Behind the lines: In the air, on the air

Businessmen and politicians realized that by threatening and legal attrition, they can free themselves from media scrutiny.

nochi dankner 88  (photo credit: )
nochi dankner 88
(photo credit: )
It would seem that the heavy-handed attempt by Israir Airlines owner Nuhi Dankner to prevent the screening last week of a report on the near miss of one of the company's planes at JFK Airport boomeranged. Dankner's intervention caused a major scandal, and despite his efforts, the report will be aired next week, after all. Personally, however, I believe Dankner actually gained from the fracas. For the uninitiated, a short precis of the events. To bolster the new season of its weekly show, Uvda [Fact], presented by Ilana Dayan, Channel 2 broadcast promos promising to expose a cover-up for what could have been a major air disaster. Israir, which is currently trying to break El Al's monopoly on the Tel-Aviv-New York line, went on "Red Alert." Dankner applied pressure to have the report canned. Initially, his efforts proved successful, when the board of "Keshet," Channel 2's license holder, decided against showing the report. Following the board's decision, the reporters of Uvda, lead by Dayan, resigned. After being assured that the report would indeed by broadcast - albeit at a later date - they returned to work. The ruckus didn't end there. The chairman of the board of Keshet, Muzzi Wertheim, published an op-ed in Yediot Aharonot on Sunday in which he said that Keshet had made a mistake in buying Uvda, claiming that the show's variety of hard-hitting journalism had no place on commercial television. What makes this particularly interesting is that Wertheim is not only a major Keshet shareholder, but he is also the owner of Coca Cola in Israel, and therefore has extensive business dealings with Dankner - who also owns supermarkets. The latest development was an announcement by Israir that it is no longer opposed to the airing of the report. In response to the whole affair, both the press and the Second Channel Council - in charge of regulating commercial TV - have been severely critical of Keshet. THOUGH DANKNER lost the battle, he won the war. True, his image has been tainted by now being considered an anti-freedom-of-speech bully; but the damaging report he fought to suppress is going to be aired anyway. And what he has done is bought himself immunity. Consider this: Are dozens of intrepid reporters now probing Dankner's other business affairs for more scandals? Or is it more likely that the next time embarrassing information about one of his companies comes up at an editorial meeting, the response will be: "That's Dankner's. Leave it alone; it isn't worth the hassle"? I'm sorry to say it's probably the latter. A lawyer once told me that "when a journalist starts asking awkward questions, I immediately send a libel-warning letter to the reporter, his editor, manager, publisher and every director on the board. They should worry and take responsibility." The lawyer, now a prominent MK, knew what he was doing: An editor has enough troubles without receiving phone-calls from shareholders. And in many cases, he will prefer to lay off a touchy issue and deal instead with topics that don't cause him so much grief. Businessmen and politicians have realized that by constant threatening and legal attrition, they can free themselves from media scrutiny. This doesn't always work. Eli Landau, the former chairman of the Israel Electric Corporation, failed to prevent the publication of a negative report on him in Yediot a few months ago. But the pressure he put on the paper's bosses was one catalyst of the firing two weeks ago of Nir Behar, Yediot's "7 Days" magazine editor. In other words, the piece appeared, but a different message accompanied it: If you want to survive in this profession, you've got to know whom not to piss off. ONE OF the more serious reasons given initially for not broadcasting the Israir report was its timing - just before the critical stage in the company's battle to gain a permanent license to fly to New York. That fact, of course, actually makes it even more crucial for us to learn as much as we can about the company. But the beleaguered airline could use a different claim. It could say that if similar cover-ups ever occurred within El Al, they wouldn't have been exposed by the press. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that a scandal within a company like El Al, which spends many millions of shekels every year on media advertising and plies journalists with free tickets and business-class upgrades, would receive proper journalistic treatment. Which brings us to the broader problem: the Israeli media's serious lack of investigative reporting - brave expos s, aimed at powerful politicians and big business. In the last few years, such exposes have only appeared regularly on Uvda, in "7 Days," and occasionally on Channel 10. An aspiring journalist has good reason not to become an investigative reporter. The hours are long and arduous; the work, which can take months, sometimes doesn't pan out; and the threat of libel suits makes the endeavor that much more painstaking. Even when the desired result is achieved, the reporter and his editors can become the focus of intense legal and financial pressure, applied by a plethora of advertisers, lawyers and lobbyists. At this point, support from the publisher or shareholders becomes critical. If support is withheld, the report is chucked and resignations usually follow. The chronic lack of funds in the Israeli media is also at fault. When newspapers are drastically cutting their budgets, they cannot afford full-time investigative teams, whose work is not only of questionable circulation-figure value, but which could cause problems with big advertisers. It should not be surprising, then, that with the exception of veterans like Yediot's Motti Gilat, most prominent investigative journalists in Israel have left the field altogether.