Media Matters: Three, two, one...exit polls!

Fireworks at the end of the countdown would have been less of a surprise than Kadima's lead over Likud.

barak eretz nehederet 248 88 (photo credit: Channel 2 [file])
barak eretz nehederet 248 88
(photo credit: Channel 2 [file])
Contrary to popular belief and conventional wisdom, including my own of late, Avigdor Lieberman was not actually the star of election night. Don't get me wrong. He certainly has been a central focus of attention, and will now play a key role in the particularly complex coalition-building that its unexpected outcome has dictated. Nor, as some have suggested - only partly tongue-in-cheek - is it Ehud Olmert who should take home the Oscar for having stolen the show from behind the scenes. Remaining in the shadows, on the one hand, and going about affairs of state on the other, the prime minister - suggested Kevoon Research director Mitchell Barak on IBA News recently - is calculating his come-back while still in office. No, the real winner of the campaign's culmination - the group for whom the surrounding chaos and controversy will serve only to enhance poll performance - is the press. Like the candidates themselves, members of the local media (some of whom actually became candidates themselves) - had virtually no time even to put on their makeup, let alone prepare their strategies, in the lead-up to the lights-camera-action of what promised to be a riveting, if not ruthless, race for the 18th Knesset. Having a war break out will do that. Indeed, in the print and broadcast world, massive military operations trump baby kissing and bumper stickers any day. Well, that, and inaugurations of black presidents in White Houses. The minute the proverbial coast was clear, when the IDF was out of Gaza and Barack Obama in the Oval Office, the clambering - and clamoring - began. Though the public was deemed apathetic, due its lack of luster, it seemed to be the contenders who were half asleep and lulling everybody else into a stupor. Everybody, that is, other than those reporting and commentating on them. Labor leader Ehud Barak, encouraged by a surge in his image as an experienced and reliable wartime defense minister, felt he could rest on his Cast Lead laurels and rely on idiotic campaign commercials poking fun at his not being a bullsh-tter - and on his ultra-personal prewar interview with Ilana Dayan, in which he apologized for not having better people skills - to guarantee his keeping his job in the next government. That he also had Shelly Yacimovich conducting mock interviews on the radio - in the style of her broadcasts before she threw in the talk-show towel to don the robes of the Knesset - didn't hurt. Likud lord Binyamin Netanyahu, satisfied by a rise in his reputation as the only sane alternative to Annapolis addicts whose peacemaking efforts and fantasies were growing more pathetic with each missile falling on the South, felt he could rely on predictions of his garnering a clear majority. This led to his expressed largesse about including the parties to the left of him in his coalition. It also led him to reject Tzipi Livni's challenge to debate him on television. The media here never have favored Netanyahu, but robbing them of the opportunity to host such a ratings-grabber could not have been to his advantage. Israel Beiteinu czar Avigdor Lieberman, egged on by having Ahmadinejad, Haniyeh, Abbas and the likes of Ahmed Tibi unwittingly in his corner - constantly reminding the death-threat-weary Israeli electorate that neighborly relations with Arabs inside and out of the country is but a ballistic hop, skip and a jump into the sea away - felt he could rely on his simplistic message, "No citizenship without loyalty," to relieve Netanyahu and other right-wing parties of a cut of their constituencies. Though only too happy to have Netanyahu's numbers curbed, the media went into a tailspin over Lieberman's supposedly "racist" platform. Kadima head honcho-ette Tzipi Livni, bolstered by having Reuven Adler and Eyal Arad, the best spin doctors money could buy, to portray her as Ariel Sharon's natural successor, with the underlying accusation that only sexists wouldn't see it that way, felt she could rely on her advisers - and the media - to help her overcome her trail behind Netanyahu. Well, her advisers knew what they were doing. The media, on the other hand, did the job without knowing what they were doing. Ari Shavit's scathing op-ed - in which he quoted Kadima sympathizers revealing that Livni is unfit to be prime minister - aroused so much ire that it had the opposite of the desired effect. Furthermore, it was too little, too late, if it mattered at all. Far more significant was the ongoing carry-on surrounding Lieberman, who seemed to be gaining momentum - and fast. Ironically, media hype was as responsible for the phenomenon as rocket fire. Even funnier was the way in which this fear-and-smear campaign against Lieberman had the inadvertent effect of assisting Livni, while at the same time crushing her bloc. Worried that a vote for anybody other than Tzipi would strengthen the Right - and therefore supposedly guarantee Lieberman a prominent place in the next government - Labor, Meretz and Greens supporters held their noses and cast their ballots for Kadima. Talk about Pyrrhic victories. Now they're going to end up with a coalition that welcomes Israel Beiteinu, whether Livni heads it or not. SO MUCH for media influence on the results of Tuesday's election. Now, let's talk about the coverage of those results. Hi-tech doesn't begin to describe the studio props and other gimmicks employed to give the event an air of celebration. Had fireworks gone off when the countdown to the exit polls hit zero, it would have come as less of a surprise than Kadima's two-mandate lead over Likud, and of Israel Beiteinu's relatively modest showing, considering the forecasts. That Channel 10 used the lit up Azrieli Towers to project the outcome might have confused an outside observer into thinking he'd stumbled onto New Year's Eve in Times Square, or the Fourth of July at the foot of the Empire State Building. It was as though, in the three weeks between the end of the Gaza operation and the opening of the voting stations, the media had been engaged in a dress rehearsal, and Tuesday was opening night, replete with the best box-office draws in celebrity journalism, and spectacular sets worthy of a Spielberg extravaganza. The only trouble for the viewers was that there were three gala performances going on simultaneously and competing over which would cause us to stop flipping from one to the other and leave the remote control on the coffee table. MY OWN personal preference was Channel 1, because it was the only one that provided updates of final results on the bottom of the screen, according to regions in which vote counting had been completed. But I'm in the minority. Based on the ratings, it was Channel 2 which won the popularity contest - undoubtedly due to its incorporating Eretz Nehederet's "election coverage" into its serious news and commentary. If you can call the sight of Yonit Levy & Co. tapping touch screens from which virtual coalitions and mug shots of party members popped out like full-size versions of themselves "serious," that is. But the best indication that the broadcasters were no less vying for votes than Bibi, Tzipi and Avigdor is the Web. Even the language of the talkbackers is telling. "Miki Haimovitch for prime minister," "Hail to Eyal Kitsis" and "Geula Even's got my support," and literally hundreds of other similar cheers appeared on the Internet this week. If these famous faces had gotten together to establish a political party, they might have even cleared the threshold.