Between the Lines: The changing face(s) of Israeli TV news

There's no question that Channel 2 introduced news broadcasting here that overemphasizes appearances.

CNN off the air 224 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
CNN off the air 224 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Now that CNN has been dropped by HOT, I find myself recently watching more of Fox News, which the cable company has moved over to its old slot. Unfortunately, Fox is no substitute for CNN, not by a long shot. I'm not talking about Fox's conservative bent, which at least allows for a more diverse range of views than one usually gets on MSM (Main-Stream Media, if you didn't know). That's especially welcome when it comes to its coverage of Israel, which is certainly more sympathetic (or "fair and balanced," depending on your perspective) than CNN or the BBC. Unfortunately, however, its reporting from Israel - or, for that matter, anywhere else outside the US - is decidedly skimpy compared to those genuinely global media outlets. Fox is actually not an international news channel at all, but an on-air version of an American tabloid - the broadcast equivalent of Rupert Murdoch's racy, breathless, editorially right-wing paper, The New York Post, where coverage of the latest missing-attractive-white-woman-in-peril case gets more air time than the crisis in Pakistan. At other times, though, Fox resembles nothing so much as the fulfillment of the prophetic vision of television news presented in the classic 1976 black comedy, Network, with that film's deranged anchorman, Howard ("I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!") Beale, the "mad prophet of the airwaves," incarnated in living form as Fox host Bill O'Reilly of The O'Reilly Factor. This sometimes can be fun to watch, sometimes not, but I certainly dread to see the Fox formula used as a general template for the future of television news. Which brings us to our own Israeli broadcast news, now in a time of decided transition. Channel 1's veteran anchor, "Mr. Television" Haim Yavin, who has been on the air since the birth of the medium here 40 years ago, has announced his imminent retirement. Also stepping down recently was Channel 2's founding news director, Shalom Kital, and co-anchorman of the station's main evening news program, Gadi Sukenik, who shifted into the corporate world. Another notable loss was Yisrael Segal, a veteran and much-admired producer-presenter for both Channels 1 and 2, who died of cancer last month. And Channel 10's relatively younger news operation has made impressive strides in the past few years, challenging the supremacy of its two older broadcast rivals. WHAT DO all these changes mean for the actual content of Israeli news broadcasting? Kital was recently asked that question in an interview on Army Radio, and pointed out that the big change had already come - honestly admitting that he himself bore part-and-parcel responsibility for the increasing prominence of more cosmetic values and "soft news" coverage that Channel 2's commercial news broadcasts ushered in during the 1990s. This was in stark contrast to the straight-up, relatively unadorned hard-news broadcasts of the government-run Channel 1, which had monopolized local television until that point. On one hand, this was in some ways a turn for the better. Channel 1's news department had ossified to the point that until the 1990s it was still shooting its reports in film rather than videotape, making it difficult to cover breaking stories, since film needs time to be processed. On the other hand, there's no question that Channel 2 introduced a style of news broadcasting here in which undue emphasis is placed on surface appearances, and journalistic values are sometimes compromised by ratings-driven commercial considerations. No surprise that Yavin's replacement is a stunning young woman - Geula Even - as is her competition on Channel 2, Yonit Levy. Or that the men reportedly being considered to serve as their co-anchors, including Tzvi Yehezkeli and Danny Kushmarov, are equally young and attractive. Nothing intrinsically wrong with that, as all have serious journalistic credentials, and even Yavin started out that way back in the television stone age. There is also a welcome increase in on-air diversity, especially of women journalists, including religiously observant ones, such as Sarah Beck and Sivan Rav-Meir. But the news broadcasts, in particular Channel 2, are skewing so youthful lately in their new hires that they look like the cast of The Young and the Restless, and one can't help feeling that a certain degree of experience and gravitas is being lost in the process. Of course, there are still veteran journalists handling key beats or assignments - such as Ehud Ya'ari, Moshe Nussbaum, Aryeh Barnea, etc. - but increasingly these are the exceptions proving the rule. Indeed, one of the appeals of Channel 10's popular London & Kirschenbaum show, is the rare, almost nostalgic experience of watching two mature media figures with rich backgrounds still on the air parsing the news of the day; their show is like a current-affairs equivalent of Taverna, with the comfort of watching familiar old-timers, rather than listening to old song favorites. One has to wonder, though, whether a more mature figure like the intense, serious Segal, who for years hosted Channel 1's Friday-night Yoman magazine, would have a chance of becoming an on-air news personality nowadays. I think not, unless Yaron London and Mordechai Kirschenbaum decided they wanted someone who makes them look more spry. THE CONCERN for surface appearances was readily apparent this week in the hoopla that accompanied the introduction of a new studio for Channel 2's nightly news broadcasts, a set filled with transparent glass accoutrements, that has the effect of making Yonit Levy and the reporters look as though they're sitting together in a trendy coffee shop at some futuristic mall. More worrisome, though, is the content of the broadcasts, which moves ever closer to emphasizing soft-news items over meat-and-potatoes journalism. For example, this past Sunday evening when Channel 2 news debuted its studio, it rightly cut away in the middle of the broadcast to provide live coverage of the speech by former Brig.-Gen. Gal Hirsch, in which for the first time since being forced to step down from the army, he delivered a blistering attack on the government and military leadership's conduct during the Second Lebanon War. Those comments surely deserved some kind of reaction or analysis by military correspondent Roni Daniel or anybody else qualified to do so. Yet, when Channel 2 cut back to Levy in the studio, she simply continued the broadcast with a light-weight story about the travel travails of some Israeli tourists in Amsterdam, followed by an over-lengthy interview with TV personality (and soccer-wife) Tzofit Grant about how she deals with a family member suffering from schizophrenia. No time was apparently left in the broadcast to provide any kind of follow-up to Hirsch's stinging remarks. That's a clear case of journalistic priorities gone awry. Television news, of course, is a business, just like other media, and there's no escaping the pressure to score ratings so advertisers are kept happy. But broadcasters have to find the right balance between news and entertainment, between informing the public and pleasing it, between hard news its viewers should know, and soft news they can use or be amused by. If not, then Network's vision of television news being totally corrupted by the capitalist imperative will seem less than prophecy and more the news of the day. [email protected]