Tommy's Winograd snow-job, taking on talkbackers

Between the Lines: An entire book could be written about the media's role in the Winograd debate.

tommy lapid 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
tommy lapid 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
THE SNOW came this week, and so did the final report of the Winograd Committee. The juxtaposition of the two gave the broadcast news departments a golden opportunity to turn a fairly grim political event into a winter-wonderland TV special. Though the flakes never got heavy enough for the deployment of the special "Winograd snowplow," set aside to ferry the committee members around the capital if needed, they served as an appropriate visual backdrop for the snow-job provided by the prime minister's defenders as they sought to put the best spin possible on the report's conclusions. The live broadcast from Binyanei Ha'uma of the report's summation, as presented by committee chairman Judge Eliyahu Winograd, was a low-key, dignified-enough affair, appropriate for the gravity of the occasion. Less so were the in-studio discussions that followed, especially the heated discussion on Channel 2 that featured a real donnybrook between Ehud Olmert's most ardent public defender, columnist and ex-Shinui head Tommy Lapid, and harshest journalistic critic, Ha'aretz writer Ari Shavit. Lapid in particular was in a feisty, pugnacious mood, even by his standards; not many public figures would be willing to have been seen berating the father of a soldier slain in the Second Lebanon War, as they argued over the PM's culpability. Still - though undoubtedly many viewers were repelled by his aggressive behavior, and took issue with his interpretation of the report's conclusions about Olmert's leadership role during the war - Lapid objectively scored some points during the broadcast, especially in his sparring with Shavit. Don't get me wrong. These two usually represent the opposite polls of journalistic discourse (I don't mean regarding their partisan political positions); even many of Ha'aretz's detractors respect Shavit as being in many ways the most thoughtful and insightful essayist/interviewer in the Israeli print media. But his criticism of Olmert in tone (if not substance) has veered into a hyperbole that is atypical of his usual style, and Lapid rightly called him on it after Winograd refuted the charge that the prime minister ordered a costly ground invasion in the final days of the war largely from self-interested political motives. Beyond that, the television studio is Lapid's natural environment, perfect for his shoot-from-the-lip approach; and Shavit's more considered approach is better suited to the printed page than for trading barbs and accusations in front of the cameras. More broadly speaking, an entire book could be written about the media's role in the Winograd debate, especially the accusations that various news organizations and personalities took up positions for or against Olmert in a way that sometimes violated normal journalistic ethical standards. Just look, for example, at the differing approaches in the coverage of the prime minister lately in the pages of Yediot Aharonot and Ma'ariv, with the former featuring a front-page sympathetic account of Olmert's visit to Sderot last week, and the latter devoting entire pages of the newspaper to the campaign by certain groups of reservists and the families of fallen soldiers to have the PM removed from office. Winograd is behind us now, but the debate over the media's role in this affair, as well as the spinning on both sides of the issue, is sure to go on. Too bad that this much effort wasn't present during the war itself, when the spin was really needed to put Israel's best case forward to the rest of the world as it defended itself against Hizbullah and leader Hassan Nasrallah's aggression. IN THE talkback section of the on-line version of this column last week, "Jake T. of Alaska" responded: "Calev, how can you write of censorship without a single reference to the anti-talkback law that is being passed by the Knesset? While writers have to mind their words, talkbackers are free to express ideas, to make connections that go beyond the constraints of political correctness, and to see beyond the usual BS handed to the media by politicians. A free press includes freedom for talkbackers." Jake, you make some good points (even if you do live in Alaska). Web talkbacks have become an integral part of the on-line media, and this issue does deserve some discussion here. First, the facts. Last summer, Israel Beiteinu MK Israel Hasson proposed a new bill in the Knesset designed to toughen restrictions on potentially libelous, inflammatory, defamatory or obscene talkback statements. As talkbackers know, they are obliged to first sign off on a "Reader's Submission" statement that declares: "The Participant is solely responsible for the content of its messages. The Jerusalem Post does not and cannot review every message posted by a Participant on the Forums, and is not responsible for the content of these messages." Of course, this paper, like almost every other, does in fact review its talkback messages before posting them. But that caveat provides important legal protection that allows the kind of freer and less fettered expression on the Internet than is currently possible in print media. And while the reader's submission form also requires talk-backers to identify themselves in some manner, news organizations generally consider this privileged, confidential information. No longer, though, if Hasson's bill becomes law. It would hold any Web site that receives at least 50,000 hits daily legally responsible for the content posted in its talkback sections, and also make it mandatory for it to reveal the identity of the posted item in question if it wanted to lessen that liability in criminal or civil proceedings. These conditions codified into law would no doubt lead to tighter restrictions on the posting of talkback submissions on major media sites such as this one. The "talkback bill" passed its first preliminary reading in the Knesset Ministerial Committee on Legislation two weeks ago, by the surprisingly large margin of 37-2. "We proposed this legislation in wake of consistently hurtful comments made on talkbacks and other forums. We tired to compromise with content managers and establish an ethical code, but were ignored by site managers and were therefore forced to propose this bill," Hasson told Ynet. Naturally, the proposal has spurred the strongest reactions from talkbackers themselves, many of whom see a partisan political agenda at play here. As one talkbacker put it: "This bill would play right into the hands of Israel's repressive extreme left rulers. When I first read about this bill, I assumed it was introduced by Labor or Meretz. The Internet is about the last bastion of free speech in the extreme-left-dominated banana republic Israel has become." Actually, left-wing Labor MK Shelly Yacimovich cast one of the two votes against the bill in committee, and commented afterwards: "The Internet operates differently from other, more traditional media outlets. It may not be fun when people say nasty things about you on talkbacks - and God knows that happened to me - but I still won't bring the legislative ax down on such forums." Good for Yacimovich, who certainly doesn't fare too well on talkbacks. Nor for that matter, do I. Alas, I don't receive many of those "Ben-David for PM" talkbacks - or any, actually; more common are such comments as "Liberals like Ben-David will be the death of the West and Israel." Comments like that are why many of my fellow journalists or commentators are none-too-found of talkbacks, and Hasson's bill hasn't exactly elicited an outpouring of objections from the media. Ha'aretz, not too surprisingly, recently ran an opinion piece praising the proposal, titled: "Cleaning up the Web's backyard." Regardless of the quality or tone of most talkbacks, I can't imagine any journalist seriously welcoming more government regulation of this type of on-line comment, especially on legitimate media sites. Though I know what it's like to be personally attacked in talkbacks, I'd still rather suffer those slings and arrows then see even more censorship of free expression introduced here. Maybe some media sites do have to do a better job of weeding out the truly objectionable items in talkbacks - but that's not a job the Knesset should be regulating. I don't know if that satisfies you, Jake T. of Alaska - but if not, feel free to let me know. [email protected]