Between the Lines: Best of times, worst of times

If Yavin remained to the very last of his 'Mabat' days an exemplar of journalistic propriety, then the actions this week of 'Ma'ariv's editors certainly represent the opposite pole of that spectrum.

television 88 (photo credit: )
television 88
(photo credit: )
It was perhaps fitting that in a week in which we marked the February 7 birth date of Charles Dickens (or at least those of us who share it with him), this was truly "the best of times and the worst of times" for Israeli journalism. It was a week in which the local media joined together in a genuine display of collegiality to honor a broadcasting icon who embodies many of the best qualities of the field, and one in which the cutthroat competition between some the biggest players in the business spurred them to reach new ethical lows. The icon is, of course, Haim Yavin, Israel's "Mr. Television" who has more or less sat behind the anchor desk at Mabat since its first broadcast in the summer of 1968. Yavin took his leave on Tuesday evening in a final broadcast that included a tacked-on special salute from longtime colleagues, friends and family. Even during the regular news portion of the show, the Mabat correspondents concluded their reports with personal tributes to the anchor. My favorite was when financial correspondent Nehemia Strassler, talking about the currency exchange rates, told the seemingly ageless (actually 75) Yavin: "The dollar has really dropped dramatically - but you Haim, never seem to change." Most impressive of all was when the anchors of the competing news broadcasts on Channels 2 and 10, along with Yavin's noticeably youthful Mabat successors, Yinon Magal and Merav Miller (who make their debut next week), appeared on screen together to heap praise on the venerable newscaster. Throughout the program, the words "journalistic ethos" and "ethics" were applied repeatedly to Yavin, as well as cited by him, with genuine sincerity. Yavin is not an uncontroversial figure, especially with critics on the Right outraged by his documentary, In the Land of the Settlers, three years ago. But he is truly respected by his journalistic peers for several reasons: his willingness to stick by Channel 1 for the most part and refusal to take other commercial opportunities over the years that could have easily enriched him; his determination to maintain high standards on Mabat and avoid the trivialization that sometimes afflicts news broadcasts on the commercial stations; his encouragement and support of younger colleagues; and the always, cool, calm and relatively objective manner, at least on Mabat, in which he presented the day's headlines. Indeed, the most amusing aspect on his final Mabat was the way in which everyone else on the broadcast seemed so emotional and effusive - except for the perennially restrained Yavin, who had to be asked several times if he was moved by this landmark event. Perhaps it was time - or even a little past it - for him to pass on his anchor desk to the next generation (actually, the generation after the next generation). But the face of Israeli television news for 40 years, who always brought so much respect, gravitas and seriousness of purpose to this frequently maligned profession, will surely be missed from Mabat. IF YAVIN remained to the very last of his Mabat days an exemplar of journalistic propriety, then the actions this week of Ma'ariv's editors certainly represent the opposite pole of that spectrum. The big controversy involving Ma'ariv was its reportage of statements made by Winograd Committee member Prof. Yehezkel Dror during an interview - in which, relating to his thought process in preparation of the final report on the government's conducting of the Second Lebanon War, he reportedly said: "We must think of the consequences. What do you prefer - a government led by Olmert and Barak, or new elections that will give rise to a government led by Netanyahu?" Not surprisingly, Ma'ariv's disclosure sparked off a firestorm of criticism of Dror and the Winograd Report. Dror responded that the newspaper had taken his remarks out of context to improperly suggest that the Winograd Committee's work had been influenced by a pro-Olmert bias, when he had merely been musing in a more general way about the factors that might influence one on the question of whether the prime minister should resign in its wake. First off, let's be clear here: Whatever Dror meant, it was inappropriate for him to be giving such interviews, and speaking in such an imprecise manner, just days after the final report was presented. He was the only committee member who did so, and reportedly was criticized by other Winograd panelists for it. There's also considerable irony in the fact that the report harshly criticized the tendency of IDF officers during the Second Lebanon War to give unauthorized interviews to the media, in some of which highly sensitive operational information that should have remained confidential was leaked. Dror should have kept his own lips tighter, regardless of what he said or meant. As for Ma'ariv, it will be hard to judge to what degree it distorted Dror's real intent until the full interview is published today. It should be noted, though, that he also gave other interviews this week, including to The Jerusalem Post [See Page 24], in which the total substance of his remarks hews more closely to his own interpretation of their meaning. What's more, all the interviews Dror gave were on the condition that their content not be revealed in any way until the full versions were published today (in part because he was scheduled to appear on some public panels during the course of the week). In going to press on Wednesday with parts of their interview, Ma'ariv's editors violated their embargo agreement both with Dror and with their fellow journalists. This certainly isn't the first time such a thing has happened on the local journalistic scene, but rarely has it been done in such a blatant and sensationalistic manner. In fact, the Dror controversy actually overshadowed what in my eyes was a more serious breach of journalistic ethics on the tabloid's part this week: the publication of a letter written by kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit, which was passed on by one of the foreign mediators negotiating with Hamas for his release to the government and to his family. Ma'ariv was not the only media outlet to have obtained a copy of this letter. But it was the only one not to properly submit it to the IDF censor, which in fact had prohibited it from being made public for the time being. While I've repeatedly criticized the military censor in this column for its excesses and inefficiency, it's also been with the acknowledgment that in some circumstances its work is legitimate, especially when certain areas of reportage may endanger the well-being of specific individuals. That criteria certainly applies to almost anything pertaining to the Schalit situation. Former Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Ya'acov Perry convincingly made that case when, speaking with Channel 2 after Ma'ariv published the Schalit letter, he said: "We received this letter from a mediator who doesn't want his role publicized. Getting the letter is a sign that the process is advancing, but the letter's publication may push the mediator further underground." Everyone knows the censor doesn't have real teeth today, and I doubt Ma'ariv will be properly dealt with, but when the censor asks that something like this not be published, its request should be respected. It's hard not to see the Dror and Schalit instances as a pattern of more aggressive behavior towards their competitors on the part of Ma'ariv's new editors, Doron Galezar and Ruth Yovel, who recently took over from Amnon Dankner. To be fair, their main rival, Yediot Aharonot, which dominates the print media, is no less prone to ruthless behavior that sometimes skirts the boundary, and beyond, of journalistic ethics. This includes Yediot's noticeably charitable coverage of Olmert during the Winograd affair, which I mentioned last week re its clearly overly favorable interpretation of both the report's conclusions about the prime minister's responsibility, and the public's response to it. What's more, word reached me this week, originating from a source within Yediot, that much of this has to do with fear of competition from the free commuter daily, Yisrael Hayom, owned by American-Jewish billionaire Sheldon Adelson, well-known as a strong supporter of Binyamin Netanyahu, and a past (perhaps future) bidder for the ownership of Ma'ariv. According to the source, Yediot is concerned that if Olmert falls and Netanyahu takes his place in the PM's office, this will give Adelson's Yisrael Hayom a real leg up in journalistic connections and access to the PM's office. Though I frankly don't know how much weight to give this interpretation, it's depressing - and distressing - to contemplate the way such factors influence political coverage in our two largest dailies. Whatever short-term gains such approaches may earn as they fight their bruising circulation war, it surely impacts negatively on the credibility and respect that the media here needs in the long term to fulfill its function as a watchdog of democracy. [email protected]