Between the Lines: Katsav and the media: A reckoning

Had the former president remained largely silent while his attorneys negotiated his plea bargain, and simply expressed contrition afterwards for whatever offense he may have committed, it's possible he might have emerged from this affair with some small degree of his dignity intact.

Katsav 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Katsav 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
'You didn't let the facts confuse your aims. Your sense of justice, of truth, have been overridden. You didn't stop for a minute to ask, maybe this is, after all, a libel. None of you looked directly at the simple facts. None of you made a single investigation into the claims. Not a single newspaper, TV station, radio station, investigated the claims. You crossed every ethnical journalist line. I know what hurts you. You wrote when I was elected as president, that this is 'the end of Zionism.'" So declared former president Moshe Katsav during his unforgettable tirade, broadcast live from Beit Hanassi on January 24, 2007. Regarding that last remark: It was in The Jerusalem Post that this headline had appeared; but like so much else in this sordid saga, Katsav got it wrong. As this paper noted in response: "Contrary to the implication Katsav sought to create... this article was not a personal attack on him; writer Amotz Asa-El was arguing that there had been a 'spit in the face of a Zionist icon' - Shimon Peres, the defeated candidate - 'by non- and sometimes anti-Zionist small-time politicians.'" While most of the coverage this week naturally focused on the outrage from opponents of the state's controversial plea bargain with Katsav, after the High Court of Justice refused to overturn it, the media also took time to examine its own considerable role in this affair as it hopefully draws to a close. On Channel 1's current-affairs program, Politika, former Katsav media advisers Ronen Tzur and Nissim Douek delivered their own knocks at the press, lambasting the numerous allegations of sexual assault and rape from various women in their boss's employ over the years that were reported and broadcast - most of which fell far short of the sexual harassment and indecent behavior charges to which the disgraced president eventually pleaded guilty, in exchange for a relatively mild, one-year suspended sentence. So is the media, in fact, also guilty in this case? Did it indeed "cross every ethical line" and help railroad an innocent man? Well, there's no question that much of the reporting of the Katsav story was excessive, both in content and in terms of prominence, including the coverage given some of the more tenuous allegations made against the former president. Some of the individuals working on behalf of the complainants - in particular, attorney Kinneret Barashi - also seemed a little too eager to get in front of the TV cameras at every opportunity. And yet again, the presumption of innocence any accused individual deserves in this society was damaged by numerous leaks from the police and prosecutors' office - though Katsav is hardly the first official to suffer from that problem, and can hardly claim some kind of unique prejudice in this regard. Despite all that, in this case I see no reason why the press also needs to accept any kind of plea-bargain deal to avoid being brought up on more serious charges. If the media is not entirely innocent in this affair, its measure of guilt is certainly nothing compared to that of Katsav and his allies. Former Channel 2 anchor Gadi Sukenik - who was singled out by Katsav in his Beit Hanassi speech - also appeared on Politika and ably defended his work on this story. He made the simple point that even if one does accept that the former president is guilty only of the charges to which he admitted, this by itself means he was lying through his teeth the entire time he was hypocritically assuming a posture of moral indignation as he lashed out against a "media lynch." Even worse, some of Katsav's supporters didn't hesitate to feed the press with unsubstantiated rumors and innuendo about some of the women accusing their former boss of sexual misbehavior in order to discredit them, as they lashed out at his accusers for supposedly doing the same. Katsav's misbehavior while in office, even in the diminished form which he pleaded guilty to, is inexcusable. But had the former president taken a different communications strategy while dealing with the charges against him - had he remained largely silent while his attorneys negotiated his plea bargain, and simply expressed contrition afterwards for whatever offense he may have committed - it's quite possible he might have emerged from this affair with some small degree of his dignity intact, and retained some sympathy from the public, deserved or not. As it is, his press conference at Beit Hanassi must surely rank as the most embarrassing and ill-considered public address ever made in this country. I can't understand how his former communications advisers can even bear to show their faces in public after having been part of that train wreck. It wasn't the media that brought Katsav down, but his own actions, and the way he responded after they came to light. Whether the way in which he initially got elected really represented "the end of Zionism" is debatable. But surely the way he in which he departed the official highest office in this land - especially his cringe-inducing performance a year ago in front of the television cameras - must surely represent one of the low points of public life in the Zionist state. ON MONDAY morning, the first international conference of the new Global Forum for Combating Anti-Semitism held a session on "Anti-Semitism in the Media and the Internet" at the Foreign Ministry, attended by representatives of the many governmental offices and non-governmental Diaspora organizations that deal with this issue. One of the speakers was Melanie Phillips, the outspoken Daily Mail columnist who in recent years has become a voice in the wilderness decrying the anti-Zionist attitudes so prevalent among her professional peers and the wider British intelligentsia. Noting the continuous active efforts by Israel's Arab enemies and their allies to delegitimize the Jewish state, Phillips deplored the tendency among the hasbara establishment to remain largely reactive in its efforts to counter such propaganda, and its "inability to react quickly on its feet against such challenges." Ironically, at the exact moment Phillips was speaking in Jerusalem, Hamas was trying to organize its efforts to have thousands of Gazans march on the fence separating Gaza from Israel, in a possible repeat of the events at the Egyptian border last month. With the international media gathered at the Gaza crossings, this event could have been a public relations disaster for Israel, providing footage of IDF soldiers forced to fire on Palestinian rioters that would have certainly ended up on the very news reports and Internet sites that the experts gathered at the Foreign Ministry were at that moment decrying. As it fortunately turned out, the Gazan crowds failed to turn out in force, and the real violence against civilians that day took place in Sderot, where a 10-year-old boy was seriously hurt by a Kassam. Naturally, that item was largely buried by the foreign press in their reports about the rally. Without taking away anything from the good work being done by the activists attending the Jerusalem conference, I couldn't help thinking that this event was itself a symptomatic of the problem - the Jews hold conferences, while their enemies take to the streets and draw the TV cameras on them. Perhaps, at least, the Foreign Ministry would do better to hold its next conference on anti-Semitism down in Sderot. [email protected]