Behind the Lines: The press's false prophecies

Not long ago, top Israeli pundits predicted that lasting peace with Lebanon, Palestinians was imminent.

anshel pfeffer 298.88 (photo credit: )
anshel pfeffer 298.88
(photo credit: )
On my desk for the last few weeks has been sitting an amusing little Hebrew booklet, the translation of whose title is, They Promised a Dove. (This title is a take-off on a popular song from the early Nineties, from the perspective of the generation of children conceived after the Yom Kippur War, who are blaming their parents for not having brought peace.) Like a box of Belgian chocolates in which one roots around and keeps finding new and better fillings, I've taken delight in delving into this simple, yet subversive, booklet again and again, coming up with new pearls with each reading. Its authors, seasoned journalists Haggai Segal and Uri Orbach, are far from being like the naive children in the song. But, like those children, what they are doing is pointing their fingers at the naked emperor. (Disclosure: I'm on friendly terms with both Segal and Orbach, and have worked with the former on a number of occasions.) The booklet is a collection of confident "prophecies," spouted by many top Israeli pundits, during the period between the May 2000 IDF withdrawal from the security zone in Lebanon and this summer's war. All had predicted that lasting peace and quiet on the Lebanese and Palestinian fronts were imminent - and that retreating from Lebanon, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank were wise and inevitable steps. Great quotes abound in this book. But I have two favorites. The first is from Haaretz oracle Ari Shavit on June 24, 2005 - 13 months before the war: "Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon taught whomever did not understand this before the importance of a recognized border for the security of Israel. Since 2000, the strength of the invisible wall of international legitimacy has been proven on the Lebanese border. This invisible wall is what is defending northern Israel today. This invisible war is what is preventing even a terrorist organization like Hizbullah from firing its thousands of long-range Katyushas into the sovereign territory of Israel." The second is from Ma'ariv mega-star Ben Kaspit, who summarized disengagement as follows: "The IDF is the IDF - meticulous planning, perfect execution. Danny Halutz is on the job. Nobody need worry." SEGAL AND Orbach, both representatives of the religious Right, are making two points here, one political and the other professional. First, they make no bones about blaming the mainstream Israeli media for a monolithic endorsement of any proposal of Israeli retreat, without subjecting it to even minimal inspection - and for marginalizing conflicting views, labeling those who hold them "dangerous extremists." Whether or not the second intifada and the events of this summer in Gaza and Lebanon prove the critics of withdrawal and disengagement right is an important debate. But I'd prefer to use this column to examine the authors' second point - that the leading pundits of the Israeli press have a propensity to fire-and-forget, to issue summary judgments on what the future holds without any responsibility for the eventual outcome. In an age when everyone is gloomily foreseeing the end of journalism as we know it - not a week goes by without news of another colleague forsaking the profession for more promising fields - there is at least one sector of the media which has nothing to worry about where job security is concerned. As news becomes less about straight reporting, and more about opinion, those among the ranks of pundits, commentators and op-ed writers really have it made. The market for pithy, opinionated and unequivocal columns seems almost unlimited - with the Internet providing an even more expansive outlet. All one needs today to sell his wares of wisdom is a loose set of ideas, a way with words, and the ability to churn them out in time for deadline. As long as his doing so makes for a good read, nobody cares if at some later date he will have been proven wrong. Anyone reading newspapers and Web sites can easily think of highly-regarded columnists who regularly get it wrong, blithely predicting events and outcomes that turn out to have no basis. But have we ever heard of one of one of these false prophets ever being fired? THE BOOKLET shows the amusing side of the pundits' mistakes. But it also illustrates the sinister way in which columnists form and inform public opinion, transforming individual views into the prevailing wisdom and consensus. To show that no one is immune to this disease, Segal and Orbach include similar mistakes of their own. Which shows that this kind of reckless soothsaying is by no means reserved to a particular side of the political spectrum. Indeed, in the first half of 2005, the right-wing press published dozens of columns explaining how there was no way the Israeli public was going to allow the government to carry out disengagement; how hundreds of thousands of citizens would block the roads leading to Gush Katif; and how a mass rebellion would break out in the ranks of the army. Very few, if any, major right-wing writers admitted afterwards that they had taken part in creating a mindset that made it much harder for the evicted settlers to come to terms with their fate. On the other hand, the fact remains that this position remained, for the most part, within the confines of the right-wing press. The mainstream media had little time or space for the sizable minority bitterly opposed to disengagement. A much smaller left-wing minority continues to get a disproportionate hearing. Though there are still sufficient grounds to justify disengagement and the withdrawal from the security zone, recent events indicate that opposing ideas deserved to have been taken much more seriously. I CANNOT conclude this column honestly without coming clean about my own past practices as an instant pundit. Though my Jerusalem Post track record hasn't been that bad, a few glaring mistakes stand out. Three of these are particularly embarrassing. Despite the fact that no one actually took me to task for them, I'm now inviting your ridicule by pointing them out. • In January, immediately after Ariel Sharon's second debilitating stroke, I predicted that the Kadima leadership would not gather around his replacement, Ehud Olmert, and that a succession battle would sink the nascent party. • On the eve of the election, I advised readers not to vote for the Pensioners Party, confidently asserting that since it had no chance of passing the electoral threshold, a vote for it would be wasted. • Before the cease fire at the end of this summer's war, I wrote that the government's days were numbered, due to its having been discredited and by its being left with no agenda following the demise of the realignment plan. The first two of these predictions were quickly confounded. As for the third: It is four and a half months later, and the government is not only still here, but no one is prepared to make any more bets on its imminent fall. Try as I might, I can't find one excuse for these mistakes, other than hasty judgment. For this reason, the most important passage from They Promised a Dove from my perspective was in its foreword: "What all the failed analyses had in common was that they dealt with the future. This is a territory which would be better left to astrologers in the horoscope columns. As journalists, we should concentrate on reporting the past and present, or on providing clever comment on what is happening now. If we have any predictions on what is expected, we should express them with the necessary care and humility, with a bit more 'perhaps' and 'maybe.'"