Media Matters: Journalism's bang-up job

The media shouldn't be glorifying the godfathers.

alperon car bomb 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
alperon car bomb 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Monday's car-bomb murder of mob boss Ya'acov Alperon took center stage midweek, pushing politics and rocket-fire down the press-coverage pecking order. This is not the least bit surprising from a media point of view, considering the current cultural climate. What, other than a real-life season of The Sopranos playing out on the streets of Tel Aviv, could compete with Big Brother for ratings? Not that readers and viewers in this country are wanting for events involving blood and guts - or that reporters and photographers are lacking in the relevant material. On the contrary, so frequent have acts of terrorism been here - particularly during the second intifada, when suicide bombings were a daily, often twice daily, occurrence - that we at The Post devoted entire editorial meetings to the question of how graphic we should be when depicting, or even describing, them. This is no small dilemma. On the one hand, showing severed body parts on the front page of a family newspaper is shocking, at best, and sensationalist at worst. Even in a democracy, where the media's most crucial role is to provide the public with what it has a right to know, there is still such a thing as "too much information." On the other hand, censoring or modifying horrors may minimize them in some way. Imagine, for example, a tour of Yad Vashem without the visuals. Ditto for road-carnage statistics. Where terrorism is concerned, the quandary is even greater, since the Arab perpetrators and their apologists are not only happy to print and broadcast the most gruesome details of their own maimed victims - as well as fabricate and photoshop them at will - but do so purposely, as part of their strategy in the war against Israel. What this means is that the exercise of restraint, based on considerations of sensitivity, makes the PR playing field even less level than it already is. But are the media in a free society supposed to serve as a public-diplomacy vehicle for the state? The answer should be a firm "no." But what the answer actually is lies somewhere between "maybe" and "that depends on who's in power." As far as the "maybe" is concerned: A case can be made for a certain degree of cooperation among all echelons of a society when it is under threat. Unfortunately, this country has been in that category throughout its existence. This is why, in spite of the fact that submitting military material to the IDF Censor has become an anachronistic practice due to the wide-open Web, the local media agree - albeit grudgingly at times - to observe the regulation. After all, however sacred we hold the right to freedom of speech, most of us have no interest in endangering national security - particularly since we journalists also serve in the army and/or have children or spouses who do so. In other words, unlike our counterparts in the United States and Europe, we are in the peculiar position of having to fight our battles with pen and sword simultaneously. Ironically, this has the opposite of the effect one would expect. Rather than turning the members of our media into mouthpieces for the military, it tends to make us bend over backwards to express empathy for the enemy - or at least to present "balanced" coverage of an imbalanced conflict. Then there's the "that depends on who's in power" answer - or, more accurately, "that depends on which policies the leading party is promoting." If it is peace conferences, prisoner releases and territorial withdrawals on the agenda, the media here tend to behave more like a branch of the government than like its watchdog. THIS AND other issues were raised at "The Seventh Annual David Bar-Illan Conference on the Media and the Middle East" that took place on Tuesday at the Ariel University Center of Samaria. The day-long conference - whose keynote speaker, former US undersecretary of defense for policy Douglas Feith, addressed the 300-strong audience via videocam - focused on the influence of the media and the extent to which they should be regulated. Former police chief Assaf Hefetz's participation on the panel entitled "Israeli Media and Its Impact on Government Policy Related to Terrorism" turned out to be timely, thanks to the Alperon slaying. Gang killings, he asserted, are no less acts of terrorism than those committed by Palestinians, especially since innocent civilians get caught in the crossfire. Tying his talk to the media, Hefetz was kinder than other panelists, who attacked the press for being witting and unwitting tools of the terrorists. Claiming that it's not only the bad guys who benefit from media coverage, but the police as well, Hefetz (who, by the way, is among the public figures who have been joining, or rejoining, the Likud of late) asserted that it is precisely the press which reminds the public of the ills of organized crime. His only criticism of the media was that "they have been a bit too harsh" on the men in blue. Now, there's an understatement for you. WHICH BRINGS us back to the coverage of the car-bombing in which Alperon was "whacked." Whether it's terrorism like any other, as Hefetz believes, is highly debatable. Though innocents are often killed or wounded when mafiosos go after each other, they are not the intended targets. Still, if the police want to treat it as such, so much the better for all of us. It's their job to combat the underworld crime that has crawled its way out of the sewer and onto the street. The media have a different task, however, and that is to apply a standard of reportage that does justice to the severity of the issue, without sensationalizing it on the one hand or trivializing it on the other. And it's certainly not to glorify the godfathers. Would that the Hebrew media had kept this in mind. Was it really necessary for Yediot Aharonot on Tuesday to have a full-blown photo on its cover of Alperon's slumped dead body hanging out of the blown-up car? That his face is blurred with little squares does little to curb the gruesome nature of the picture. So what's the point of it altogether? If it is to illustrate the magnitude of mafia infighting, why not focus on the innocent victims instead? And by innocent victims, I don't mean the grieving widow, Ahuva Alperon. Nevertheless, an interview with the Carmela Soprano-like character - who persists in presenting willful ignorance of the ins and outs of the family business that has kept her in clover - was part of the paper's Alperon package. This was nothing, however, compared to the mockery Channel 10 made of proper media practice later that day - on its program 5 with Rafi Reshef - by hosting the blonde widow, whose weeping didn't even smudge her make-up, from her home in Ra'anana. Reshef: "First of all, we all extend our condolences over your loss." Ahuva: "Oh, and what a loss it is!"... I'm left with seven orphans... I beseech you, don't look for revenge. Don't seek out war. What's done is done... pursue peace." Reshef: "Whom are you addressing when you say this?" Ahuva: "Anyone who's listening." Reshef: "As far as you know, is [your son] Dror the natural heir?" Ahuva: "Dror isn't an heir of anything. He'll finish his studies..." Nobody mentioned that it might be hard for Dror to "finish his studies," while under indictment for extortion. Or that the only people likely to be seeking revenge are named Alperon. But why nitpick when you're giving your network ratings that only Big Brother can surpass?