When a journalist crosses the commercial line

Yair Lapid recently gave up a fat contract with Bank Hapoalim to take a job as a Channel 2 anchor.

yair lapid 88 (photo credit: )
yair lapid 88
(photo credit: )
Channel 2 TV host Yair Lapid recently gave up a million-dollar contract with Bank Hapoalim to take a job as the anchor of Channel 2's Friday night news show, Ulpan Shishi, because he understood that he could not do both. Yet his appointment again raises the familiar debate over whether a journalist can remain reliable and unbiased in his news-related work while negotiating both sides of the news-gathering and commercial divide. "The question of whether I consider myself a journalist is peculiar to me. Of course I am a journalist," Lapid told The Jerusalem Post when questioned about the appointment. Lapid, an author, journalist, and columnist at Yediot Aharonot, who is the son of the former politician and journalist Yossef (Tommy) Lapid and up until recently the face on the ads for Bank Hapoalim, said he knew the difference between the many hats he wears and stressed that he did not wear them simultaneously. "I have been a journalist for the past 26 years and I served in all possible positions, from military reporter who covered the [First] Lebanon War to nightlife reporter," said Lapid. "On the other hand, journalism is a wide profession and also includes the fashion reporter, the automotive reporter and the reporter on Arab affairs. In recent years I focused on my talk show and the column I write for Yediot Aharonot's weekly supplement. During these years I could advertise Bank Hapoalim, especially after the High Court of Justice had determined in the case of Alex Ansky, [a retired Army Radio journalist] that a journalist can promote organizations that are not under his responsibility of coverage. Needless to say, during this period I haven't dealt with banks in general and with Bank Hapoalim specifically," Lapid said. Lapid added that he did not know who was responsible for the rumors according to which he wanted to continue his contract with Bank Hapoalim simultaneously with his new position. "When I took this position, I knew that a news-oriented show would have to deal with economic and banking issues. Therefore, I notified Bank Hapoalim of my desire to end our contract, a decision that cost me somewhere close to a million dollars, but I had no doubts about it. Obviously, I don't intend to take on another advertising campaign as long as I anchor Ulpan Shishi," Lapid said. This grey area between journalism and advertising has become wider in recent years, and the dividing line hasn't become much clearer, since the Israel Press Council has limited power to enforce the code of ethics and possibly ban journalists from doing such ads, even if it is headed by retired Supreme Court judge Dalia Dorner. "It would be better if journalists did not advertise [products] at all, but I also always say that for a constitution, you need to be sensible. Journalists' salaries in most cases today are not enough and I can understand why a working man would look for additional income. Each journalist has different abilities to get different jobs," said Dorner. Dorner would prefer to simplify things and set one condition which is easier to enforce and, according to her, reasonable. "I don't approve of misleading the public," she said. "It is completely unethical for a journalist who writes about vehicles to advertise a car, for example. The reader might see his recommendation as reliable information, since he values this journalist's opinion and follows his articles. This ban which makes it unacceptable to do ads related to subjects you write about is a limited ban but simple and clear. If we completely ban the participation of journalists in commercials, the violation of the code of ethics would be much harsher." To handle a violation of this code of journalistic ethics, a complaint needs to be made by a citizen or an organization, she explained. Prof. Yitzhak Zamir, also a retired Supreme Court judge who served as the president of the Israel Press Council 15 years ago, said that back then journalists were forbidden from promoting commercial companies, and that this phenomenon was not as common as it is today. Zamir is among those who claim that a professional journalist should not move between the worlds of advertising and news. "It misleads the public and damages the press's objectivity," he said. "If a journalist advertised a bank once, he cannot deal with economic issues any longer because he had sold himself and the public will doubt his credibility," Zamir explained. Prof. Barak Medina, the deputy dean of the faculty of law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, an expert in constitutional law and freedom of speech, said he believed the public could tell the difference between a journalist making a commercial and a news anchoring position. "The basic perception is that he who delivers facts and does not express opinions should be as objective and non-biased as possible. At the same time, the assumption is that the audience is rational and is capable of distinguishing between the two hats Yael Dan [the anchor of a daily news broadcast at Army Radio who also did a TV commercial] wears," Medina said. Dan refused to be interviewed for this article. Gadi Sukenik, the anchor of Channel 2's evening news edition up until four months ago, also distinguishes between beat reporters and news presenters and publicists or writers who simply share their thoughts with readers. Sukenik left his "golden cage" as Israel's most famous news anchor and signed a contract with Bank Leumi's Mortgage Bank to be their representative for the next three years. "People who deal with broadcasting or presenting the news shouldn't advertise. I personally would not advertise something I don't believe in and I checked what I am about to advertise because I tie my name to this thing," Sukenik told The Jerusalem Post last week. "On the other hand, even journalists who don't advertise a company are exposed to bribes or bribe-like behavior. They receive gifts and free products and the audience doesn't get an objective report on the new car or a package tour. There are media outlets who forbid their reporters from receiving these sorts of gifts but at the same time they don't send their reporters at their own expense, and that narrows their coverage. It's really simple: To do the job well, a journalist needs to be paid better so he won't be attempted to get all these benefits and to look for other income," Sukenik added. "It would be best if journalists would not promote items at all," said Nurit Dabush, the Chairman of the Second Authority for Television and Radio, who is in charge of facilitating and monitoring commercially-operated television and radio broadcasts in Israel. "Recently increasing numbers of journalists have moved from the news to commercials and vice versa. This is a worrisome phenomenon and my job is to protect the viewers. I don't underestimate the audience's intelligence. I am also the audience, and I also get confused sometimes between the national image Gadi Sukenik has gained in the news and his image in the commercial," said Dabush. Dabush instructed the directors of the news channels not to allow journalists and news anchors to advertise commercial companies or organizations. "The instructions are very clear. When one of the news anchors at Channel 10 did a commercial for a cellular company, he was criticized for doing that and he stopped advertising for them when we turned to the directory of Channel 10. Fortunately, when Gadi Sukenik asked to retire, we asked him to take a cooling-off period of three months [before pursuing commercials] and he agreed and understood why. We demand the same thing from all journalists who leave, a demand that is not always accepted as happened when the former journalist Shelly Yacimovich left the news and became a Labor Party Knesset member, for example," said Dabush. Yacimovich said in response: "Nothing of the sort ever happened. My entire move was coordinated with Shalom Keitel, the managing director of the Channel 2 news company, who supported it. Dabush would be better off focusing on her duty to limit the influence of the moguls on the content of the broadcasted shows." Steven Gutkin, the bureau chief of the Associated Press (AP) branch in Israel and a board member at the Foreign Press Association (FPA) in Israel, told the Post that as far as he knows, AP did not have to deal with this dilemma since it had never come up. "We cover all conflicts around the world and if we don't have our credibility we have nothing. We need to know that when a reader reads what we produce he knows that there is no conflict of interest and that there is a journalistic integrity and independency," said Gutkin. However, Gutkin added, "highly sought-after journalists and photographers would not advertise commercial companies but rather participate in professional workshops, speak to groups of students and promote their work in many ways that are not advertising." Though it seems that no similar phenomenon exists in other democratic countries, other trends considered acceptable abroad are also controversial. Dr. Menahem Blondheim from the Hebrew U., who teaches American Journalism and Media, said that he had noticed the phenomenon of distinguished journalists who used their connections with talk-show hosts to promote books and biographies they wrote in their field of expertise. "The American journalists as well as the Israelis also give lectures for pay for all sorts of audiences and use their image to make more money," said Blondheim. Money is without a doubt the focus of this debate but ironically, journalists who get these profitable commercial campaigns are already being paid far better than their colleagues who report hard news. "It is simply an opportunity to earn easy money," concluded Sukenik. Agreeing, Dorner added: "When journalists are paid better, then we will consider stricter bans."