Media Matters: Tzipi's Shavit problem

Who would have thought that Haaretz's star interviewer was about to warn against the danger of voting for Livni?

A funny thing happened to the local media on the way to the elections. Just as journalists were sharpening their proverbial pencils and pundits their serpent tongues in preparation for the battle ahead (not the one among the throne-contenders, mind you, but their own against the right-wing candidates in general and favorite nemesis Bibi Netanyahu in particular), an actual war broke out. For accuracy's sake, it was not officially called a war, but rather an operation - Cast Lead - and it didn't exactly break out, but rather was launched, following eight years of regular rocket fire on the South. Suddenly, voting in a new prime minister seemed so far in the future that the question arose as to whether the election would take place as scheduled. Perhaps, some suggested, it would be postponed, as had been done in 1973, due to the Yom Kippur War. Suddenly, the press found itself curbing conventional criticism of the powers-that-be and offering a more restrained, if not outright patriotic, form of reportage than it had provided during the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006. So much so, in fact, that Gideon Levy and his ilk accused their colleagues of acting as though they were soldiers enlisted in the service of the IDF Spokesman's Office. Suddenly, the unmasked media euphoria in this country that, a mere few weeks earlier, had surrounded the election of Barack Obama in a foreign one was replaced by what came across as genuine responsibility toward the safety of our troops in Gaza. This shift in attention would turn out to be short-lived, however, as the withdrawal of those troops was timed to precede the inauguration of the new US president. At once, Cast Lead got bumped here to the bottom of the news, while correspondents stationed in Washington and their counterparts in the studios at home "ushered in a new era" and "watched the dawn of a new day" - dampened only by the fact that Martin Luther King Jr. wasn't alive to witness it. Two things rained on this joyous parade where the Israeli press was concerned. The first was a renewed shower of missiles. The second was self-pity the public was told to feel about not having its own Obama on the upcoming ballot. KADIMA CHAIRMAN Tzipi Livni's spin doctors didn't waste any time adjusting their original plan for their candidate - emphasizing her "cleanliness" in a climate of rampant corruption - to suit the more current set of challenges. This is how Livni's Obama campaign came into being, with its protagonist portrayed as the harbinger of hope and change. Still, there was the inconvenient issue of the situation in Gaza, which was causing her two rivals, Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, to climb in the polls - with the former gaining in popularity for his political positions and the latter for his military handling of Hamas. The one thing Livni had going for her, however, was the sympathy of the mainstream media. This is not only because she's a woman, though the "minority" factor certainly contributes to the Obama connotation. Nor is it because she is associated with her former boss and famous "etrog," Ariel Sharon. In fact, the media aren't big these days on reminiscing about disengagement and their part in promoting it, what with Gaza's having become an Iranian proxy enclave and all. Nor is her special status necessarily due to the meteoric sideswipe on the part of the true superstar of this campaign - Avigdor Lieberman - whose views and delivery of them are so abhorrent to the press that he has managed to replace Bibi as resident bad guy. No, the real reason Livni rightly assumed she could rely on the media to give her a break is their belief that she - like Sharon before her - could be counted on to carry out territorial concessions. It is thus that Livni must have been only too happy to grant Haaretz's Ari Shavit an extensive interview last weekend. (Unlike that which was published subsequently in the hugely popular women's magazine, LaIsha, Shavit's are the ones read by the more, eh, select few.) Entitled "I still can," the lengthy Q&A lets Livni laud her own abilities, and laud it over her opponents for their shortcomings. Little did Livni - or anybody else, for that matter - know what was in store for her a mere five days later. And from the very author of the extremely fair interview, to boot. In an op-ed on Wednesday, "A cautionary note," Shavit revealed "findings" about the foreign minister which he felt the public needed to know before voting for her. This, he wrote, is in spite of the fact that he considers her "a principled, patriotic, exemplary human being, intelligent and a quick study." Lest one imagine that these shocking revelations - according to which Livni is "short-tempered... has an attention deficit... is incapable of delving into the details of a document or of sustaining an extended discussion... cannot distinguish the wheat from the chaff... is opinionated and superficial... finds it very hard to make decisions... deliberates, wavers, delays and changes her opinion over and over... does not have the spine, levelheadedness and internal calm necessary to take the most critical decisions... and [lacks] emotional intelligence..."- had come to Shavit's attention through the leaking of classified documents, he opened his piece by setting the record straight. "Over the past week," he wrote, "I took statements from about a dozen people who know [her] quite well... [and] the portrait they paint... is a disturbing one." To add credibility to what otherwise might be considered dubious hearsay during the lead-up to an election, he assured us that none of his anonymous sources "is close to either Netanyahu or Barak," and that "most support Kadima or parties on the Left." FAR BE it from me to defend the likes of Livni, but I - like Israel Radio's Yaron Dekel and a slew of other colleagues - am uncomfortable with Shavit's journalistic behavior here. Where - Dekel asked Shavit on Hakol Diburim on Wednesday morning, as soon as the damning article hit the news stands and the Haaretz Web site - is this scathing view in evidence in the interview? Oh - Shavit replied - "the point of my interviews is to let the interviewees express themselves." Furthermore, he added, he feels just awful about having to write what he did about Livni, whom he likes so much personally and whose ideology he shares to the letter. But since Iran is the most crucial issue right now, he explained, and Livni doesn't even grasp that it is, let alone have a position on it, he couldn't keep quiet about the information his research turned up. This "research" included the statement of "a mature, restrained and conservative person," who told Shavit that "he felt like a member of some cult with a terrible secret: Tzipi Livni is not fit to be prime minister." This is not exactly a hot news flash, as a substantial number of the talkbacks to Shavit's article indicate. But, boy is it a scoop when predictions of doom from the center-left - or left of center - are leveled at the lady who sees doves on the windowsill of opportunity.