Between the Lines: The hostage media, and terror in real time

In an ideal world, the media would act largely as an objective public forum.

karnit goldwasser 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
karnit goldwasser 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Just a couple of weeks after the kidnapping of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, I attended one of the first press conferences held by their families, at a Nahariya hotel even as Hizbullah's rockets were crashing down on the city. I remember at the time being impressed by how articulate and composed they all appeared under the circumstances, especially Goldwasser's wife Karnit, who brought to my mind the likes of Natan Sharansky's heroic wife Avital, who had led the campaign for her husband's release. Already then, almost two years ago, I though that if freeing her husband would come down to a controversial prisoner exchange with Hizbullah of the type carried out in the past, Karnit Goldwasser as a media spokesperson would prove to a be a formidable force in overcoming any official and public opposition. So it came to pass this week, with the government's approval of the deal that will bring Goldwasser and Regev - or their remains - home in exchange for the release of vicious terrorist killer Samir Kuntar. And only slightly less controversial than the deal itself, was the role the local media played in pushing for it to take place. In an ideal world, of course, the media would act largely as an objective public forum, in which opposing viewpoints would be given equivalent space and weight in a "fair and balanced" manner. But let's get real here; the press has never operated in that manner, and even less so in recent years. Various factors usually determine that it tends to favor one side or the other on a particular issue, sometimes having not much to due with the actual merits of the case. I'm not saying the latter is necessarily true here. But the fact that the Goldwasser and Regev families made themselves readily available to the media (who wouldn't in their position?) and proved to be such powerful advocates for their captive loved ones, virtually guaranteed that this wasn't going to be a balanced discussion. This is even more so given the fact that the one person who would surely have been the most effective spokesperson for the other side - Smadar Haran, whose husband and two daughters were killed during Kuntar's brutal attack 29 years ago - made it clear in the dignified, moving and thoroughly admirable press statement she made on the day of the cabinet vote that she would not oppose a deal that led to the terrorist's release. The result of course is that the press here, especially the broadcast media, clearly ended up itself becoming a vital part of the campaign to pressure the government into supporting this exchange. Nor did this state of affairs escape internal criticism from some of the journalists involved, in particular veteran military affairs correspondent Ron Ben-Ishai, who in various forums declared: "I am against the concept that says, I suffer, therefore I am right; there are people that suffer, but there are other factors that have to be weighed against that suffering, and not all those who suffer are also in the right." No, they're not; but those who suffer, especially if they are as appealing as Karnit Goldwasser, will certainly get more media play than someone presenting a coolly objective argument based more on facts than emotion. That's just the nature of the media beast, including just about every one of Ben-Ishai's employers throughout his distinguished career, especially Yediot Aharonot and Channel 2. Acknowledging that reality doesn't mean accepting it as desirable, especially in instances like this when the media, especially the TV news operations, go way over the top in their coverage. But it is hard to lay primary blame on the media when those in government who should be held to an even higher standard for their public conduct in such situations, also seem to be acting in a manner designed more to "spin" the issue than properly address it. It is difficult, for example, to understand why it took Prime Minister Ehud Olmert until the very last minute to decide whether he was for or against an arrangement that his own hostage negotiator had worked out, unless he decided it would play better if he appeared to agonize over a deal that many Israelis strongly opposed. So was this in the end a decision made more in the interests of those "who suffer" than those "in the right," in large part because of the media? That could be the case here. But at the end of the day, I still feel more confident about the prospects of a society that honors the views of a Karnit Goldwasser and Smadar Haran than celebrates the likes of a Samir Kuntar. THE OTHER major story this week was, of course, the horrific bulldozer terrorist attack on Wednesday that killed three Jerusalemites and left dozens of others wounded. The dramatic footage shot live on the scene not only captured the shocking death and destruction carried out by the Jerusalem Arab who carried out it, but the heroism of the off-duty soldier who stopped his rampage by climbing onto the bulldozer at great personal risk and shooting him dead at point-blank range. The incident also highlighted the awkward censorship restrictions that the local media still operate under. Initial news footage and coverage clearly identified the brave bystander, but when it became clear he was still an active member of an elite IDF unit, specific identification of him was dropped. Although in some photos and footage his face is blurred, in others he is still clearly identifiable. Despite the fact that he is now being referred to only by a single initial, enough personal detail has been released about him that anyone who wants to take the trouble to identify him would have no problem doing so. Another point worth noting is the fact that because this attack was carried out directly in front of the building which houses Jerusalem Capital Studios, home to many of the foreign news bureaus, this incident got more coverage than other terror attacks here of equal or even greater devastation. As with the considerations noted above regarding the Goldwasser/Regev deal, this is just more proof that when it comes to reporting the news, objective criteria rarely have the final word in determining either the priority or perspective of coverage. [email protected]