Media comment: Election aftermath

Reviewing the media and the reactions to it in the wake of the elections

Newspaper clippings (descriptive) (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Newspaper clippings (descriptive)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Elections are over. Well, at this moment they seem to be over.
One way of passing judgment on the performance of some of the media during the last few months is to mull over an excerpt from a column penned by Tony Koch. It appeared in the May 9 issue of The Guardian, bemoaning Australian newspapers. If we substitute the Likud Party in place of the Labour Party in the piece, can we hear an echo of our own situation in Israel?
Here are some excerpts with the replacements made: “No editor I worked for would have put up with the biased anti-Likud rubbish that, shamefully, the papers now produce. Gone is the requirement for balance. One has only to look at the story selection and headlines on the front pages of the papers each day to see that an anti-Likud angle has been taken, however contorted had been the literary gymnastics required.
“How infantile is it of the management of these organizations to fool themselves into believing that what they are producing is being accepted by readers as quality product.... Probably the most blatant example of bias and low-grade coverage is the employment of most of the [weekly] columnists.... Their observations are, in the main, predictable, weak, un-researched and juvenile.”
Consider the reporting on the Likud claims of voter fraud in last April’s election. Haaretz headlined its coverage on September 8 by stating that only one out of 100 claims were legitimate. That would convince anyone who had thought the Likud had a strong case that it was, after all, all a fake. However, Kalman Liebskind of Maariv actually called 82 of the Likud’s polling station observers who had submitted complaints to the police and it turned out that only two had been contacted by the police.
So who was at fault? Did the Likud make false claims? Was there voter fraud? Did the police mishandle the investigation? More importantly to us, are our journalists professional? Did Haaretz send its journalists to actually check the facts?
Do too many in Israel’s media share the negative characteristic Victor Davis Hanson of CNN wrote in the National Review on September 17 that the station is broadcasting “everything but the news”?
Last Saturday afternoon, several outlets reported that the Joint List of four Arab parties will recommend to President Reuven Rivlin that Benny Gantz of the Blue and White list be charged with the task of forming a government. The source was anonymous. Within two hours that item of “news” was discounted, then disavowed. Did the journalist who first reported it make it up? Did he know it was false but wanted a headline? Was it an internal leak of one Arab party trying to embarrass another? Was the item checked by a responsible editor? In the end, only 10 of the 13 MKs recommended Gantz.
An item with similar ethical and professional issues appeared on September 19, when the public learned that the state’s prosecution office was willing to entertain a plea deal by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. That had no basis. The next day, again, the public learned that there was a reach-out to the president to accept the idea of a pardon that was denied. That item was not sourced. The media consumer had no credible way to judge whether the news was true, floated or maliciously spread. Was it a case of media-ratings-promoting speculation? Can we trust what passes for news in so many of Israel’s media outlets?
ALREADY IN June 2018, and earlier, in January 2017, Netanyahu described the media as “Bolshevik” in character, “simply engaging in Soviet-style propaganda,” and recently uploaded a clip wherein he repeated the charge with a vengeance, accusing a reporter, Guy Peleg, personally, and naming Channel 12 senior editors and owners as systematically spreading fake news and false electioneering content. Could he have been correct?
David B. Rivkin and Lee A. Casey note in the September 3 edition of The Wall Street Journal that whereas advocacy organizations working against a political candidate are regulated by campaign-finance statutes, as they are engaged in electioneering speech, those laws do not apply to the media, unless they are owned by a political party or candidate. This favored treatment is justified by the powers that be who claim that the media have a “unique” role in public discourse and debate. But as the US Supreme Court observed in a 2010 opinion, “The line between the media and others who wish to comment on political and social issues becomes far more blurred.”
What if Netanyahu was correct and the people he charged were interested in him not being reelected? That supposition is not entirely outside the realm of possibility, for journalists indeed have their own political outlook and they can be biased.
Take the example of Menashe Raz who appeared on the Kalman and Segal Channel One television interview program two weeks before the day of elections. He was invited to talk about the petition he initiated to defend the above-mentioned Peleg. Liebskind did his homework. He spiritedly attacked him for not coming forth when two other reporters were actually physically assaulted in the past year. He asserted that Raz was playing a hypocritical game since his sympathy was with a fellow left-of-center colleague (the two attacked were right-wingers). Liebskind did not mention, though, that Raz had left the former state-sponsored Israel Broadcasting Authority to be spokesperson for the Central Party back in 1999 and then later, sought to be a candidate for Knesset on the Kadima list. Raz is a politician, not a journalist.
As Nathan Robinson wrote on September 10, also in The Guardian, “There can’t be such a thing as a neutral journalist. We all have moral instincts and points of view. Those points of view will color our interpretations of the facts. The best course of action is to acknowledge where we’re coming from. If we show an awareness of our own political leanings, it actually makes us more trustworthy than if we’re in denial about them... the public doesn’t trust us, and we need to think about how to slowly get people to see journalists as their allies instead of as duplicitous, faux-neutral propagandists.”
Another media-related issue was the camera surveillance legislation proposed by the Likud. We couldn’t find any commentator relating to the ACE Electoral Knowledge Network study on the matter, with its pros and cons and reviewing the practices in the seven countries where cameras are employed. What we did find strange was the argument that camera use would intimidate voters. Can you imagine politicians attempting to employ that excuse for banning news cameras from their meetings and conferences?
We are but a few days from Rosh Hashanah, and besides wishing our readers well over the coming year, we ourselves need to correct an error we committed. On August 15, we wrote that Tel Aviv University Professor Yossi Shain “consistently voted against anything having to do with Ariel University.” In fact, there were occasions when Shain did vote in favor of the university’s needs. We apologize for the use of the words “consistently” and “anything” and stand corrected.
The writers are members of Israel’s Media Watch,