Media Matters: Carnage and confetti

The ironic benefit of budget cuts on the quality of certain coverage.

When I wrote in these pages a few weeks ago that those of you not following Big Brother better "get with the program," because "if you don't, you're liable to find yourselves unable to keep up with current events and contribute to any discussion of them," I was being tongue-in-cheek. Or so I thought. Little did I know just how literal a warning I was issuing. But this is one case of prescience in which I take no pride. On the contrary, nothing has nauseated me recently as much as the grotesque dissonance on display Tuesday night - following the devastating "mass murder" of 25 (and counting) Russian tour guides at the hands of a reckless bus driver - with in-depth coverage of the carnage broadcast on Channel 1, while Channel 2 engaged in an orgy of self-promotion surrounding the final episode of the reality show that has riveted the nation for the past three and a half months. In discussions with friends and colleagues about this phenomenon, it was suggested that had the casualties been Israelis - or had the deaths of Israelis been caused by an act of terrorism - the picture, on screen and off, would have been different. One editor went as far as to assert that Channel 2 would have postponed the Big Brother victory bash broadcast till the next night. This was not an attempt on his part to give Channel 2 the benefit of the doubt. Rather, it was his way of calling the public's sympathy for tragedies befalling foreigners into question. I disagree on two counts. First, this particular distasteful lack of respect for the dead is not new to Channel 2. In March 2002, at the height of the second intifada, the Tel-Ad franchise saw fit to solve a similar broadcast conflict by showing simultaneous scenes from a suicide bombing in Jerusalem that left five Israelis dead and a soccer game on a split screen. Societal sanity intact, the Second Authority for Radio and Television fined Tel-Ad for this fiasco. Blessedly, scenes from this week's tragedy did not have to share a screen with those of confetti being thrown at Big Brother winner Shifra Cornfeld. It was no contest. The latter got full billing. Which brings me to the second reason I disagree with my colleague. Though we are right to place some of the onus on the public (after all, two million viewers cast votes via SMS to determine which Big Brother contestant would walk away with NIS 1 million), when it suits our purposes we also assume that the public is susceptible to the media's power of suggestion. This is why politicians on the Right consider themselves to be at a disadvantage at the hands of a generally left-leaning press, which, they believe, "sways the public." It is also why, whenever a journalist wins an award in this country - as in the most recent cases of Israel Radio's Arie Golan and Yaron Dekel - what is emphasized is his "setting of the national agenda." The point is that you can't have it both ways. You can't credit the media with - or blame them for - determining what readers, listeners and viewers should think, or think about, and at the same time find fault with the public's reading, listening and viewing habits. I AM reminded here of an exchange I overheard in the 1970s between a kibbutz volunteer from the United States and a visiting relative. Having witnessed a mad rush on the part of all the kibbutz members to the TV room to watch Ironside - an American series about a wheelchair-bound detective - the visitor had reached a profound sociological conclusion: Israelis, he said, are clearly drawn to the hero, played by Raymond Burr, because they identify with the underdog who has to overcome crippling obstacles to fight for justice. "Naaah," dismissed the volunteer, laughing. "There's only one channel in Israel, and Ironside's on it on Wednesday evenings." A lot has changed since those days, when the state-run channel was all that was available - and in black-and-white, to boot, due to former prime minister Golda Meir's claim that color TV was dangerously bourgeois. And nobody I know would want to set the clock back, regardless of how fed up he is with cables and satellites and oodles of channels to choose from, but still very little worth watching. Because, whatever the downside of commercial TV - especially the commercials - it's still better for all concerned. As a money-making business, it has to try to give customers what they want, while outdoing competitors. As such, it has forced the Israel Broadcasting Authority to work a lot harder to keep its clientele from dwindling into oblivion. In other words, it is no longer enough to fill a slot with Ironside and expect everybody to be happy for lack of an alternative. To be sure, this hasn't been easy on IBA, whose budget is not earned, but rather allocated (well, other than the license fee many people avoid paying). Unable to afford the kind of programming that its competitors are able to provide - both local productions and those purchased from abroad - it has had to spend the last few years justifying its very existence. Nor has criticism of Channel 1's slim pickings been confined to what it offers in terms of entertainment. Its news shows, too, began steadily losing viewers to the flashier studios, younger and sexier presenters and greater number of on-the-scene reporters that became the trademark of Channels 2 and 10. Indeed, during the second intifada, it became clear that if you wanted immediate information about a suicide bombing, Channel 1 would not have been the preferred address for it. In fact, many people would just as soon have removed the number 11 from their remote controls altogether. BUT A funny thing happened on the way to the proverbial chopping block. Channel 1, figuratively and literally, wised up. That's the beauty of the marketplace: It forces competitors to apply creativity to their endeavors. So, while Channel 2 did this by appealing to the lowest cultural common denominator - Channel 1 did exactly the opposite, without additional funding. The result has been ironic, to say the least. Today, if any event of gravity takes place, Channel 1 is actually the best place to go. This is certainly true if you're looking for in-depth discussion and commentary. But even if it's on-the-spot coverage you want, the channel is no slouch, due to its deal with Hot's roving reporters. Take Wednesday night's Kadima primary. While the other channels didn't shift their regular programming even one iota, Channel 1 provided hours upon hours of reportage, with Ayala Hasson Nesher at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds, and a panel in the studio, including prize-winner Dekel. This was to be expected. The same kind of extensive, through-the-night attention was given by Channel 1 to the municipal elections and Labor and Likud primaries. Had you turned the dial to the other channels during any of these occasions, you would have encountered the usual soap-opera fare. (Those who have been religiously tuned in to Big Brother all this time aren't perturbed; they've been gleaning their political and social knowledge from Yossi Bublil. No wonder Tzipi Livni said she hoped that voter turnout would be on a par with that of the reality show's finale.) SUCH DISTRIBUTION of the wealth, so to speak, shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the crisis which print journalism has been undergoing since the advent of the Internet. Recently, it has become acute, with massive lay-offs in newspapers the world over - and even the shutting down of institutions such as The Chicago Tribune - while glossy magazines like Oprah Winfrey's continue to flourish. The situation in this country, of course, is equally dire. We journalists and editors bemoan constant budget cuts which make it ever more difficult to perform our duties flawlessly. If only we had the resources - we say wistfully - imagine what we could do to make our product as perfect as our standards. As a lead singer in that particular "woe is me" choir, I would like to end here with a caveat, if not complete change of heart. The paper with the largest circulation and most advertising revenue in Israel is Yediot Aharonot. As such, it can afford luxuries the rest of us can barely remember ever having enjoyed - among them multiple reporters covering the same top story from different angles. At The Jerusalem Post, ours have no choice but to be versatile, flexible and ready not only to cover their already demanding beats, but to take on those of others who are on vacation. According to our own logic, then, Yediot's coverage of any event should be more current, reliable and professional than ours or than that of its Hebrew counterparts. But, simply put, it's not. Yediot, like Channel 2, is catering to - or shaping - certain appetites among its readership. And, like the commercial channels, it is more interested in appetite than accuracy. Just look at its colorful depiction of the black bus tragedy: heavy on graphics and speculation; light on established facts. But, hey, it's got a fab centerfold of Shifra Cornfeld & Co., confetti and all - which is promoted on the front page, split-screen style - below the bodies strewn in the wadi. In the likely event that the general elections on February 10 will coincide with the next season of Big Brother, we need not worry. Channel 1, like The Jerusalem Post, will have it covered.