Between The Lines: Shifty business?

Non-denial denials, Mabat's facelift and Haaretz's editorial shift.

david landau 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
david landau 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The big news this week was the killing of arch-terrorist Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus on Wednesday, a story that also has a very specific journalistic angle common to these kind of events. Despite the lack of any direct evidence linking Israel to the slaying, the media were understandably quick to assume that this was indeed an Israeli intelligence operation, given both that Mughniyeh was a long-standing target and the impressive efficiency with which the Hizbullah leader was taken out in the heart of Damascus. When first questioned on this, the prime minister's foreign press spokesman, Mark Regev, replied that the PMO would have "no comment" on the matter, a pretty standard formulation in such instances. Subsequently, though, the prime minister's media adviser, Ya'acov Galanti, released a statement saying: "Israel is looking into the reports from Lebanon and Syria regarding the death of a senior Hizbullah figure, and is studying the details arising there from, as they have been reported in the media in recent hours. Israel rejects the attempt by terrorist elements to ascribe to it any involvement whatsoever in this incident." But as Post political reporter Gil Hoffman noted, not long after that, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert couldn't resist dropping in on the Knesset cafeteria and telling reporters: "Don't rush to praise me this time, because we haven't taken responsibility" - the latter a reference to the IAF raid on an alleged nuclear facility last September, and the whole quote hardly the firm denial that had just come out of his office. This kind of wink-and-nod act is a fairly familiar one when Israel is suspected of carrying out such operations beyond its own borders. If we assume that this was indeed Israeli handiwork, does any circumstance justify the government basically lying to the press about its role in it? Why not just stick to a simple "no comment" formulation? Regarding the latter question, a pro-forma denial is usually handy after Israel is forced to defend itself by technically violating the sovereignty of another state, and then faces the inevitable hypocritical resolutions of condemnation directed its way in the United Nations General Assembly or other international bodies that routinely take a one-sided anti-Israel approach. What's more, often in these cases, the government can justify to itself such "white lies" on the only grounds which truly make them legitimate - they help save lives by reducing the heightened tensions that invariably result following such incidents. This probably doesn't apply in the Mughniyeh case, as Hizbullah and its Iranian masters are looking for any excuse to strike at Israel when the opportunity arises. But certainly the government was right to initially say little about the Syrian bombing raid, as it would have been unwise to further embarrass Damascus at a time when tensions with Syria were running at fever pitch (even if the continuing censorship of the Israeli press on this issue has by now become ridiculous). The media rightly cannot accept on principle being deliberately misled by government spokesmen or statements, no matter what the circumstances. Still, any government's highest priority is protecting the lives of its citizens, and events such as the killing of Mughniyeh, whoever is responsible, may defy simple formulations if the stakes are high enough that they really do potentially involve the endangerment of innocent people. IT PROBABLY wasn't the best timing for Channel 1 to debut its new, revamped version of the nightly news broadcast, Mabat, just a week after much of the public received its annual "television tax" bill from the government to subsidize the publicly funded station. Although the NIS 360 payment was somewhat reduced from previous years, this taxpayer was less than pleased to receive this notice just when there was so much publicity being given to the costly new studio set built for the revamped Mabat, which made its debut last Sunday. What I saw looked to be basically just a big glass table floating in a nebulous blue background, although long shots reveal some pinkish strip-lighting at the bottom of the news desk that looked more appropriate as hi-tech décor in the latest hip Tel Aviv bar. At least Mabat reportedly saved money in the hiring of new anchors to replace the venerable Haim Yavin, who stepped down amid much fanfare last week. Geula Even, the host of Channel 1's early evening news show and the Friday night Yoman current affairs program, long tipped as Yavin's replacement, supposedly put herself out of the running, in part because of excessive salary demands. Instead, Israel Television news director Uri Levy chose two lesser-known figures, Yinon Magal and Merav Miller. Yet even to draw Magal away from his former perch as Channel 10 military correspondent reportedly cost us taxpayers the not inconsiderable sum of NIS 50,000 a month - especially since Magal seemed fairly stiff in his debut, and the better deal seems to have been Miller, host of the financial news show Mabat Lekesef. The fact that she has barely any actual reporting experience again proves that being a studio anchor for the most part involves a different set of skills than needed by a correspondent out in the field. I'm focusing more on the cosmetic aspects of Mabat, because it's still a little early to assess the journalistic changes that supposedly will involve shorter, quicker-paced reports, a more varied mix of hard- and soft-news items, a greater focus on the country outside the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv axis and a broader array of viewpoints when commentary is called for. Right now, though, the most notable change in Mabat has to do the switch from the venerable Yavin and other long-time Mabat reporters to a staff so youthful and attractive it looks like they were pulled off the cast of Survivor. Not just Magal and Miller, but Amir Bar-Shalom, Yair Weinraub, Sigal Sirius, Gili Shem-Tov (who might be Galit Guttman's kid sister), etc. are not only a dramatic face-lift from such veteran Mabat reporters as Sari Raz and Uri Cohen-Aharonov, but even make Channel 10's Ya'acov Eilon and Miki Heimovich look like the nice middle-aged couple down the block. It's almost as if Mabat is trying to prove that it can outdo Channels 2 and 10 when it comes to prettying up the news with fancy sets and nice faces. This may help Channel 1's flagging ratings, but doesn't seem quite the right strategy for a publicly funded station. Why not try to go in the opposite direction of greater gravity and less flash, the way US public television's McNeil-Lehrer Report has done successfully for so many years? Channel 10's London and Kirschenbaum, exactly the kind of current affairs program that Channel 1 should have developed, has proved there is indeed an audience here for a more in-depth approach of the day's events - even one hosted by two people whose personal memories may stretch all the way back beyond the First Lebanon War. THE BIG change in the print media this week came with the news that David Landau is stepping down after four years as editor-in-chief of Haaretz. His replacement is Dov Alfon, who held several senior editorial positions at the paper and other Schocken publications, and most recently served as editor-in-chief of the Kinneret-Zmora Bitan-Dvor publishing house. Landau is a former managing editor of The Jerusalem Post, who left after leading a 1990 walkout of some 30 staff members in protest over the change in the paper's editorial viewpoint by then owner Hollinger. He joined Haaretz in 1997 to start up its English edition, and in 2004 was appointed editor of the Hebrew paper - a remarkable achievement for a journalist who until then had worked solely for the English-language press. Landau's appointment came in the wake of particularly stormy circumstances, after his predecessor, Hanoch Mamari, resigned in a struggle for editorial control with the paper's proprietor-publisher Amos Schocken. Landau's departure is being presented by Haaretz as a more natural transition, one that brings to the job a younger editor with greater experience in the digital media field, where all journalism is headed. One can't but help notice, though, that Landau's departure comes just one month after a highly publicized incident in which, at a meeting with Condoleezza Rice at US Ambassador Richard Jones's home, Landau told the secretary of state that it was his "wet dream" to tell her that the US should "rape" Israel into make peacing with the Arabs. Although he later told the Jewish Week that his remarks had been misinterpreted, Landau admitted: "I did say that, in general, Israel wants to be raped - I did use that word - by the US, and I myself have long felt Israel needed more vigorous US intervention in the affairs of the Middle East." Though the underlying viewpoint is certainly in line with Haaretz's editorial outlook, the language used by Landau in this case, especially in this particular setting, hardly seems appropriate. Those of us who have worked with him (I did in the period before he left the Post) know that Landau can have a sharp, sarcastic tongue, and sometimes seems to take pleasure in being deliberately provocative. One can't help but wonder if, in this instance, he finally went too far for the Haaretz board of directors.