debt of $400,000 for services rendered. It also claimed Adelson’s license for operating casinos in Las Vegas had not been obtained via “standard” legal means. On Friday night, Channel 10 unequivocally apologized for both statements, admitting they were erroneous. In response, Channel 10 news executive director Reudor Benziman and Friday night news program editor Ruth Yovel resigned, claiming the apology was forced upon the channel by its owners.
Israel’s self-appointed media ethics and democracy guru, Moshe Negbi, referred to the apology on his Sunday evening Reshet Bet radio program: “The central threat to freedom of the press and to the public’s right to know … is the censorship imposed by powerful economic powers. …we should no longer discuss freedom of the press but the freedom of the journalist. …it is due to the courage and honesty of those that resigned that the public knows that the apology was imposed ...
we must be concerned that in the future, journalists will refrain from publishing items which would not be appreciated by their bosses.”
Unions representing Israeli journalists promptly petitioned Israel’s Press Council president, Justice Dalia Dorner, to discuss the issue. They were concerned over this “critical junction in the violation of professional and ethical standards in a central broadcasting organ.”
Channel 10’s Raviv Druker, famous for his recent exposes on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Opposition Leader Tzipi Livni, initiated a petition signed by 140 Channel 10 journalists stating: “We believe that the channel has no right to exist unless each viewer knows that he hears from the channel 10 news corporation employees what they think and not what was imposed upon them from above. An apology should never be forced on a media organ.”
Avner Hofstein, the journalist behind the Adelson “documentary,” writes in his Facebook wall: “I am a frightened journalist. I get up in the morning, run to my mailbox shaking ... check it to see whether I have received a letter ... which is very very frightening and official. ...I go to sleep with butterflies in my stomach thanking the lord that today I was not sued.”
One wonders whether Hofstein experienced the same level of concern before airing his documentary.
THERE ARE, of course, Israeli journalists who are honest and courageous enough to admit error.
Globes columnist Matti Golan, a recipient of Israel’s Media Criticism Prize (awarded by Israel’s Media Watch) had this to say: “They [Channel 10s journalists] have met with government ministers and MK’s to persuade them to provide the channel with economic incentives. Today, they complain about pressure from the owners, but isn’t this what they themselves did when they lobbied the politicians? ...When a journalist requests and a politician gives, the journalist becomes indebted to the politician, a clear waiver of journalistic freedom, much worse than giving in to the owner’s demands.”
News1 publisher and editor Yoav Yitzchak, another recipient of Israel’s Media Criticism Prize, said, “ ...It is sad to note that even able journalists [Benziman, Yovel] have seemingly not yet internalized that publishing a correction and an apology is not ‘folding in,’ if indeed they erred honestly, but the right way – and a legal responsibility – to correct a wrong. To err is only human, but publishing irresponsible lies without advance checking, as they did, is a dangerous act which endangers the very existence of Channel 10.”

Israel’s media does apologize at times, especially after being threatened with libel suits. The typical apology is a small item on page 22.
A court fined Ilana Dayan NIS 300,000 for her libel against Captain R, yet even today, she continues as if nothing happened. Army Radio’s Razi Barkai did not apologize for his lobbying of politicians to allow advertisements on the station, thus exposing himself to political pressure.
Benziman and friends could have apologized immediately for the erroneous items while upholding those that were true. Channel 10’s apology could have been a watershed, a turning point at which responsible journalists say let’s stop and think about where we’ve gone wrong. Israel’s media needs to accept that ethical reporting is more important than the “scoop.” An ethical media is one that respects the human rights and dignity of every person irrespective of social standing, personal fortune and political power.
Eli Pollak and Yisrael Medad are, respectively, Chairman and Vice-Chairman of Israel’s Media Watch.