2011 – the fear, the farce and the faux pas

The press almost always reacts, but often it overreacts. That has a strong impact on the perceived importance of a story.

abbas at UN_311 reuters (photo credit: REUTERS)
abbas at UN_311 reuters
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I love the end of December when media outlets across the world put out their year-ender retrospectives. The look back at the past 365 days gives everyone a last opportunity to remember what the world has been through, and in 2011 the list of major events seems particularly long.
The flip side of these pieces are the crystal ball predictions of what awaits us in the next calendar year. I have to admit that I am not a fan of these prophecies, which more often than not turn out to be wrong. Is there anyone out there who remembers that at the end of 2010, many predicted that the United States would leave the stage as the world’s leader?
The problem is that even when stories are ongoing, the media and the various experts who are trotted out to make forecasts are often talking out of another part of their mouths. I would like to take a closer look at three key stories, all of which garnered major coverage in the Israeli media in 2011 and are prime examples of my point.
1. The Fear – The Netanyahu/Barak plan to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Back in October, Yediot Aharonot, the country’s top Hebrew newspaper, splashed a headline on the front page of its weekend edition. Loosely translated, it read “Atomic Pressure” and excerpted a supplement article by Nachum Barnea, widely considered the top military correspondent in the country.
The article discussed how Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak might be planning to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities without the backing of the heads of security forces and, no less importantly, with zero public discourse. Yediot even decided to put in the sub-headline a timeline for the perhaps- being-planned assault, writing, “Maybe before the winter?”
Just to be clear, the paper didn’t present this as a “teaser” to attract readers to the article. It was presented as the top news of the day. The actual article did not cite any names or basic facts needed to corroborate who was saying what.
The media, the country and even many international news outlets went crazy with conjecture. Broadcast channels and newspapers dragged out everyone who could be considered an authority on the issue and analyzed the story from every angle imaginable for weeks.
The dilemma with Iran hasn’t really gone away, but before the Barnea story it had been on the back burner. Was this a clever way to bring the issue to the fore, a warning to the fanatics in Tehran or something else entirely? One way or another, the Israeli media failed and gave the story more stock that it deserved.
2. The Farce – The Palestinian strategy to declare a state unilaterally at the United Nations. For months, the Israeli media discussed the possible scenarios for the coming September. The floodgates really opened in May, when protesters from the West Bank, Gaza, and even Lebanon and Syria tried to infiltrate Israel. It was a good PR stunt by our enemies, and we fell for it. This, we were told, is what will happen if a Palestinian state is declared.
The media covered all the threats and counter-threats made by just about everyone. For many people here, it was a time to show just how far we were willing to go to make sure there would be no Palestinian state under these circumstances.
So what happened? Nothing. The matter didn’t even come to a vote at the Security Council. They’re just discussing when the proposal will be brought up – if ever. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas made his hateful speech on the UN floor, which, if anything, took him one step further from statehood. Netanyahu got up and made his point, trying to show that despite his right-wing coalition government, Israel was still open-minded about a Palestinian state and was ready to renew talks the next day. I don’t know how many actually believed him. I even believe that initially there was a demand for both parties to get back to the negotiating table by year’s end.
But we all knew the outcome. The worst-case scenario was an American veto. US President Barack Obama, as well as congressmen from both parties, said they would not let the Palestinian move pass. If that was the case, why did the media waste so much time and energy debating the issue, thereby making it a bigger story than it really was?
3. The Faux Pas – The country’s social protests. In 2011, hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets in the nation’s biggest protest movement ever, which targeted our lopsided socioeconomic system. The main targets were the high prices of real estate and the inequality of the financial burdens on the middle class.
The media took on a love/hate relationship with the movement. At first, it was dismissed as a group of left-wing anarchists not worthy of public attention. As the days went by and the turnout grew, the tune started to change. Many understood that they had totally misread the playing field. At one point, I felt the media were starting to back the movement and at the same time trying to bring it down.
Some journalists chose to pick on some minor point regarding the leadership and its intent, or constantly ask the question, “Has the effort petered out yet?” or, “Will the next demonstration be a flop?” Today, however, the media have now all but buried the movement.
AS I wrote before, I don’t like to make predictions, but I’m going to take a stab at one, as I think the media got it wrong once again. The demonstrations might be over for now, but the concept that was dubbed “social justice” is far from dead. The entire episode has revealed a source of political power that has been either absent or disregarded.
I believe that a political party wise enough to tap that power will get into a position to make some major changes in the national agenda, instead of continuing the shell game the government is now playing in its attempt to redistribute a paltry percentage of our taxes.
Considering the influence the media have in democratic countries, one must keep in mind that while retrospectives are a good thing, events should also be viewed in the context of how they were covered and what information was disseminated. The press almost always reacts, but often it overreacts. That has a strong impact on the perceived importance of a story. I’m sure we’ll be seeing many similar examples in 2012.
The writer is an independent media consultant and a former producer at the Fox News Channel in New York.
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