Media Matters: A powerful warning from 'Mr. Television'

Media Matters A powerfu

I am a news addict whose true loves are books, newspapers and radio. It pains me that television and the Internet are winning the media war so convincingly, slowly demolishing the printed press. As part of my job at The Jerusalem Post, I watch several hours of television news every day, and I find myself increasingly agreeing with friends and relatives who say they don't turn it on because it turns them off. Not just because most of it is bad news that is difficult to digest. Israeli anchors nowadays, the majority of whom are very young and super-attractive, seem to be emulating their counterparts at Fox - and becoming news preachers rather than presenters. Rather than merely informing us, they tend to take a stand and tell us what we should be thinking as well. Current events talk shows are even worse, frequently deteriorating into shouting matches that must give even the hard of hearing a headache. Gone are the days of Walter Cronkite and Haim Yavin. In their bid to entertain and maintain our interest, TV news broadcasts often go over the top to shock us and shape our opinions. Sometimes I think there should be recommended age restrictions, because much of the material is not suitable for children, let alone adults. Nothing, though, is as perverse and pervasive as the popular prime-time reality shows that follow the nightly news broadcasts on Channels Two and Ten, such as Big Brother and Survivor, which turn us all into virtual peeping toms. While I understand why they attract viewers seeking an escape from their own everyday exigencies, I certainly hope they aren't a true reflection of our society and where it's going. Because if they are, we should all hang our heads in shame. Haim Yavin delivered much the same message after he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev this week. In his address, Yavin made an impassioned plea to save public broadcasting and to produce more quality television programs. Yavin, 77, anchored the Israel Broadcasting Authority's Mabat news (on what is now called Channel One) since its inception and for most of his 40 years in TV (between 1968 and 2008), justly earning the title "Mr. Television." His authoritative air made him the closest thing to the old-style American anchors such as Cronkite, Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings that Israel had. Although his leftist leanings became more blatant over the years, it is somewhat ironic that Yavin's most memorable moment on TV came in 1977, when he announced the spectacular "mahapah" (turnaround) of Menachem Begin's Likud wresting power from Labor in the general elections. Yavin's address in Beersheba on Monday night, coming on the 36th anniversary of the death of Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was exceptionally powerful. What follows is a free translation from Hebrew: It's a special honor for me to receive this honorary degree from the university named after the founder of the state. I was privileged to interview Ben-Gurion a short time before his death, not far from here, at his hut in Sde Boker. David Ben-Gurion didn't like television and opposed its establishment, because he was fearful of the cultural decline that this new medium would bring. As usual, he was spot-on in foreseeing the danger. I believe this is the first time that someone from our medium has been given this honor. And if I am worthy of it, it's because I and my colleagues in the media tried to confront the challenge of where television takes us, what it does to us, what it does with us. When we established it 40 years ago, we had high hopes for the medium. We prayed that we would succeed in combining education and entertainment. There's nothing wrong with entertainment; it's the oxygen of television. But not when most of the entertainment is at the lowest possible level with low-grade game shows. Then we are merely realizing the prophesy of Neil Postman: "Amusing ourselves to death." All my professional life I have done the best I can to create genuine and correct public broadcasting - with the introduction of television to Israel, and in my roles as an editor and anchor for Mabat, as well as a reporter, director and manager. In my documentaries on election campaigns, I sought to face the fate of Israeli society and democracy. In our Mabat news broadcasts, my colleagues and I tried to present a truthful and correct picture of each one of the arenas in which Israel battled on a daily basis: war, terror, negotiations with our neighbors and ultimately, when it was possible, we celebrated with Israel its peace agreements. My colleagues and I fought against all the injustices of what was called "The Other Israel" - we uncovered poverty, boorishness and prejudice in Israeli society. We took on the wave of aliya from Russia, the problem of foreign workers, the issue of Palestinians in the territories, the story of the settlers, and more recently the situation of the Arabs and Beduin within our country. It was not always popular. It was often as hard as a rock. I hope that we succeeded, at least partially. You should know that walking with a TV camera is often hard labor, and sometimes results in tears. Ladies and gentlemen, sometimes I am overcome with depression by what is happening today in our medium. But there is no avoiding that worn-out word: ratings. I salute the creative contribution of the commercial television networks in all areas. It's just a pity that there are so many poor-quality programs, at a level so low, pathetic and insulting, from early in the morning to the evening, in comparison with the relatively small number of quality programs. That's why it pains me to see what is happening in public broadcasting, which I see as my home. Despite a few good programs it produces, the crisis is never-ending. They talk a lot about reforms, but don't carry them out. There are those who think Channel 1 should be closed. I think it should be resuscitated. If I have a prayer today, it is that we wake up and save public broadcasting before it is too late. And commercial television must also be shaken up. We must not let it deteriorate any further to a cultural ebb. Because television is a central tool in shaping Israeli society, culture, education, and that is why both public and commercial TV is so vital to us, for the future of the State of Israel. All I can add is: Amen! One can only pray that Yavin's words at Ben-Gurion University have some impact on those who control our television broadcasts - and on us, the viewers.