Media Matters: Sex, lies and red tape

The coverage of the Katsav case is divided along gender lines - and united around revenge.

Katsav Kiryat Malahi conference 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Katsav Kiryat Malahi conference 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Every year at Beit Sokolow in Tel Aviv, the prime minister holds a meeting with the local editors of newspapers, radio stations and television networks to mark "Kav Tet B'November" - the anniversary of the 1947 UN resolution to partition Palestine. Nearly two and a half years ago, at the 2006 event, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert energetically and cheerfully fielded questions on the topics of the day from as many of us in attendance as were able to make it to the microphone. As one of the lucky ones, I didn't want to waste the opportunity on a single query, so I slipped in an additional one for good measure. The first related to the conclusions the PM was going to reach in the wake of Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas's failure to achieve a national unity government with Hamas. The second was: "What is your view of the Katsav affair, and who is your preferred candidate for his replacement?" At this, Olmert giggled. Everybody else in the room proceeded to do the same. The event was broadcast live on the radio. As soon as it was over, I began to receive phone calls from colleagues. "Why did Olmert laugh?" each asked, wondering if they had missed something visual. I wasn't sure what to say. Not that I didn't know the answer. But it seemed so unlikely that, in the context of serious criminal allegations surrounding the president, the mere hint of sex was enough to cause chuckling. In this case in particular, which purportedly involved rape - a violent crime that could hardly be considered titillating - it was beneath all dignity for a group of adults to respond as though they were in grade-school. And these were not just any adults. They were the leader of the country and the heads of media departments charged with covering the developments of that very case. Still, it was, and is, telling on two counts. The first is that, whatever the cultural climate, sex and violence sell, news-wise - especially when attached to a public figure. And if Moshe Katsav's name elicited snickering among editors, imagine what kind of attention it would draw from the readers, listeners and viewers to whom we editors cater. The other is that members of the media are also members of the public, with individual interests and tastes that govern the way we select, prioritize, present and view issues. The decision to zero in on a certain topic on a given day, then, is as much a function of the above as it is of an actual shift or breakthrough in a situation.The coverage of Gilad Schalit is a perfect example. Though nothing new happened after his family pitched a protest tent in front of Olmert's residence, Schalit was the top story in the Hebrew press for days. Where Katsav is concerned, I can give another personal example. Last week, with renewed focus on the corruption case of former finance minister Avraham Hirschson and the announcement of a probable indictment of outgoing Prime Minister Olmert, as well as a new investigation into the dealings of Israel Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman, I was suddenly reminded of Katsav. Commissioning a piece from legal affairs reporter Rebecca Anna Stoil, I requested that she find out where the by-now quite old - and, in some circles, forgotten - case stands today. This resulted in her article last Friday in these pages, entitled "The slow wheels of justice." As its name suggests, the piece examined why it's taken so long for Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz to decide whether to indict Katsav or drop the case for lack of sufficient evidence. The upshot was that an indictment was "pretty close." On Sunday morning, Mazuz announced his intention to indict the former president. As much as I would like to take credit for astute aforethought, I have to admit that this editorial coup was more due to fortune than skill. What has emerged in the Hebrew press since that moment, however, is the result of neither fortune nor skill. It nevertheless comes with an interesting twist. Unlike the first wave of reportage on the Katsav case - which was characterized by the debate it aroused on whether the president indeed forced himself on his accusers, or whether the women in question were coming forth after feeling scorned - this time around, the argument is over whether the attorney-general is acting in good faith, or speeding up an indictment to save face, and perhaps his job, before the new government is formed. This is not to say that the debate is no longer divided along gender lines. On the contrary, there is a clear distinction between the way that male and female talk-show hosts and pundits discuss the issue. Whereas the latter continue to see it as Katsav vs. the "Alephs" and "Heh," the former present it as Katsav vs. Mazuz, with both portrayed as bad guys. In other words, the uniformity of reportage lies in the assumption of male wrongdoing. That Mazuz's announcement happened to fall smack on International Women's Day only fanned these flames. Added to all the reports about lack of equality in the workforce, was the juicy morsel about Katsav, which provided "proof" of women's being prey to the predatory nature of men in positions of power. Oh, and of course, the across-the-board agreement that the former president should certainly be stripped of his pension and other benefits - before it's even been established whether he is guilty of anything. Regarding the problematic evidence of one of the Aleph's testimony, due to the emergence of several taped phone conversations between her and her alleged attacker after he supposedly raped her, Israel Radio's Keren Neubach had a solution to this inconvenient hitch. "And now to our next guest, the head of trauma at Ichilov Hospital, who will explain why rape victims might keep in touch with their attackers." Neubach's male colleague, Yaron Dekel - whose Hakol Diburim program is broadcast immediately after Neubach's Seder Yom - didn't even mention the women. He went straight for Mazuz and Katsav, the former for the timing of his announcement (several months after the plea bargain he consented to with the accused), and the latter for attacking - who else? - the media. Which brings us to another key element of the case: the poor relationship between Katsav and the press. It is a relationship that Katsav's lawyers and family fear will carry weight, both in the actual courtroom and in the court of public opinion. Indeed, Katsav and his team continue to blame the media for much of his plight. Meanwhile, however, out of the other side of their mouths, they insist that a majority of the public considers him innocent. If they are right, the media couldn't be having the kind of impact they keep harping on. This doesn't mean Katsav is wrong to feel he's not getting a fair shake where the media is concerned. There he's got a point. For, whatever crime he did or did not commit against this or that woman in his employ over the years, one "sin" for which he will not be forgiven by the media is his shouting match with Channel 2's Gadi Sukenik, during his January 24, 2007 press conference, at which he said he was the victim of a media witch-hunt. He also said he wouldn't resign unless indicted. Things didn't work out that way, of course. But this wasn't the media's fault. If anything, the carry-on in the Knesset, especially among lady MKs, was so deafening that Katsav was left with no choice but to step down. WHICH BRINGS us to Thursday evening's press conference. After massive media build-up prior to the event - televised live on all three channels - Katsav took the self-imposed "witness stand" in his home town of Kiryat Malachi. Sukenik sat among the panel of "judges" in the Channel 2 studio, and Kinneret Barashi, formerly the first Aleph's lawyer, sat in that of Channel 1, where she is now employed as a talk-show host. The question that kept being raised by the members of the press providing ongoing commentary was whether Katsav was about to attack the legal system and the media again, going as far as to say that he could end up having another indictment on his hands - for insulting public servants Mazuz and State Attorney Moshe Lador. Well, on that score, they weren't disappointed. Katsav indeed killed two birds with one stone, accusing the attorney-general and the police of being in cahoots with the media to bring him down. After hurling accusation upon accusation at Mazuz, he began naming individual journalists. And then mini-hell broke loose, with Ma'ariv's Rino Tzror leaving the room and Shalom Yerushalmi (fired from that paper after complaints from Katsav, said the former president) following suit. What no one had anticipated, however, was how long Katsav was going to rant. After more than an hour and a half, the stations began broadcasting other news. The "press conference," in the end, went on for two hours. One thing's for sure, if Katsav thought that through this display, he would somehow clear his name prior to his trial, he's got another think coming. Boring a bunch of journalists to death may be even worse than brow-beating them. AT NEXT November's Beit Sokolow event, Katsav might still - or again - be in the news. But at that point, it's doubtful his name will elicit laughter. If anything, it's liable to evoke a sneer... or even a snore.