Behind the lines: Media immunity

Did the media pressure Sharon to return to work earlier than he should have?

news cameras 88 (photo credit: )
news cameras 88
(photo credit: )
This column was originally written a couple of hours before the news agenda was irrevocably changed by Ariel Sharon's massive stroke. The prime minister was rushed to the hospital at 10:15 p.m., when the front pages of Thursday's papers had already been prepared. There were only a couple of hours at editors' disposal to adjust the stories, and information was scarce. Initially, for the first hour or so, it appeared that this was a second minor incident, but toward midnight, when Hadassah Director General Dr. Shlomo Mor-Yosef told reporters that it was "major," rumors of doom began circulating. All three major Hebrew papers were put to bed with worst-case-scenario headlines: Haaretz and Ma'ariv had Sharon "Fighting for his Life;" Yediot Aharonot went with "The Last Battle." As I write these words, Sharon's fate still remains in the balance. The above headlines, however, do not. They are an exact reflection of the atmosphere in the Hadassah courtyard during those late-night hours. As did dozens of other reporters, I, too, spent half the night at the "vigil" in that small square outside the emergency room entrance. Between midnight and 1a.m., there was a distinct feeling of a death-watch. And we expected a spokesman to emerge at any moment to make a final announcement. Each time one of the prime minister's advisers stuck his nose out of the building, a bevy of camera crews rushed to the fenced-off area. But all we received were laconic announcements from Mor-Yosef. The fact that Sharon's staff allowed only the doctor to brief the press indicated more than anything else that there was no longer a political angle to Sharon's condition. By 1a.m., the print journalists' job was done, as the last editions were closed. The radio and TV reporters, on the other hand, had to keep broadcasting throughout the night. With no information coming from the operating theater, however, they had no choice but to regurgitate the same news every 15 minutes. The networks tried to compensate for the lack of material by having various medical experts provide professional analyses. This turned out to be problematic, since serious doctors can't give any diagnoses without knowing the basic facts of a patient's condition. Nevertheless, the television beast had to be fed. What viewers were left with was a mass of conjecture which left us none the wiser. Health coverage has never been a forte of most of the Israeli media - which Wednesday night's bumbling proved. Since the press will never regulate itself, perhaps the medical profession should adopt some guidelines about what a doctor should be allowed to say on the air about a case with which he has no first-hand knowledge. A seriously pertinent question the media should be asking itself today is what part it played in the pressure that pushed Sharon to return to work earlier than he should have. Following his first minor stroke almost three weeks ago, there was a clamor to reveal the PM's medical records. Sharon partially accepted, which resulted in a briefing last week to make some, but not all, of his medical information public. Even more effort was invested by Sharon's spin-doctors: to show him vigorously back on the job - that he had fully returned to the country's helm. The message was that the stroke wasn't more than a hiccup. The press created an atmosphere in which Sharon had to prove he was healthy, and gladly published whatever statement to this effect his office threw their way. Perhaps we shouldn't have been so approving. Perhaps we should have taken Sharon to task for not taking a good rest. Prior to the stroke, Wednesday's main news story was what had seemed at first to be new revelations in the Cyril Kern investigation. At the moment, this sounds like ancient history, but since it was one of the key topics of what was probably Sharon's last week in power, it's interesting to see how the media treated it at the height of his popularity. The Israeli media have been accused, with a certain degree of justification, of coddling Sharon over the last couple of years, in spite of serious allegations of corruption against him and his sons. For quite some time now, there has been an almost subconscious tug-of-war over the media's soul - with one side believing that for the good of the nation, Sharon's power must be preserved, and the other trying to bring to the fore every suspicion and criticism of Sharon for a range of reasons. Some of the latter are politically motivated, from both the left and the right. Others see themselves as fighters against corruption in high places. Still others are merely "sportsmen," frustrated with a one-sided election, who want to liven things up a bit. These two conflicting attitudes were evident following Channel 10's scoop on Tuesday night, according to which the police claimed to have "evidence implicating the prime minister's family in the receipt of three-million dollars." The following day, this report was the opening headline of all broadcasts and newspapers. Yet it was accompanied by a wealth of analysis and commentary claiming that actually there was no new evidence against Sharon - and that it was only a police ploy for obtaining a search-warrant from court. Neither side did justice to the story. Those who belittled it were right in saying that there was probably nothing really new. But it was important to remind the public that the investigation into the Sharon family is ongoing, and that the police still suspect the prime minister of having accepted a bribe. Those who tried to hype the report obviously blew it out of proportion, which did damage to their cause. Next time they come up with something really serious, the public is going to think that they are crying wolf. In any case, by Wednesday afternoon, this story had almost totally dissipated, and Sharon, buoyant in the latest poll giving his Kadima Party 42 MKs, seemed immune to anything and everything. Then came the hemorrhage. [email protected]