Behind the Lines: Media complicity in mouth-shut campaigns

The results of the two political races that took place this week prove once again that a candidate can thumb his nose at the local media and get away with it.

barak wins 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
barak wins 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
British Prime Minister Tony Blair used one of his last public appearances before leaving 10 Downing Street to launch a blistering attack on the press. The media, he said this week, "is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits," and has distorted the ability of politicians to convey their message to the public. "There will often be as much interpretation of what a politician is saying as there is coverage of them actually saying it," charged Blair. Perhaps now that his political career in the UK is drawing to an end, he could be persuaded to restart it here. The Israeli press, despite its ferocious image, is nowhere near as hostile. The results of the two political races that took place this week prove once again that a candidate can thumb his nose at the local media and get away with it. Ehud Barak won the Labor primaries, despite running what was in effect a totally silent campaign. He steadfastly refused to give any interviews, and aside from a couple of scripted press conferences in which questions were not allowed, focused his campaign on closed meetings with party members. All the press was offered were off-record briefings and spin. Whenever a TV camera cornered him, he just repeated his mantra: "You [the voters] should just ask yourselves whom you want to see as defense minister, who can beat Netanyahu in the elections, and who can lead the nation to peace." The other candidates all gave interviews incessantly, and were prepared to hold televised debates, but Barak refused to take any part in this. The Shimon Peres campaign was run in a similar fashion. For at least half a year, he continued to maintain that he was not concerned with the presidency, while a team of the country's most seasoned political operators were shoring up support on his behalf. He chose the very last possible moment to announce his candidacy - two weeks before the vote - after giving only one interview on Yair Lapid's Channel 2 talk-show (though to call this televisual love-fest an interview is a total corruption of the term). The normally loquacious Peres went to ground, content to allow the other two contenders, Reuven Rivlin and Collette Avital, the entire media platform. A request by the Knesset channels to hold a three-way debate wasn't even answered by his aides. The precedent was set, of course, by former prime minister Ariel Sharon, who ran an identical course in the 2001 and 2003 general elections. Sharon refused to give interviews or participate in debates, and limited his public utterances to a few carefully-crafted statements that he read from printed cards (with large letters so he wouldn't have to wear glasses) put in front of him by his aides. And it worked: The firebrand who had always been ready to deliver provocative quotes was suddenly house-trained. Senior journalists who had been estranged from Sharon for decades were invited to convivial meetings, on the condition that nothing be quoted. The angry general and former pariah was repackaged and branded as a national grandfather and went on to win two landslides. IN NO other western democracy could such an approach have succeeded. In the United States, all the candidates have to suffer the media's attention. Front-runners are forced to participate in multiple debates, sharing equal time with the no-hopers and being grilled by skilled moderators, as well as fielding surprise questions from the audience. If Hillary Clinton or Rudy Giuliani had tried to evade the media circus in any way, they would immediately have been pilloried in the press and most likely have seen their leads in the polls evaporate. But in Israel, these tactics - while perhaps frowned upon in op-ed columns - enabled practitioners to receive favorable treatment in the overall coverage, while rivals took fire for every gaffe and misstep. The three silent campaigns have a common mastermind, Reuven Adler. The veteran advertising agency chief, an old friend of Sharon's, was the one to persuade him to change his ways after he replaced Netanyahu as Likud Chairman in 1999. Adler and his younger team members cut Sharon off from the media, with which he had always enjoyed an open and combative relationship, and forced him to stick to the message. Adler's strategy was threefold: Keep the candidate quiet; limit the platform to simple messages which are to be repeated through all open and hidden channels; and swathe the campaign in non-threatening, bright, blue-and-red colors. Adler's graphic signature, which dominated all the Sharon campaign materials, was evident in Barak's race and even on the "letters" that appeared in recent days in the newspapers, signed by a long list of celebrities, calling upon Knesset members to vote for Peres. The objective in all cases was devastatingly simple: not to allow any real debate on policy issues or the candidate's personality and record, and instead to present him as the natural choice for the job - to recast the controversial politician as a figure of consensus, the inevitable candidate. This strategy, which Ami Ayalon, in the last general elections coined "Adlerism," could never have succeeded if the press had highlighted the evasive tactics instead of going along with them. Main headlines such as: "Sharon backs out of debate," or "Barak refuses to answer," repeated over days, would have forced them out of cover. But Israeli journalism, which lacks nothing in cynicism, prefers - for some unknown reason - to dissect spin in analysis columns and via pundits, while leaving the headlines (which is all most of the electorate sees) free of any sophistication. IT WASN'T always like this. Israeli election campaigns, for all their faults, used to be about substance, with the media discussing the details of the competing parties' manifestos. That changed in 1996, when Netanyahu ran the first American-style campaign, using stark, graphic images and simple repetitive slogans. One of the main operatives in the Netanyahu team was Eyal Arad - since then a bitter enemy of Netanyahu - who went on to partner Adler in the Sharon, Kadima and Peres campaigns. It wouldn't surprise me to find out that he had also been giving discreet advice to Barak over the last few months. Ironically, the politicians who were the beneficiaries of the new-style of politicking have in turn also been its victims. Netanyahu, the pioneer, was savaged in the last general elections by the Adler-Arad machine, with the Likud under his leadership sinking to its worst result ever. In 1999, Barak was the first candidate to refuse to appear on a television debate, leaving Netanyahu and Yitzhak Mordehai to savage each other on screen. The empty chair signifying Barak's no-show caused him no damage, and he swept to power two weeks later - only to be obliterated in 2001 by the Sharon stealth bomber. This time it was Barak who wanted the debate, but Sharon's team resolutely refused. Barak had learned from those mistakes when he made his unbelievable comeback this week, as did Peres, who was the original victim in 1996. Adler and Arad failed to control only one of their candidates. When Ehud Olmert assumed the Kadima leadership after Sharon's stroke, they counseled exactly the same tactics. Olmert managed to stay quiet for a few weeks and refused to debate rivals Netanyahu and Amir Peretz, who were both eager to show up. But before long, he reverted to form and, against his team's advice, gave a series of interviews in which he unveiled his "realignment" plan. In unscripted speeches, he made statements like, "The elections have already been decided," which made his advisers tear their hair out. Olmert and Kadima went on to win the elections, but his controversial plan and statements doubtlessly caused at least part of the huge majority predicted previously by the polls to dissolve. The coverage of the Labor primaries and the presidential race don't bode well for a shift in the media's attitude. A first step towards growing a backbone could be a joint decision of the main TV networks and newspapers before the next elections to punish candidates who refuse to debate, with limited and even negative coverage. But the deep enmity between the various media outlets, as well as their failure to cooperate on virtually any issue of journalistic interest, offer little hope for such a venture.