Between the Lines: Crying foul

There's a whole genre of journalism in which reporters and pundits find themselves equally shocked by something so obvious that their subsequent indignation can easily be viewed as a cynical attempt to whip up a tempest in a teapot.

gaidamak 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
gaidamak 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In a classic scene from Casablanca, the Gestapo orders opportunistic Vichy police chief Major Renault (the great Claude Rains) to find any reason to close down Rick's Café. "I'm shocked, shocked, to find that there's gambling going on in Casablanca!" declares Renault, followed immediately by a croupier handing him some cash and saying, "Your winnings, sir." There's a whole genre of journalism in which reporters and pundits find themselves equally shocked, shocked, by something so obvious that their subsequent indignation, even when at least partially sincere, can easily be viewed as a cynical attempt to whip up a media tempest in a teapot. So it is with one of this week's headline stories, the boorish behavior of some Betar Jerusalem fans at a match in Haifa on Tuesday who, when asked to observe a moment of silence in honor of Yitzhak Rabin, booed the slain prime minister and sang out ditties praising his assassin. Don't get me wrong; these actions are beyond repulsive, reporting it with disgust is absolutely appropriate, and the punishment meted out by the league was appropriate. But I don't quite get the massive amount of coverage and level of concern it generated in the local press. After all, does anyone expect any less from the hard-core hooligan sector of Betar Jerusalem's fan base, who for years at have chanted out anti-Arab and other racist epithets at games, and have indulged in the kind of violent actions that last year necessitated the team's championship-clinching game to be played before an empty Teddy Stadium? Frankly, I think it would have been even more of a news story if that crowd had actually sat silent during the Rabin memorial minute. Two weeks ago in this space I defended the coverage being given to the birth of Yigal Amir's child and the continuing efforts to free him, because the public should be kept aware of the activities of the extremist fringe that actively supports him. Also suggested was deeper coverage into the reasons behind the poll numbers that show growing numbers of the general population would not object to his eventual release. But that's different from giving so much play to the repulsive actions of Betar Jerusalem's veteran soccer thugs and somehow treating it as if this outburst represented some kind of national disgrace, rather than just a continuing embarrassment for a sports organization that's had no lack of them over the years. Was it really necessary for Channel 2's Monday evening news broadcast to have anchorwoman Yonit Levy do a live interview with Betar-owner Arkadi Gaydamak (unless the main point was really to show off how Levy's impressive English was so much better than that of her guest)? Although the publicity-loving millionaire did himself no favors with his convoluted responses, what does he really have to do with what happened in Haifa on Sunday? Owners aren't responsible for fan behavior, especially at away games, and the social and political roots of Betar Jerusalem's crowd problems are in no way connected to Gaydamak's recent proprietorship of the team. Despite his fumbling interview, he wasn't the story here. Again, I'm not suggesting that the media ignore Gaydamak, only that its coverage of him should have the substance it deserves, such as Yediot Aharanot's piece last week on his allegedly shady business dealings with a uranium processing plant in Kazakhstan. The tabloid press and TV news shows, of course, will jump at any chance to move a sports story into the headline space usually reserved for more weighty political and diplomatic coverage. That's the simple economics of the journalism business. But let's not confuse a juicy bit of videotape or the yellow journalism of the Betar Jerusalem coverage with the more serious examinations the Fourth Estate needs to take at this deeply divided society. MEANWHILE, IN Virginia last week, US District Judge T.S. Ellis made what could turn out to be a decisive ruling in the case against two former staffers of the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman. They are charged with receiving classified defense information from Pentagon analyst Larry Franklin, and passing it along to others not entitled to receive it, including Israeli officials and journalists. None of the latter has been charged in the case, although the FBI has tried to question some of the Israeli and Jewish journalists in Washington who regularly spoke with Rosen and Weissman. The charges brought against the two, though based on the 1917 Espionage Act, are unprecedented. But the case isn't a vendetta against AIPAC per se, rather it's one of the Bush administration's most aggressive attempts to stop what it sees as the leaking of sensitive information, to the press and others, and could have a chilling effect on the way the American media cover government. To prove that Rosen and Weissman were not doing anything with Franklin that is not done routinely between lobbyists/journalists and many senior officials, the defense requested that the likes of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and several other top Bush administration figures, be called as witnesses. Although the prosecution has vigorously argued against this, Judge Ellis has ruled that the defense has the right to call these officials to testify in the trial, scheduled to begin in January. Surely the White House does not want to see Rice and Hadley asked under oath about their dealings with AIPAC officials, and how they sometimes use them and other non-official figures as back channels for passing on information - which is what Rosen and Weissman thought was happening with Franklin. The Bush administration, obsessed with leaks, has badly overreached with this piece of spurious prosecution; it is hard to imagine a similar case being brought to court in Israel, even with its strict censorship of security information. Hopefully, this latest ruling will give the Department of Justice the excuse it needs to dismiss the charges against Rosen and Weissman, and bring to an end what the noted First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams has called "the single most dangerous case for free speech and free press."