Between the Lines: A vote for journalists as 'guardians of democracy' - but not as politicians

The phenomenon of Israeli journalists turning toward politics is nothing new.

newspaper 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
newspaper 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It was Thomas Jefferson who once famously declared: "If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government, I wouldn't hesitate to choose the latter." Many still feel that way about the media's crucial role as a protector of our basic freedoms - including, it now appears, a sizable number of Israelis. One of the more unexpected results of the Israel Democracy Institute's annual "Democracy Index," whose results were released this week, is that for the first time the media gained a top spot as the institution "that safeguards Israeli democracy in the best way possible," as cited by 36 percent of respondents. In all honesty - and modesty - this achievement was probably due more to the failings of our governmental institutions than to a significant rise in public appreciation of the press. The Knesset (16%), and especially the prime minister (13%), understandably dropped down in this ranking during the past year. But so did the Supreme Court, sinking to 35%, and thus ceding the number one position in this category to the media for the first time. Most of the media discussion about this result has understandably focused on the drop in the court's standing, surely a result of the acrimonious public debate spurred by Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann's attempt to introduce changes both in the way its justices are selected and in the process by which it accepts certain cases for review. While no more need be said on that subject here, it is worth asking if enough credit for this result isn't being given to the media itself (even if its overall approval rating, like that of every other institution cited in the IDI survey, went down). If there has been a rise in relative appreciation of the role of the press, I would credit it to two factors. The first is the extensive coverage the media have given the various corruption allegations directed against the prime minister. While notable voices within its own ranks (such as Haaretz's Ari Shavit) have accused some journalists of treating Ehud Olmert with kid gloves, the press has likely been perceived by the public as being more vigorous in its pursuit of the PM than a criminal justice system that has yet to produce even a single indictment against him. The other factor is the broadening of the media beyond the traditional print and broadcast outlets (a.k.a. the mainstream-media [MSM]), into the wide-open territory of the Internet. Not only has this given some talented investigative journalists (such as Ma'ariv's Yoav Yitzhaki) the chance to move beyond their old MSM platforms, but blogs and talkbacks have given the general public a forum to air its own views. Despite this, many of my MSM colleagues have voiced deep misgivings about the explosive growth of alternative Internet media - and understandably so. This development has almost completely destroyed the old economics by which journalism (especially print) operated, and a viable new business model has yet to fully emerge. The results have been devastating on parts on our profession, and are likely to be even more so. Just last week, for example, Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer told The Washington Post that in 10 years, "There will be no newspapers, no magazines that are delivered in paper form. Everything gets delivered in an electronic form." That may be so, which is a bit of a shame. Somehow I just can't see anyone of a Jeffersonian stature ever saying, "If I had to choose between government without media Web sites, and media Web sites without government, I wouldn't hesitate to choose the latter." In the meantime, hold onto this "paper" newspaper, as it may soon be a collector's item. WHILE I'M fine with the idea of journalists as "guardians of democracy," some of my peers seem to be taking this idea a little too literally, choosing to jump feet first into the very thick of politics. The latest is Haaretz correspondent Daniel Ben-Simon, who recently announced he was leaving the full-time practice of his craft to begin campaigning toward the next Labor Party primary for a position on its Knesset list. Known for his writing on social issues, Ben-Simon appeared on Channel 2's morning program this week and declared his decision was motivated by the fact that "as a journalist, you're supposed to have more questions than answers, but I find myself now in the position of having more answers than questions." Based on that criterion, I'd say plenty of his paper's writers should probably follow him immediately into the political ring. But while Ben-Simon has our blessing (if not our vote), his occupational shift leaves this journalist with more questions than answers. The phenomenon of Israeli journalists turning toward politics is nothing new. The list includes such prominent figures as Yossi Beilin, Yossi Sarid and even Ehud Olmert (a former reporter for the IDF journal Bamahaneh). But they made this transition quite early in their careers, before they had become firmly established in the media field. It was the late Yosef (Tommy) Lapid who blazed the path Ben-Simon is now following, choosing to become the head of Shinui in 1996, while still at the very peak of his journalistic career. And although the obituaries and appreciations of Lapid that followed his passing two weeks ago gave the political chapter of his life mixed reviews, there's no question he was able to put the secularist party on the political map before it imploded prior to the last election. Lapid's achievement likely, in part, spurred former Labor leader Amir Peretz's wooing of radio/TV interviewer Shelly Yacimovich onto the Labor list, and her success in making it into the Knesset seems to have had the same effect on Ben-Simon. Unfortunately for the latter, Yacimovich focuses on many of the same type of social concerns that Ben-Simon has specialized in, and it's hard to see what added value he would contribute to the Labor ticket - unless the party feels that these days, it's useful to have someone out there campaigning for it who speaks with a very noticeable French accent. As for journalists leaving their prominent print or broadcast platforms, and practically the next day appearing as openly partisan politicians, this raises some serious ethical issues. The media have justifiably expressed qualms about this kind of shift when it involves other public professions, especially top military commanders. Maybe it's time we suggest to our colleagues that they also consider some kind of "cooling-off" period before they go - as Ben-Simon says - from suddenly asking questions of our leaders to joining them in providing us with the answers. [email protected]