Media Matters: Held hostage

The press' lack of professionalism surrounding the failed Schalit deal has imprisoned the public.

Schalit family protest tent 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Schalit family protest tent 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Recently I vowed that, no matter what, I wouldn't touch the coverage of the Gilad Schalit deal in these pages - with a 10-foot pole. This is because it has become impossible to discuss the media's behavior without entering into the larger debate. And any position one expresses these days which runs counter to that of the kidnapped soldier's suffering parents automatically arouses misunderstanding at best and wrath at worst. Emotionally charged issues tend to have that effect in general. In particular, when the press decides to back a single way of looking at something, there is no room for subtlety or complexity. Certainly none for dissent. The journalistic self-justification for engaging in a practice that, under normal circumstances, would be considered an egregious violation of professional standards is that certain subjects are so clear-cut that the media not only are exempt from proper procedure, but have a moral duty to steer away from it. TAKE THE Josef Fritzl trial, for example, that began this week in Austria. Fritzl confessed to having enslaved his daughter in the basement of the family home for 24 years, during which time he sired her seven children, one of whom died for lack of medical care. When the gruesome details of the case emerged last year, a huge outcry resounded throughout the world. Since there was no question as to the identity of the perpetrator, the only questions raised about the case were whether Fritzl was the epitome of true evil or rather the victim of his own abusive childhood; how it was possible that such horrific events went on for so long unnoticed in a residential area; why his wife remained clueless; and what, short of lynching, would be appropriate punishment for a murderous, incestuous pedophile of this proportion. The Austrian media made no bones about their sentiments. Calling Fritzl the "incest cellar monster," and other similar labels, at the courthouse this week, they ridiculed him with a vengeance. When the defendant covered his face with a paper folder - an act his lawyer said was spurred by his client's embarrassment - one headline read: "Now he's ashamed - 25 years too late!" Still, no one has accused the Austrian press of slanted reportage or bias unbefitting of news organizations. It is assumed that members of the Austrian media are also members of the human race, with personal feelings that get the better of them when faced with facts that lead to an inescapably uniform stance and consensus-based conclusion. Leaving aside the valid argument over whether journalistic ethics should ever be suspended, even when it comes to a man who kept his offspring in a dank dungeon for more than two decades, the Fritzl story sheds light on the circus surrounding Schalit. And now I'm going to break my vow. AS IT is in Austria, the press here is as much a part of the population as it is a crucial branch of democracy. In Israel, a country under constant military threat, this fact is compounded by an unusual situation: The media are not only citizens of the state, but - like all the state's citizens - we are soldiers (and the parents, siblings and children of soldiers), as well. This means that, unlike in Austria, much of the news here is on a par with the Fritzl case, in the sense that it often elicits a similar depth of gut reaction, both from the public and from the press. And the two feed on each other fiercely, as though fearing an imminent famine. Herein lies the explanation for the Schalit frenzy that has characterized the local coverage of the captured soldier of late, but which reached fever pitch this week, during the lead-up to a potentially massive prisoner swap to bring the boy home to his mother and father. The position of the press - with very few exceptions (among them The Jerusalem Post) - has been that Gilad should be brought back, "at any cost." According to this mantra, no soldier will be willing to go to battle from now on, knowing that if he gets captured, the government is liable to leave him in the hands of the enemy. To add credence to this and other claims of this nature, experts in every field have been hauled into the TV and radio studios - and quoted in the papers. Even rabbinical sages have been consulted, for the purpose of asserting that Jewish law forbids abandoning a soldier to a fate such as Gilad's. (Here it should be noted that the mostly secular, liberal media oppose any rabbinical decree that does not jibe 100 percent with their political stand - so consulting Halacha in this case is more than just a tad hypocritical.) Coupled with constant coverage of the tent pitched by Aviva and Noam Schalit across from the prime minister's residence, the media's campaign has been so comprehensive that all other voices are virtually drowned out. And when some do manage to make a dent, they are not silenced, but rather amplified as right-wing fanatical or - worse - unfeeling. This puts any pundit or politician who disagrees on the defensive. Even those who try to point out that Hamas is also watching Israeli broadcasts, which only serve to strengthen its sense that it need not soften its bargaining position even one iota, have to preface their statements by assuring everybody that, of course, they, too, want to see Gilad home as soon as possible. Even those who attempt to suggest that releasing hundreds of the worst terrorists who are sure to strike again, both by slaughtering innocent Israelis and by kidnapping additional ones for future trades, are forced first to reiterate that they also would be acting as the Schalit family has been if it were their own child in captivity. THE PURPOSE of this kind of emotional blackmail and manipulation on the part of the media is to award them a monopoly on goodness. As with the desire for "peace," they behave as though they have cornered the market on wanting to rescue Schalit - while the rest of us would prefer war and embrace heartlessness. This is as preposterous as it is dangerous - the former because everybody in this country wants both peace and Schalit's safe return, and the latter because it leads to confusion about who the real culprit is. When Prime Minister Ehud Olmert receives more criticism from the Hebrew press about Schalit's predicament than Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, it's time for it to undergo some serious scrutiny and sorely needed soul-searching. Indeed, this one-track mind-frame that has taken the entire country hostage makes the coverage of the Fritzl torture chamber appear neutral. Let us members of the press and the public extricate ourselves from this dungeon, before it's too late for Gilad - and for the integrity of the profession as a whole.