One on One: The 'Times' they are a changin'

Commercialism, technology & competition changing news reporting.

press media photographer (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
press media photographer
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
"The move from print to broadcast journalism caused a sea change in the field as whole," says Prof. Tamar Liebes-Plesner, head of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's department of communication and journalism, who spends much of her time researching and writing about the media. But the shift she is referring to is not, she believes, for the better. The replacement of what she sees as the more comprehensive kind of coverage and analysis that newspapers are able to provide by the shallow, on-the-spot "performance" of TV reportage, she claims, has taken its toll on the profession. In fact, she asserts, "Even the print medium has deteriorated and is becoming increasingly marginal, due to many factors, among them the public's reliance on the other media, the rise of the Internet and competition born of commercialism." As if in response to her own pessimism, Liebes-Plesner sighs. "In this area, maybe the financial crisis will actually prove beneficial," she muses, with a touch of irony, quickly adding: "It's hard to believe, but it's possible." Often called upon to express her opinions and present her findings at various local and international forums, Liebes-Plesner - who resides in Tel Aviv and commutes to the campus in Jerusalem - is especially, though not exclusively, in demand during periods of conflict. No surprise there, when one considers how much time and space are devoted, both at home and abroad, to the question of the media's role, and behavior, in wartime. Even more so these days, in the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead - characterized, among other things, by the Defense Ministry ban on the entrance of the press into the battle zone via the Israeli border. It was a policy, acknowledges Liebes-Plesner (who happens to be the mother of Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner), that was determined as a result of the absolute opposite approach taken during the Second War in Lebanon two and a half years ago. The information and public relations mayhem that accompanied IDF troops in 2006 sufficed to cause the government to fear - and try to prevent - a repeat of the fiasco, as well as guard against potential casualties among members of the media caught in the crossfire. About this, Liebes-Plesner says that though it might have been a bit too extreme a measure, "it was understandable." What is the nature of the relationship between academia and the media? There is tension between us, who conduct academic research on the media, and members of the media themselves. We constantly study texts of journalists. But it is almost impossible for us to receive more insights from them about their work, on the levels that interest us - on the structural and institutional levels. This is because they are too ensconced in the story, and part of it. We are also often too close to the material. But what we try to do is find the rules which govern how the profession operates. To complicate matters, the rules have drastically changed over the years. I have researched and written about what has constituted good journalism in different periods. Journalists lack awareness of this, because it has to do with changes that have taken place, both in the institutions that house the press and in the technology of the press. For example, the transition from print to broadcast journalism altered the rules completely. In the first place, TV is a visual medium. In the second place, it is limited to a tight time slot. So, for instance, let's say the evening news is half an hour, how much do you think goes into that, relative to a page in the newspaper? I'll tell you: The front page of a paper equals 25 minutes of a TV news broadcast. In addition, each journalist has to operate according to the rules that his or her medium determines. When you write, you are presenting an issue and examining it in some depth. But when you are on TV, you either treat the issue as an item or as the plight of an individual. Take the homeless as a subject, for example. In writing, it is easier to delve into the root causes of the phenomenon. On TV, you tend to interview a homeless person, who will tell of his problems. Then, there's a chance that somebody watching will help that particular homeless person, which is nice, but it's a very minor contribution to the greater issue. So, while TV is able to raise the issue to a great extent, it can't do much about solving it. But is it the media's role to solve problems? That's a good question, but it's function of one of the changes I'm talking about. One morning, during the second intifada, I was driving in the car and listening to the radio. In the course of the broadcast, a woman phoned in to host Razi Barkai to report that she was watching an Arab in Jerusalem being lynched. So Barkai called the police. This is another example, too, of the effects of modern technology. TV is visual; radio is aural. But both involve live coverage. In a region like this one, where there is always something critical going on, this is particularly relevant. And unlike in print journalism, everything is reported on the spot, with no perspective - and not even all of the facts. As was the case with the coverage of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, there is little ability to get to the source, yet the broadcast journalists have to keep talking nevertheless, with no time to investigate anything properly. Are you saying that it is better not to cover events like wars in real time, while they are in progress, but rather to wait until the dust settles and the facts can be determined? Did you agree with the Defense Ministry's ban on journalists entering Gaza from Israel during Operation Cast Lead? Here we have to look at the interesting difference between the Second War in Lebanon and Operation Cast Lead. The government reached conclusions, based on what happened in Lebanon in terms of media coverage, and adopted a different policy for Gaza. One of the things that most shocked me during the war in Lebanon was the case of the woman freelancer who placed microphones on a tree where two generals were standing and whispering to each other, and we all heard them say bad things about the commander of their division. It seems to me that even the most progressive editor should have thought twice about airing such a thing in the middle of a war - which undoubtedly had a negative effect on morale and on the army. And it illustrates the endless struggle for ratings born of competition between TV channels. So, though the response to this type of coverage in Lebanon, which was to keep journalists out of Gaza, may have been extreme, it was understandable. Furthermore, the coverage that came out of Lebanon on the part of the foreign press was problematic. Speaking of which, you have been talking about the Western press, which is distinct in its ability and even duty to be critical of its own government and institutions. How does the fact that the enemies in wars like those in Lebanon and Gaza don't have that luxury on the one hand, and use the self-criticism of their Western counterparts as ammunition in the international arena on the other affect the picture that emerges? That's a really interesting question, because if you take a news organization like CNN, which has reporters all over the world, including in Iraq, you can see that it believes everybody is like Americans, and if you only removed the keffiyehs, the Iraqis would live according to the principles of democracy. The CNN staff doesn't take into account that they simply can't broadcast from Iraq in the same way as they do in the US. But they do it anyway. So problematic was this that the head of CNN had to resign, because it turned out he was afraid his reporter would be murdered if he reported on Saddam Hussein accurately. Still, reporters prefer to be wherever they can and create fictions, rather than not being there at all. Another fascinating example came out in research conducted by two American scholars for the Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics. The two did a comparative study of foreign journalists working in Israel and Egypt. The journalists said that in Egypt, there was one point person responsible for dealing with the press, who spoke for all the ministries and government offices in the country. The only problem with him, they said, was that sometimes he would forget to inform them of a press conference, which caused them to arrive late. In Israel, on the other hand, they said, everyone, in any office or ministry, would speak to them openly - even, they specified, on Friday evenings. Because of this, they claimed, there was no reliability of information, because every person told them something different. One German journalist concluded that it was therefore impossible to work with the Israelis. So, their complaint about Egypt was that sometimes things were too slow, whereas their complaint about Israel was that it was impossible to receive uniform information. And they therefore preferred working in Egypt! What is the point of such studies in particular, and of researching the media in general? What impact, if any, does it all have? That's like asking why sociologists study society. But I will say that I don't consider the field of communications to be a discipline in its own right. We who study the field do so from the point of view of political science or sociology. From those points of view, do you think the media reflect society or shape it? I'd say that the media reflect societal trends. The media pick up on social processes, and in so doing enhance or give them legitimacy. At one conference I attended a while back, [former CEO of the Israel Broadcasting Authority and currently co-host, with Yaron London, of a popular Channel 10 talk show] Moti Kirschenbaum said that in the past, funerals of fallen soldiers were not broadcast, and it wasn't customary to see soldiers weeping at the grave sites of their peers. But that began to change when the families and the soldiers wanted that to be shown. In other words, the desire for that kind of broadcast came from the public first, and only then from the media. If that's the case, why does everyone blame the media for every trend and every social, political and military phenomenon or failing? One question that political scientists frequently ask is whether the government makes decisions and then the media support or oppose them, and cause the public to do the same, or whether it is somehow the opposite. Which leads to the question of your take on "etrog" journalism - the phrase coined for the media's protecting of former prime minister Ariel Sharon to enable him to carry out the withdrawal from Gaza, unimpeded by press hounding over corruption allegations... Well, there were also members of the press who claimed Sharon was carrying out the withdrawal precisely to deflect attention away from the corruption allegations, so it balanced out. Still, the phenomenon was legitimized by illustrious members of the media, such as former Haaretz editor-in-chief David Landau, who proudly asserted that it was a national imperative for the press to promote territorial withdrawals. Look, the paper is privately owned. It is no accident that Landau was hired by Amos Schocken to edit his paper. Furthermore, until the early 1980s, when Davar shut down, Israeli papers were all openly ideological and partisan - often being financed by a political party to promote a certain line. That was true of newspapers in Europe as well. Not in America, though. In any case, today, newspapers are more commercial than ideological, which reflects a change in society. Isn't another change reflected in the shift of the status of journalists from pavement pounders with manual typewriters in smoky newsrooms to celebrities, almost on a par with the famous people they cover? Indeed, all the characteristics of the journalist have become defined differently. The skill to write about and analyze issues has been replaced by the ability to be a performer, and the story, then, becomes more about the journalist than about the issue. So, for example, the reporter who interviewed Osama bin Laden provided a couple of minutes of bin Laden mumbling his nonsense - while the story turned into how the reporter found him and what it was like to be in his company. In general, interviewing terrorists has become fashionable. But what emerges from it is not traditional journalism, the point of which is to pose challenging questions. It used to be that a terrorist only got screen time after he committed a terrorist act. Today, he doesn't have to do anything. All he has to do is talk whenever he feels like it, and everybody runs to hear what he has to say. So, just as journalists have become celebs, so have terrorists.