Media Matters: Getting our priorities straight

With all due respect to the Dana Bennet murder case, North Korea is on the nuclear warpath.

Yihye Farhan bennet killer 248.88 ch2 (photo credit: Channel 2)
Yihye Farhan bennet killer 248.88 ch2
(photo credit: Channel 2)
When the remains of missing teenager Dana Bennet were found just over a week ago, it was understandable that the press played it up. We Israelis identify with every mother and father who loses a child to anything, whether it be illness, terrorism, car accident or crime. We take each case personally. Via the media, we begin to feel familiar with the protagonists, often referring to them by their first names. Because this is a tiny country, we might even actually know some of them - or at least someone related or otherwise connected to them. Both the press and the public behave accordingly. Just look at how the story of four-year-old Rose Pizem has been the focus of our preoccupation since it broke eight months ago, and how it returned full force this week, as bits of testimony from the girl's paternal grandfather/step-father and confessed killer continue to emerge from the trial. STILL, THERE is such a thing as going too far. And Tuesday's buildup to the noon press conference held by the investigators in the Bennet case constituted just that. Announcements on the radio all morning about the event that was going to put an end to gossip and rumor surrounding the murder of the 18-year-old American-Israeli sounded more like coming attractions for a blockbuster than neutral news bulletins. Ynet and NRG (Ma'ariv) led their Web pages with the countdown, to make sure nobody failed to tune in to hear - or watch - the news of what kept being touted as one of the country's most horrifying crimes. The police department was equally, if not more, responsible for this sensationalist approach. First it trickled information to the press, a drop at a time, and then indicated that it was going to open the floodgates, guaranteeing that representatives from every local news outfit would be present, microphones in hand and cameras ready to roll. Well, the production was a watered-down flop - especially considering the great fanfare that preceded it. True, by its end, we knew that a Beduin named Adwan Yihya Farhan had admitted to killing Bennet, in cold blood, with his bare hands, after his former girlfriend and conspirator ratted on him. We also knew that his confession included having committed other unsolved crimes, including attempted kidnappings, rapes and additional murders. We even learned that the police had summoned Farhan for questioning soon after Bennet's disappearance, but had let him go for lack of evidence (though this interesting point was quickly glossed over during the short Q&A allotted to the assembled crews). Almost all other answers to reporters' questions were vague. Two excuses were given for the fog that - in spite of the hype - was not cleared: One was that the informant was a minor when the crime was committed, and therefore, by law, her identity could not be revealed. The other was that any additional details could harm the continuing investigation. In other words, the whole thing could have been written up by police reporters sitting at their desks and relying on faxes from the spokesman's office. But, of course, in soap-opera land, that simply would not suffice. Thankfully, the press conference did not suffice for the dozens of journalists now doing the follow-up. Indeed, as soon as the disappointing display came to a close, they began doing their jobs - pounding proverbial and literal pavements to fill in all the remaining blanks. Picking up on this, the pundits and talk-show hosts have been delving into the larger criminological, legal and societal issues connected to Farhan's sociopathic sprees of violence. Two things make this massive coverage peculiar. The first is the fact that had Bennet's death been what we call "nationalistically motivated" (i.e. perpetrated by a Palestinian terrorist), it would not have generated this level of hysteria. It's as though such carnage is so par for the course in this country that it no longer elicits the degree of horror that less common phenomena seem to. This brings us to the second oddity surrounding the coverage of the Bennet case. On Tuesday morning, prior to the aforementioned press conference, a far more globally consequential news story hit the wires. While we were all waiting with bated breath to be briefed on a "serial killer" (a misnomer in this case, by the way; "multiple murderer" probably would be more accurate), North Korea boasted a successful launch of short-range missiles - following the previous day's underground nuclear test. Now, either I have lost touch with reality (or with my peers in the profession and the public), or this is a very major development, and a genuinely worrisome one at that. Nevertheless, only The Jerusalem Post and Haaretz treated it with the gravity it warranted, even though doing so meant moving revelations about the Bennet murder down a notch. After all, Bennet is long gone, and Farhan is in custody. North Korea, on the other hand (you know, the country which helped Syria build the nuclear reactor that Israel ended up bombing in September 2007), is giving the world the finger - with Iran watching. This is not to say that the Hebrew press should be sowing panic - though the repeated reminders to the public about a countrywide air-raid drill, to be held on Tuesday at 11 a.m., would indicate that the powers-that-be are trying to prepare us for any number of life-threatening scenarios. As much as we cherish the well-being of individuals who fall prey to the likes of killers, let us in the media not overly indulge the fascination with local, "made-for-TV-movie" material at the expense of the bigger picture.