Middle Israel: Lincoln, Netanyahu and the press

A pioneer of government-media relations, Honest Abe would turn in his grave in the face of the prime minister’s reported treatment of Walla, its owner, and Naftali Bennett’s wife.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his way to Chad  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his way to Chad
(photo credit: Courtesy)
With the Civil War in its fourth year, an abolitionist journalist and a Union chaplain decided to meet Confederate President Jefferson Davis and return with a peace agreement’s draft.
Told about their plan, Abraham Lincoln thought the initiative was naive, but agreed to meet the chaplain, Col. James Frazier Jacques, and then let him and his partner, former New York Tribune correspondent James Gilmore, embark on their adventure, provided they didn’t present themselves as Lincoln’s messengers.
The couple thus boarded an ambulance under a white flag, crossed enemy lines, reached Richmond, and after some other encounters indeed met Davis, only to learn that – as Lincoln predicted – he was not game.
The war must go on, said the rebel leader after hearing out the chaplain, “until the last man of this generation falls in his tracks, and his children seize the musket and fight our battles – unless you acknowledge our right to self-government; we are not fighting for slavery, we are fighting for independence, and that, or extermination, we will have.”
This forgotten tale from 1864 would not be relevant to Israelis in 2019 but for its journalistic aftermath and, by extension, Lincoln’s overall attitude to government-media relations, an attitude that sadly contrasts with Benjamin Netanyahu’s as it unfurled this week.
THE CIVIL WAR delivered many novelties, from the metal-jacket bullet, the machine gun, and the ironclad warship to the deployment of the telegraph, the railroad, and the reconnaissance balloon.
Less famously, it also reinvented journalism, as more than 370 dailies and 2,000 periodicals covered it intensely. The reporter, the government, and their interface were all impacted.
The press saw the rise of the military correspondent, inspired by the Tribune’s George Smalley, who sneaked into Antietam Creek; witnessed the battle where 3,654 soldiers were killed in one day; rode a horse all night to a telegraph office, where he filed the beginning of his report; then boarded a train to New York, where he wrote the full story under a swinging lantern, with which he reached the newsroom on Nassau Street at 5 a.m., an hour before newsboys were yelling his scoop across Manhattan’s streets.
Government’s side – as reflected in what followed that peace mission to Davis – was equally pioneering.
Having learned of his nemesis’s response, Lincoln had the story’s fuller version leaked to the pro-Lincoln Atlantic Monthly, while a shorter version was given to the Boston Evening Transcript.
It was a journalistic sensation, picked up by all major dailies. As historian Harry J. Maihafer observed (War of Words: Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War Press, 2001), these were early appearances of the spin and the communique.
In this regard, Netanyahu is Lincoln’s disciple, mastering with equal elegance the arts of the leak, the press release and the spin, from the festive unveiling of a captured Iranian archive to brandishing a cartoon bomb while addressing the UN.
Sadly, when it comes to upholding the media’s place in democracy, the analogy ends.
LINCOLN STOOD UP for the media seminally in 1863, when the press-hating Gen. William Sherman warned journalists to avoid the unfolding Vicksburg Campaign’s arena, in the spirit of his quip once to a reporter, “You fellows make the best-paid spies that can be bought.”
When the New York Herald’s Tom Knox was caught trespassing Sherman’s realm, he was duly arrested, thus making reporters, editors and publishers petition Lincoln to have their colleague released.
Lincoln’s response, besides having Knox immediately released, was to let Sherman bar that particular journalist’s emergence in the areas of his command, but otherwise Honest Abe ordered all battlefields open to the media’s coverage, immediately and sweepingly.
It was a principled statement that consolidated the media’s democratic role and upheld their professional independence, regardless of the legitimate tension between self-congratulating government and a doubting press.
Nothing could be further from the standard set by Lincoln’s humble and impartial treatment of the media than Netanyahu’s treatment of Education Minister Naftali Bennett, as it emerged from Channel 12’s report this week.
The revelation about Netanyahu’s people dictating to widely read Walla News owner Shaul Elovitch an “exposé” about Mrs. Gilat Bennett’s past as a chef in a nonkosher Manhattan restaurant is not about spinning; it’s about the media’s hostile takeover.
Spotlighting the secular past of a religious rival’s wife is not about shaping an important event’s coverage, like Lincoln’s of Davis’s statement; it’s about paranoia’s celebration and journalism’s abuse.
This is besides exposing Netanyahu’s ignorance of Orthodox Jews’ embrace of newly religious people, in the spirit of the Talmud’s dictum that where the repentant stand, even the most pious cannot stand (Berachot 34b).
And that is besides the fact that when it came to his own family, Netanyahu admonished all to attack him but not his wife and kids.
CRIMINAL SUSPICIONS aside, morally the Walla affair is the perfect opposite of Lincoln’s legacy to all democratic leaders in their conduct with the media.
Lincoln would never have thought of conquering media outlets, whether from within or from without. Nothing was more alien to him than intimidating journalists, the way an unsigned billboard overlooking the Ayalon Highway did the other day, yelping “They won’t decide” under the headshots of Maariv’s Ben Kaspit and TV journalists Amnon Abramowitz, Raviv Drucker and Guy Peleg.
Lincoln saw the media as bearers of freedom, excavators of truth and wrestlers for justice. Netanyahu, like Gen. Sherman, sees in the media a nuisance at best, an enemy at worst. As far as he is concerned, the media’s mission can be contaminated, its owners can be bullied, and its practitioners can be maneuvered, abused and defaced.
Well, we won’t be. Like George Smalley, we will go the extra mile to tell the truth, and like Tom Knox, we will emerge in any battlefield’s any corner, so that we, and not the government, write history’s first draft.