Media Matters: Primary punches

The press is portraying Labor as pathetic and Likud as perilous. Is this the precursor to its coddling of Kadima?

Netanyahu and wife check caption 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Netanyahu and wife check caption 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
The local media went after Labor almost gleefully last week, grabbing any opportunity to pick at the "carcass" which polls are predicting will do extremely poorly on February 10. Indeed, coverage in the lead-up to the November 4 primary sounded like a collective eulogy, minus the tears - with party chairman Ehud Barak presented as the key culprit for the anticipated electoral decimation. Viewers were treated to repeated footage of the press conferences at which the defense minister vowed he would leave the coalition (ha, ha) - first, if the findings of the Winograd Report on the Second Lebanon War warranted it, and then, if police findings regarding Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's alleged criminal activities did. Airing a politician's flip-flopping is always apt. It is also proper journalistic practice. And it provides the perfect ammunition for political challengers. What was peculiar here was the fact that neither Barak nor the party itself was up for election yet, since this was an internal race solely to determine the party's list for the 18th Knesset. Equally odd was that it wasn't Barak's record either as defense minister or as party leader that the press was mainly pummeling. Rather, the bulk of the criticism was of a more personal nature - that he's "cold" and "arrogant," that he "thinks he knows better than everybody else," that he "lacks people skills." Counteracting this particular form of bad press was likely behind Barak's willingness to be interviewed on Ilana Dayan's Uvda ("fact") program about crucial "issues of state," such as why, for example, he now wears a wedding ring, when he didn't do so during his first marriage, and whether his choice of flashy digs in Tel Aviv's Akirov Towers wasn't perhaps a bit over the top. Speaking in the tone of a fallen hero cut down to size, Barak confessed to his personality problems, and assured that he has been learning from his mistakes. Then came the actual primary. Well, sort of. After much fanfare about the party's moving into the 21st century with - gasp! - computerized voting stations, Laborites ended up being unable to cast their ballots on the scheduled date of November 2, due to - what else? - computer failure. Given the almost crazed reaction to this unfortunate fiasco, one would have thought that nobody in this country had ever encountered defective networks before. Now, I admit that this was worthy of at least a chuckle, if not a guffaw. But boy did the press pounce on the occurrence as if it were the ultimate metaphor for the overall failure of the party as a whole, and of secretary-general Eitan Cabel - the person responsible for election logistics - in particular. Why computer failure should have become a main focal point for ridicule was partly mysterious and partly suspicious, especially since it all got sorted out two days later, when the voting was done manually. And though I thought that Labor was being picked on too harshly throughout - for the wrong reasons - I do admit to experiencing more than my fair share of satisfaction at watching Labor campaign manager Shalom Kital, former director-general of Channel 2, squirm. It's no fun having to defend your boss when he's not one of the "etrogs," is it? WHEN IT emerged that technical difficulties were about to affect, if not afflict, the Likud primary as well, reporters in the field and commentators in the TV studios devoted most of the afternoon and evening broadcasts to the "screw-up" that was threatening to postpone the voting. (Though ultimately, the voting was extended for two hours, initially there was talk of finishing the primary the following day.) The difference between this primary and Labor's was twofold. First of all, the glitch in the Likud voting was not really due to a computer failure, but rather to the fact that there weren't enough stations to enable all the voters to cast their ballots by the 10 p.m. deadline, particularly since a miscalculation had been made about how many minutes it would take each voter to figure out which buttons to press once in the booth. (Earlier in the day, in Jerusalem, a Bezeq fiber-optic cable was severed accidentally by construction work, and this caused a temporary disruption in all cellphone and other network connections throughout the city. It was simply bad luck for Likud that it happened on the day of its primary.) This did not prevent the press, however, from turning the long lines of tired, disgruntled Likudniks into The Story. Or, to be more precise, to weave them into the fabric of its true focus on the Likud primary - the so-called "Feiglin phenomenon." Herein lies the second difference between the media's attitude toward Labor and Likud. While the former has been perceived for quite some time now as a Survivor contestant about to be cast off the island, the latter has been gathering the momentum of a cast of Oscar nominees on the eve of the Academy Awards. Thus, whereas the worst Labor can do to Kadima is steal away a floating mandate or two, Likud is liable to oust the incumbent leadership with a clear majority. Like a dog smelling fear, the media have been aiming at Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu's Achilles' heel - the labeling of him and his party as "right-wing extremist" - since they got wind of his battle to block the candidate who best fits this description. For his part, Moshe Feiglin has been only too happy to have the attention, not to mention a seat in the next Knesset (unless Bibi succeeds in his post-primary effort to take it away from him, that is). Not that this will win Netanyahu any popularity contests in the press, mind you, since it considers all the Likud winners, even those whom Bibi backed, "right-wing extremists." Amnon Abramovich - you know, the father of the term and the practice of etrogization - went as far as to refer to the entire Likud list as "Feiglins" (Gila Gamliel Feiglin, Ayoub Kara Feiglin, etc.) Here a good word has to be put in for Channel 2 political correspondent Rina Matzliah - one of very few of her colleagues who remembered that while on the air, she's supposed to be a journalist, not a juror. "Let's not play the game of the politicians," she said on Tuesday evening. What she meant was that while all's fair in love and war among political opponents vying for leadership positions, the press has a different script to follow. THE KADIMA primary is slated for Wednesday. Having the benefit of the experience of her two rivals, it is not likely that Tzipi Livni is going to risk adding computer woes to her others. And it remains to be seen in what light she and her party will be portrayed in the press. Given the pre-disengagement precedent and primary coverage thus far, I'd wager that we're in for a new round of etrog journalism at its finest. Would that I be proven wrong.