Behind the lines: News reporters' political views

Israeli media lost their moral claim to act as non-involved bystanders in the upcoming elections.

anshel 88 (photo credit: )
anshel 88
(photo credit: )
The Labor Party came up with a cute gimmick for its radio campaign last week. It set up a virtual "Labor studio" in which one of its top candidates, former radio and TV star Shelly Yacimovich, interviewed party leader Amir Peretz. The next morning on Army Radio's morning show, political reporter Nadav Perry observed cynically that "Yacimovich is basically doing the same thing here that she did before she moved to politics." Indeed, it's hard to find anything to differentiate between the "propaganda" interviews and those she conducted with Peretz before her defection from journalism. To Yacimovich's credit, she didn't hide her beliefs or obscure her agenda for years in the media; in the past she even confessed to voting for the ultra-left Hadash. She was a rare exception to the rule. Very few journalists are prepared to reveal their political preferences. But that doesn't stop anyone from guessing where their hearts are. There used to be a saying that if the only ballot box was in the Yediot/Ma'ariv/Ha'aretz/Channel 1/Israel Radio news room, the left-wing Meretz party would be forming the next coalition. The secret ballot is, of course, a fundamental democratic safeguard against voter intimidation and bribery. But journalists are not your average voter. A very small percentage of the electorate takes part in political rallies or actually meets the candidates in person. Almost no one takes the time to read party manifestos, and the political ads on television get low ratings. In an age of political non-involvement, the influence of journalists on voters' perceptions of the political agenda, as well as their power to interpret reality and explain the parties' actions and intentions, become crucial factors in the decision-making process of every voter. Those who still believe in the old-fashioned notion of an objective press will no doubt object to any demand of journalists to confess to their own political leanings. But, of course, human beings are not objective and only a robot can disconnect professional conduct from private beliefs. The most we can and should expect from journalists is fairness. Total objectivity is impossible. Last year, right-wingers were incensed when Channel 1 anchor Haim Yavin's documentary series on the settlers revealed his negative attitude towards them, and they demanded his dismissal. I thought then that the Right should be grateful to Yavin: ever since the screening of his series, no intelligent viewer is going to take objectively any broadcast made by Yavin on the subject. But Yavin is another rare example, and at the end of a long and lucrative career as "Mr Television," he can afford to expose his views. Besides Yavin, only a handful of journalists, mainly veteran stars of firmly established status and columnists who don't actually report hard news, come clean about their political views. If journalists were to share their votes with the public, it would have three main benefits. It would enable readers and viewers to be more critical of the news of the coverage and analyses on offer; reporters and commentators would be more cautious and circumspect, knowing that biased reporting would be connected to their own beliefs; and the managers of news organizations would be able to ensure that their journalists aren't enlisted for any cause. It would also influence their hiring policy in order to make sure that their team of journalists didn't represent only one side of the political debate. A major criticism of this proposal is that it would tie the hands of the media and limit journalists' freedom. I don't think there is any basis for this concern. As it is, everyone tries to guess the political biases of reporters, and many have already been labeled, often erroneously. It would be better if everything was on the table. We would know the opinion of the opinion leaders, no one would have to apologize, and journalists could carry on working in an easier atmosphere. There are still two major objections to a general demand that journalists come out of the closet with their convictions. First of all, journalists also need protection, like other voters. I have worked on left-wing and right-wing papers, and on both sides met reporters who hid their personal views, out of fear of harming their career prospects in a cut-throat business where an unpopular political identity can be ruinous. The other objection is that better-known journalists, those with celebrity status, have an even greater influence over the public, and publishing their voting intentions might be considered undue intervention in the political process. But if all journalists brought their politics out into the open, it would be much more difficult to stop someone's promotion because of his or her beliefs. And as to the influence of journalist-celebrities, which they already use discreetly under the surface, clear political identities would help the public "read" the covert signals much better. To a great degree, the Israeli media have lost their moral claim to act as non-involved bystanders in the upcoming elections. Most journalists and news organizations have tilted in favor of Kadima and enlisted in the campaign against Amir Peretz and Binyamin Netanyahu's candidacy. I'm writing this not only as a journalist but also as a probable Kadima voter. With the exception of Channel 10 and some of the Ha'aretz writers (on the Left), the mainstream media in Israel have been working over the last few months mainly in favor of Ehud Olmert and before that for Ariel Sharon. If that ballot box was placed today in the news room, Kadima would receive even more votes than what the polls are currently predicting. This is of course their democratic right, but the public also has a right to an explanation as to how and why this affects their journalism.