Between the Lines: When the media loved Olmert, and why Obama has got a prayer

Anyone who understands Israeli media should've been skeptical of the claim that Obama leaked his note.

obama at kotel wall 224. (photo credit: )
obama at kotel wall 224.
(photo credit: )
'Dignified," "restrained," "respectful," "appropriate" - Prime Minister Ehud Olmert finally got some of that positive press coverage he'd been hoping for. To paraphrase Macbeth, apparently nothing in his time in office became him like the leaving of it.
In his address Wednesday night, Olmert referred to the media both implicitly ("I was forced to defend myself against relentless attacks by self-styled fighters for justice... Does the picture presented to the public fairly reflect the reality? Absolutely not!"), and explicitly ("I will not conduct this discussion in the media, and not at a press conference, but in a balanced and fair struggle, as I have done throughout my life."
The role the press played in Olmert's downfall will no doubt continue to be a subject of analysis and debate. While the prime minister may see himself as the victim of a witch-hunt in which the media played an all-too-willing part, many of his detractors argue that he was able to remain in office until now in large part due to the tendency of some leading journalists to "etrog" (coddle) him because of personal connections and overall approval of his ideological orientation re the peace process.
While there is unquestionably some truth to this, Olmert still had little choice but to step down, now that he is facing likely indictment in the Rishon Tours investigation, and the complete collapse of his political support, which never recovered from the Second Lebanon War.
All the spin, leaks and sympathetic columns and interviews in Yediot Aharonot or Ma'ariv didn't actually make that much difference in the end.
Just a few hours before the prime minister's address, one of the country's top political/communications strategists, Eyal Arad, was interviewed by Ben Caspit on Channel 2. Arad and advertising wizard Reuven Adler, who were given much of the credit for helping to transform Ariel Sharon's public image, are now trying to work their magic on behalf of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
Caspit suggested to Arad that media consultants such as him and Adler have now become more important than the politicians they work for.
Arad disputed that notion, and rightly so, not just out of modesty, false or otherwise.
Of course, a good communications strategy is essential in modern electoral politics. We in the media sometimes allow ourselves to be a too-willing partner in this game, and the public in a short electoral cycle can be unduly influenced by such manipulations.
You can be sure, for example, that we're going to be seeing Livni in a whole new light in the coming months, courtesy of Arad and Adler (hopefully, that won't involve too much of her singing).
But Ehud Olmert worked the press, or at least certain crucial parts of it, as skillfully as any of our politicians, but still could not sufficiently spin the essential truth of his ethical and leadership shortcomings to save himself. His downfall is a clear indicator that those who primarily blame or credit the media for dictating the course of events in the political sphere do so because it is more palatable than accepting a reality they find inconvenient to their own purposes.
DESPITE EVERYTHING just mentioned above, there is one politician who could legitimately claim to have been badly treated by the local press last week.
It is bad enough that the increasingly aggressive-to-the-point-of-unethical behavior of our tabloid media (both print and broadcast) in the pursuit of what are often dubious "scoops" has become a local journalistic sore point. But now it has turned into nothing less than an international embarrassment.
I'm talking about the controversy over the publication by Ma'ariv of the note Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama put into the Western Wall, which it obtained from a Jerusalem yeshiva student who had filched it.
If that wasn't bad enough, when a spokesperson for Ma'ariv - public relations executive Zamir Dahbash - later told some local reporters that the contents of the note had also been leaked to members of the international media by Obama's campaign staff, that comment was seized upon by several right-wing American bloggers as proof of a conspiracy on the part of the candidate to make the note public. (Although Dahbash later refused further comment to the Post, one of the reporters who initially reported the story told me he was indeed the source of the quote, which Ma'ariv later retracted.)
As late as the middle of the week, this discredited version of events continued to bounce around the blogosphere, and was even reported as such on The Wall Street Journal's opinion-page Web site.
This is despite the fact that last Sunday, Channel 2 ran a report in which the yeshiva student who took the note and passed it on to the press apologized for doing so, and was even filmed returning it into the Western Wall. In addition, no members of the international press corps covering the Obama visit supported the claim that the note had been leaked. Major Garrett, political correspondent for Fox News - hardly the media outlet most sympathetic to Obama - noted on his own blog: "Officially, Obama's traveling press secretary Jen Psaki denies the campaign in any way cleared release or pre-released Obama's prayer note. Informally, I discussed this matter with Psaki in London before Obama's press conference. She seemed genuinely unnerved and upset about publication of the prayer note."
Anyone with an understanding of the media scene here should have greeted with skepticism Ma'ariv's initial claim that the Obama campaign had deliberately leaked the note. Ever since Doron Galezer and Ruth Yuval succeeded Amnon Dankner as that paper's editors, it has truly sunk to new ethical lows, even by Israeli tabloid standards. For example, I wouldn't even put the Obama-note controversy on the same level as Ma'ariv's decision earlier this year to break an agreement among the media to hold off on publishing the most recent letter written by Gilad Schalit to his parents.
Ma'ariv's sleazy behavior, combined with the right-wing blogosphere's reckless determination to slam Obama, thus turned an episode that should have been a blessing into an embarrassment for all involved.
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