Between the Lines: Barbara's audition, Rafi's sign-off and Akiva's confession

If any journalist can't empathize with Israelis' concerns, fears and sorrows, he will end up doing little to advance the Palestinian cause.

Palestinian flag 88 224 (photo credit: )
Palestinian flag 88 224
(photo credit: )
On Pessah eve in 1990, just a few hours before the seder, I received a call from my late colleague, Louis Rappaport, asking me if I wanted to join him - almost immediately - to meet with visiting US television journalist Barbara Walters. Although the prospect of interviewing America's most famous interviewer with no preparation was a little daunting, I needn't have worried. Although Walters was taking time out from a private family visit here, she was a gracious and accommodating subject, effortlessly turning on the charm and warmth that has enabled her to wheedle intimate confessions out of an unmatched list of celebrity interviewees over her remarkable 50-year broadcast career. This reminiscence is sparked by the recent publication of Walters's well-received new memoir, Audition. Naturally, a highlight (also of our own discussion) is her most famous journalistic "get," the joint interviews with Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat in 1977, that helped spur the latter's groundbreaking visit to Jerusalem. Another major section of the book, available on the Vanity Fair Web site, deals with her troubled tenure in 1976 as the first woman anchor on a prime-time nightly national newscast. I well remember her obvious discomfort in talking about this painful career episode, and in Audition she details the chauvinistic hostility of her male colleagues at the time, including co-anchor Harry Reasoner. Her anchoring debut got off to an inauspicious start, on no less than Yom Kippur eve. "I was bothered that the Jewish people in our audience would know that I had, indeed, been working during the day when no Jew was supposed to work," she writes. "I really did wonder if God would forgive me, but there was little I could do about it." I guess she wasn't forgiven, because her high-profile flop only reinforced the conventional wisdom that US viewing audiences regarded this particular job as man's work. Ironically, her book comes out just as her only successor in this position, CBS News anchor Katie Couric, is also struggling in the ratings, indicating some kind of lingering resistance among the American public to having a woman sit in this traditionally male domain. The reason I mention it here is to point out the obvious contrast with Israel, where all three prime-time nightly newscasts now boast female presenters: Channel 10's Miki Heimovitch and Channel 1's Merav Miller, who serve as co-anchors, and Channel 2's solo anchor, Yonit Levy. Odd, isn't it, that in the supposedly more macho Israeli society there has been far less resistance to women being given these top slots in broadcast media, while this still remains an issue in the US. I'm honestly not sure why this is so - though glad that at least this particular journalistic "glass ceiling" has been definitively shattered in this country. ANOTHER CONTRAST worth noting between US and Israeli TV journalism connected with Walters's career, is that she (and Couric) rose to prominence on NBC's hugely popular morning current affairs program, Today. The "breakfast" news shows are a big deal in America, unlike here, where they never have quite caught on in the same way. Although Channel 2 has tried to upgrade the journalistic content of its morning program of late, giving more prominence to news reporters (including the seemingly tireless Sivan Rav-Meir), neither it nor Channel 10's rival show are viewed as a serious enough forum to break stories or attract top political guests. Channel 1, after an abortive effort a few years ago, doesn't even have a morning news program. One reason for this is the lingering prominence of morning radio news programs, especially those on Army Radio hosted by Rafi Reshef and Razi Barkai. These are the most popular current affairs programs on radio, so it was a little surprising that Reshef this week walked away from his top 8 a.m.-9 a.m. slot, saying that in large part he was simply tired of waking up so early every day. I was a regular listener to Reshef's program and enjoyed his subdued, even mellow, radio voice, although as Yediot Aharonot media critic Shlomi Laufer wrote this week: "True, there was something in it monotonous, yawn-inducing and reminiscent of the aroma of the kind of Nescafe you drink when doing reserve duty, but that's the way we liked it." Laufer's right that Reshef's somewhat soothing on-air manner harks back to a broadcast style of radio days past less in fashion these days. But I for one will miss him amiably shooting the breeze with weather woman Sharon Wexler and northern reporter Menahem Horovitz each morning, weak coffee or no. A MORE serious criticism launched against Reshef over the years has been one of political bias, especially his use of a regular panel of journalist analysts - Ma'ariv's Ben Caspit, Channel 10's Emmanuel Rosen and Haaretz's Akiva Eldar - all of whom clearly skew to the left. This especially applies to Eldar - and just how much so the veteran diplomatic reporter makes absolutely clear in a quite interesting piece titled: "On Not Passing Israel's Lynch Test," newly published in English translation in the left-wing US magazine, The Nation ( Eldar writes, apropos of his article's title: "The prominent Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea wrote in November 2000 (in a publication of the Israel Democracy Institute) that 'there are Israeli reporters who do not pass the "lynch test."' These, he wrote, are journalists who could not bring themselves to criticize the Arabs, even when two Israelis were savagely murdered by a mob in Ramallah. Barnea, who last year was awarded the Israel Prize for journalism, went on to argue that our support for the Palestinian position is absolute. He concluded, 'They have a mission.' I was honored to be mentioned as one of those journalists, alongside my fine colleagues Gideon Levy and Amira Hass. I admit to being guilty as charged. I am a journalist with a mission, and also no small amount of passion. Every Israeli with a conscience, in particular one who watches reality from up close on a daily basis, cannot write about the occupation from an objective observer's neutral point of view." Fair enough, at least where honesty is concerned. But I think Eldar misses an important point here. The only way that a Palestinian state will finally be established in the West Bank and Gaza is when the Israeli public is convinced that this is the wisest course of action on several levels. And if any journalist, Israeli or otherwise, cannot empathize (or express that empathy) with the Israeli public's concerns, fears and sorrows, he will end up doing little to advance the Palestinian cause, as he merely preaches to the converted and makes his own conscience feel cleaner in the process. Or, to put it another way: Eldar writes of his satisfaction in encountering an Egyptian cab driver who refuses to take any fare from him. "[He] said that he had been a loyal reader of mine for years, and this was his modest way of expressing his esteem for a journalist who charges him up on a weekly basis with some hope for peace in the region where he was born." That's nice. But I'd be far more impressed - and it would surely be a greater contribution for peace - if Eldar had encountered an Israeli cab driver who said the Haaretz writer had helped him view the situation of the Palestinians in a new way. And Barnea is surely right that no Israeli journalist who cannot pass the lynch test will ever score that genuine achievement. [email protected]