Behind the Lines: Media myths

Accusing Netanyahu of ruining Israeli society is as demagogic as claiming he is an economic savior.

netanyahu 88 (photo credit: )
netanyahu 88
(photo credit: )
Three myths that have been perpetrated and perpetuated by the Israeli media are already being employed by the various parties for their election campaigns. • The right-wing myth: Gush Katif has been forgotten. The parties to the right of the Likud - and even some of the Likud leadership contenders - are trying to harness public sympathy for the 10,000 evacuated settlers of Gush Katif and Northern Samaria. To that end, they have fostered a myth - which has prevailed over the 100 days since disengagement - that the evacuees have been forsaken. As early as the final days of the withdrawal, when residents of Atzmona and Elei Sinai set up makeshift encampments, the message began to be disseminated by the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip that "now they will be forgotten." The media cooperated, perhaps suffering pangs of conscience over having been so supportive of disengagement. But forgotten? Who, exactly, has forgotten? The government? The public? The press? The press certainly has not forsaken the evacuees. Radio and TV news shows are full of stories on the tribulations of families who have lost their homes, breadwinners looking for new jobs and kids who are still dealing with the trauma. The newspapers are also still following the story. Haaretz even has a daily column that presents a different family confronting its new circumstances. The Jerusalem Post carries a regular news-feature series on the plight of the evacuees. Some, perhaps, could complain that the story is no longer front-page news. But the fact remains that the evacuated settlers are still receiving much more attention than larger under-privileged sectors of society. Nor has the government forgotten them. True, no one is about to give SELA - charged with dealing with resettling the evacuees - an award for its efficiency. But most of its shortcomings are those common to any bureaucracy. Not due to forgetfulness. As for the public, nothing has changed in that arena: Those who supported the settlers before disengagement are still behind them, and will probably vote accordingly; the rest haven't forgotten - they were indifferent to begin with.
  • The socioeconomic myth: Bibi Netanyahu caused poverty. One can't hear a Likud politician interviewed without him being asked, "How can you run against Amir Peretz under Netanyahu's leadership when he's responsible for the huge socioeconomic gaps?" This myth has been propagated by journalists wearing a mantle of "social responsibility." But no one has seriously tried to call them on it. This column doesn't deal with financial analysis, but you don't have to be an economist to know that its processes are complex and take much longer than the term of single finance minister to unfold. Poverty existed before Netanyahu - and the policy of encouraging people to get jobs, of reducing social benefits and lowering taxes for the business sector wasn't invented by Bibi. There is a world-wide conflict between the believers in a market-driven economy and social-democrats, each side with its own supporting data. It's much too early to call victory or defeat, something which economists and historians will be arguing for decades to come. The accusation, then, that Netanyahu ruined Israeli society is just as demagogic as the claim on the part of his champions that he is the country's economic savior. Not long ago, there was a real debate in the media between social-affairs reporters and financial commentators on whether Netanyahu was a heartless Thatcherite or a financial genius. At the moment it seems that the social welfarites have won the image war, making Bibi public enemy No.1 and Amir Peretz the nation's savior. Which leads us to the third myth.
  • The Peretz myth: Labor has come back to life. If you believe the media, Peretz's Labor is enjoying an incredible momentum. The party voted for him; he is surging in the polls; and tens of thousands of members are joining. The press is stoking these Peretz-mania-driven precepts. Yet, when subjected to objective scrutiny, each turns out to be baseless. Two factors contributed to Peretz's surprise victory in the Labor primaries: the low turnout of party members, and the fact that 18,000 members of Peretz's Am Echad party, as well as thousands of other new members, joined Labor in advance of the primaries. In other words, at least two thirds of Peretz's voters were not really Laborites. Shimon Peres's younger brother, Gigi, drew heavy fire this week when he used a bad historical analogy, Franco's North-African Phalangists, but he had a valid point when he accused Peretz of stealing the party. Nor do the polls show a major shift towards Peretz. Labor and Am Echad received 22 Knesset seats in the last elections. The most optimistic polls now give Labor 26-27 seats, a small gain that is coming almost entirely from shrinking Meretz and Shinui. Peretz has still failed to attract a significant number of voters from the right side of the political divide, without which he will never be prime minister. Even the 20,000 new members, who joined Labor in the last couple of weeks, prove nothing. Labor re-opened membership for a limited period to enable parliamentary candidates to sign up their supporters in preparation for next month's primaries - and all the wannabe MKs are recruiting like mad. The same thing would be happening no matter who had been elected as Labor leader. But that doesn't bother Peretz's eager cheerleaders in the press. NO JOURNALIST has done more to establish the second and third of these myths than Shelly Yachimovich, Peretz's latest star acquisition. To her credit, Yachimovich never concealed her personal agenda or the political views that motivated her to support and ensconce these myths in the public's awareness. Her decision this week to leave the media and plunge into the political swamp has caused many to wonder whether there shouldn't be a "cooling-off-period" law requiring journalists to take a break before running for Knesset - similar to that which already exists for senior generals and other officials. On the surface, there is a lot of merit to proposing such a cooling-off period. Even Yachimovich said she was uncomfortable with the swift transfer. This is because a senior journalist can improve his or her electoral prospects in advance by providing "broadcast bribery" and favorable coverage to certain politicians, and helping prospective parties by influencing public opinion. Yachimovich obviously was busy doing both for years. But the proposal has two major failings. First, it is simply impossible to implement. How does one define a senior journalist in need of "cooling off"? When does a junior reporter or occasional columnist become an agenda-setter? Journalism is one of the most unregulated professions. You don't need a license to practice it; nor could every Government Press Office card-holder be considered a journalist. Every now and then, politicians play with the idea of drafting a law that would subject journalists to some kind of regulatory body. This is a ridiculous idea, contrary to the role of a free press in a democracy. Furthermore, any effort to create an artificial boundary between media and politics distorts reality. The concept of the "objective journalist" is a fiction. If a reporter is intelligent and has convictions, he will also have a political viewpoint that can't be separated from his work. The most we can expect from him is to be fair. Aside from the fact that Yachimovich's move make politics much more interesting, it should be blessed for reminding us that every journalist is also a potential - or already closet - politician. As a society reliant on the media for its information, we should be aware of the way in which the political tendencies of the people providing us that information influence its validity.