Behind the Lines: Don't confuse the reader with the facts

This isn't a simple case of journalistic carelessness.

anshel 88 (photo credit: )
anshel 88
(photo credit: )
It has never been the purpose of this column to collect and collate the mistakes of other journalists. We work on tight deadlines, and errors come with the territory. But sometimes mistakes are indicative of something more profound. One such mistake appeared in last Friday's Yediot Aharonot. Political commentator Sima Kadmon analyzed a poll conducted among the settlers. On the basis of its results, she tried to determine the sentiment of different groups following the clash at Amona. One stream she described as saying that "these are the death-throes of anti-religious Zionism," since "in 10 or 15 years, the majority in Israel will anyway be either religious or ultra-Orthodox," because "today, most first-graders attend religious or haredi schools." This statistic didn't sound right to me when I read it. Indeed, a quick inquiry with the Education Ministry supplied the correct figures. Kadmon was wrong. There are 88,000 first-graders in the Jewish sector - 51,000 attend state-secular schools; 17,000 in state-religious schools; and 20,000 in various haredi streams. In other words, it is clear that the secular majority will remain stable for at least a few more decades. Less clear is how an experienced reporter like Kadmon published a "fact" that can so easily be proven incorrect. I found the answer to this by reading a feature in the same issue by Gideon Maron and Oded Shalom. The duo had organized a dialogue between two women who had been at Amona. Neta Sternberg, formerly of Netzarim, had been one of the thousands of young demonstrators trying to block the demolition of the outposts nine houses. Lital Eisenbaum had been one of the mounted police who charged on horseback into the crowd. Sternberg had one interesting thing to say: "You should realize one thing. In the long-run, we're going to win. We have patience. Slowly the power of the national-religious community will grow. Take our birth-rate, for example. In the first grade, there are already 50 percent religious." There's that erroneous fact again, which even appeared as a pull-quote. I'm convinced that the same mistake didn't appear twice by coincidence. I have no idea where Sternberg got her data. She probably heard it from someone and believed it because she wanted to. But Kadmon is another story. Before writing her own article, she must have read Maron's and Shalom's feature prior to publication. Her keen reporter's instincts sniffed out the pertinent detail in Sternberg's words, and it found its way into her piece. This isn't a simple case of journalistic carelessness. The willingness of both women to believe a "fact" that doesn't stand scrutiny belies something much deeper. It would be difficult to find two Israelis with as opposite political and personal beliefs than Kadmon and Sternberg. But, at least in one sense, they share a common interest. There are groups on the Right and on the Left who are extremely interested in portraying the relationship between the settlers and the rest of the country as "us" and "them." The Left does so in order to justify the future uprooting of settlements. The Right is trying to justify the use of violence against the security forces. To foster that feeling of total separation between settlers and state, both sides are using terminology that used to be reserved for Arabs and occasionally haredim: the "ticking time-bomb of birth-rate," commonly referred to as the "demographic problem." Now - discourse has it - it is the settlers who are beginning to threaten the welfare of Israeli society through childbirth. This idea suits the Left just fine. But there are many settlers who seem to be getting used to and even beginning to enjoy the feeling. And neither side wants the facts to get in the way.