Media Matters: Emergency measures

Alarm over the budget may not have resounded as loudly as this week's earthquake in Italy, but it came in a close second in terms of press coverage.

Two earthquakes and their aftershocks struck earlier this week - one literal, the other figurative. Both registered high on the local media's Richter scale, causing confusion about which was the actual lead story. Indeed, Monday morning's news of the tragedy in L'Aquila - declared a national emergency by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi - was just about the only item, other than a major terrorist attack, that possibly could have upstaged the Hebrew press's near hysteria over the economic crisis, and the immediate measures adopted by the new government to confront it. By Tuesday, talk-show hosts had figured out a way to solve this particular priority dilemma by managing to create linkage, albeit indirectly, between the two most urgent issues. This is a well-known trick-of-the-trade that comes in handy when top-heavy headlines abound. It is also a function of the "find the Israeli or Jewish angle" practice that commonly characterizes coverage at home of events abroad. This is why the initial bulletin blitz of reportage from the scene of the wreckage was quickly followed by interviews with Israeli Ambassador to Italy Gideon Meir and other lesser consuls to determine how many of our own landsmen were among the casualties or the missing. (For three days, discussion focused on Israeli-Arab medical student Hussein Hamada, whose body was finally found and identified by his distraught father, who had flown to the scene from his village in the Galilee.) This is not to say that the rising death toll in the devastated city 113 kilometers west of Rome would not have been sufficient in and of itself to warrant well-deserved attention in this country. On the contrary, it is as tragic as it is tragically "refreshing" to report on the death of innocents not perpetrated by terrorists with a global mission, or by gun-slingers gone berserk over the devil knows what. This is especially the case where certain natural disasters are concerned, earthquakes chief among them. Even more so when they happen anywhere in the vicinity of the Mediterranean, which is what we consider our own neighborhood. As always, whenever there is an earthquake in the region, whether it be somewhere in Israel or elsewhere, such as in Turkey in 1999 and 2003, seismologists become suddenly all the rage. Hauled into TV and radio studios to share their expertise, they are treated as the prophets of the hour. And their doomsaying is perceived more as gospel than long-term assessment or far-off forecast. This derives less from the media's desire to sow panic among the public than from a penchant for pointing everything in a political direction. And though rumbling from within the bowels of the planet themselves cannot be attributed to the powers-that-be (other than, perhaps, to God, that is), all surrounding causes and effects certainly can be and indeed are. Take global warming, for instance. The two key political issues brought to the fore in this case - "preparedness" and "allocation of government funding" - are favorites among the pundits. This is because they are applicable to almost any situation that spells danger, and are rarely challenged. It is considered axiomatic, after all, that The Government only wakes up to its responsibility to safeguard the citizens of the state after people are killed or maimed unnecessarily; and it is a given that, in the final analysis, it all boils down to budget - more precisely, to proper distribution of our tax shekels. THIS WAS reiterated by top disaster relief specialist and chair of the national panel on earthquake preparedness Dr. Ephraim Laor, in the immediate aftermath of the first L'Aquila quake. In an interview with Amikam Rothman on Israel Radio, Laor said that the last government passed a bill to fortify schools and other structures, to reduce risk in the event of an earthquake - but, of course, nothing ever came of it. Laor's comments were interrupted by the half-hour news bulletin, the focus of which was the two-and-a-half-month extension received by the new government to pass a two-year budget. Back on the air following the item, Laor used it as a further peg for his argument. Sarcastically wondering aloud whether this budget will include money for precautionary measures against earthquakes, he went on to describe how he himself has been getting ready for the sure-to-come catastrophe. For "not much extra money," he said, he was able to renovate his own house to make it more earthquake-proof. Rothman then reminisced with his interviewee about the "old days," when they were kids and told that, in the event of an earthquake, they should crawl under their school-desks for protection. Rothman asked Laor whether this wasn't actually a mistake, since the people who survived in Italy were those who had run outside, not taken cover under furniture or doorways. Laor didn't really have an answer, other than to continue to wax nostalgic. Construction in this country isn't what it used to be, he said wistfully. Doorframes are no longer sturdy, and desks in schools today are flimsy. Not only that, he added, but "whereas back then, a fourth-grader could actually fit under his desk, today's children eat too many McDonald's hamburgers and fries." Doing his job as a professional journalist, Rothman posed a "challenge" to his guest. "Come on," he said. "We saw those pictures from Italy. What difference, really, would fortified doorjambs or desks have made?" Interestingly, what he did not say, ask about or even mention was the fact that the fight over money allocated for fortifying edifices in recent years has been connected to missile barrages. And, however palpable the prospect of a major earthquake's rattling Israel in the near or not-so-near future, the bombardment of Kassams, Katyushas and Grads over the past few years has been an actual occurrence that has required immediate attention... and money. Not only that. After the Second War in Lebanon, deemed a fiasco in terms of the army's preparedness, the military had to undergo serious revamping - yet another resource-guzzler. But Rothman didn't bother bringing that up either. This is not to say that he didn't raise the topic of the IDF, however. Bidding his guest farewell, he signed off as follows: "Well, Dr. Laor, you've sure come a long way since you were my soldier." For those of you unfamiliar with local nuance, this constituted a classical Hebrew media maneuver on Rothman's part - letting it "slip" that he was an officer, most certainly in a combat unit. And his underlings were no slouches. AS FOR the brouhaha over the two-year budget, well, it melded nicely both with the Pessah holiday coverage and the appointment of Yuval Steinitz as finance minister. The former, as always - regardless of the condition of the economy - deals chiefly with poverty, and all those unfortunate families who have nothing to put on their seder tables. This year, it was a veritable "feast," due to the record-breaking unemployment statistics that have become a prime front-page feature in all the dailies. The latter - Steinitz and finance - fits in very nicely with the overall portrayal of the situation as the worst in the state's history. How, the pundits (with the exception of conservative columnist Tal Altshuler, in a piece on Ynet called "Yes to Steinitz") have been pounding, could a philosophy professor-turned-pol possibly bring us back from the brink? Funny that none wondered aloud whether he was up to the task of preparing the country for an imminent earthquake.