Media Matters: Bye bye 'Big Brother,' hello Yonit Levy

As reality replaces Reality TV, the public has been resorting to keeping a watchful eye on the eyebrow fluctuations of a Channel 2 newscaster.

If I were more cynical or paranoid, I'd be certain that Channel 2 was behind the Yonit Levy affair. There's nothing like buzz where hiking ratings is concerned, after all. With the entire country glued to the small screen in an attempt to glean any sliver of information it can about the war in Gaza, its three main channels - all subject to the same military-censorship restrictions - are hard put to distinguish themselves from one another. Indeed, since the launching of Operation Cast Lead nearly three weeks ago, remote controls have been working overtime. Whereas prior to the current confrontation, channel surfing was reserved either to those viewers desperately searching for something to watch, or those absent-mindedly toying with the TV for lack of a substitute, today zap-dancing is a national pastime. Even the most loyal fans of this set of reporters or that duo of commentators find themselves in a fickle state of hopping from 10 to 11 to 22 and back again. Being afraid to miss out on any detail will do that. But detail of the kind being sought is scarce, due to the tight control on what the media are at liberty to convey. As a result, the broadcasts are heavier on features and analysis than on hard news. It is perhaps no wonder, then, that details of another sort entirely are taking center stage - or rather, in the case of Yonit Levy, stage left - in the battle theater. For those of you unfamiliar with the "scandal" in question, here is a short review: On December 31, Day 5 of the operation, a petition began circulating on the Internet, the purpose of which was to cause Channel 2 to remove anchor Yonit Levy from the air if she didn't shape up. According to the petitioners, Levy had crossed a red line in her presentation of the war by letting her left-wing leanings get the better of her. (The reference here lends itself to a play on words in Hebrew, since the anchor's first name translates literally as "dovish.") The aim of the petition was to accrue 10,000 signatures. Within days, it had obtained close to 35,000. Apparently, a lot of people were thrilled to be given the opportunity to stick it to the sultry newscaster with a vengeance. Her alleged violation of journalistic ethics: raising her eyebrows sarcastically over IDF actions, and furrowing them sympathetically over the trauma suffered by innocent Palestinians. (For the record, incidentally, the original petitioners just released a letter saying that Levy had clearly been influenced by the pressure, since she now seems to be subduing her previous subjectivity and striking a more neutral - hence professional - pose.) But the publicity couldn't have been better for the broadcaster. Suddenly, the war against Hamas was taking a momentary back seat to the war against Levy, with battalions of bloggers rushing to express sympathy for or antipathy to the protagonist whose personal life and hefty paycheck - rumored to hover around NIS 80,000 per month - were of great interest both to her supporters and her detractors long before a single soldier set foot on Gazan soil. TO GIVE a little background to this battle of the blog, Levy, who began co-anchoring the news with Gadi Sukenik in 2002 (after his previous female partner, Miki Haimovitch, defected to Channel 10), was given the high honor of going it solo when Sukenik left in August 2007. A year ago this month, Channel 2 announced that Levy had proven capable of handling the broadcast on her own, and that this was reflected in her ratings. For some reason, this was almost as big news at the time as the items she was presenting. It was as though she had broken some sacred mold - albeit a relatively recent one - of a team consisting of a seasoned man and a sexy woman whose chemistry on camera would be conducive to keeping audiences attentive. That she was allowed to do it alone catapulted her into an old boys' network she is probably too young even to remember. This did not stop the serpent-tongued literary critic and Ynet columnist Arianna Melamed from providing a radical feminist interpretation of the spate of attacks on Levy in cyberspace, however. And how could she resist? After all, here was an opportunity to make fun of the way most of the Israeli media have been portraying the war - patriotically, that is, "as though they are employed by the IDF Spokesman's Office" - while simultaneously settling a score with a male-dominated society. Not bad for 1,000 words and no picture, other than Levy's. Nor is it particularly surprising. No more surprising is the letter issued by the staff of Channel 10, defending Levy's professional behavior as beyond reproach. For, though it is highly doubtful that they see themselves as fitting Melamed's negative description of their ilk as "Cast Lead" journalists, they are nevertheless on Levy's side of the divide, and under equal scrutiny by the masses whose deadliest weapon is a computer mouse. Not only that. Soon, she and they are likely to become colleagues, rather than competitors, as a merger between Channels 2 and 10 is currently under way, pending the success or failure of corporate negotiations. What is astounding about this whole "sordid affair" is the fact that, as of the writing of these words, Melamed's defense of Levy had already generated around 1,200 talkbacks. As Israel Radio's Keren Neubach pointed out Tuesday morning, no article on the prime minister inspires that kind of reaction. Indeed, even Olmert's run-in this week with the White House and State Department over his bragging about having phoned President Bush to insist that he keep Condi from voting for the Security Council resolution on Gaza elicited a yawn in comparison. TWO POSSIBLE explanations for this peculiar phenomenon come to mind. The first is that the public, genuinely concerned about the outcome of the Gaza operation, needs an outlet for its frustrations. Shouting into cyberspace by hammering away at keyboards provides just that. The second is that this is also an entertainment-hungry society, whose favorite dish of late has been Reality TV - an ironic form of escapism if there ever was one. The war in Gaza began right after Big Brother's finale and the beginning of Survivor's second season. The former had finished; the latter was taken off the air temporarily, due to the war, though Channel 10 has just announced that the show will resume this weekend. One way of compensating for the loss and sating the appetite was to point the cameras at those key players in the saga down south whose lives and livelihoods are not jeopardized by anything more threatening than mergers. Levy ought to be flattered. Because of the hoopla, not only is she in the actual spotlight, but she's in the virtual one, as well. So much so that the political satire program, Eretz Nehederet, composed a ballad just for her. Even I now catch myself pausing longer on Channel 2 these days to see if I can catch her in the act of which she was accused.