Analyze This: A typically classy sign-off for 'Mr. Television'

'Mr. Television' leaves Mabat after 40 years.

haim yavin 88 (photo credit: )
haim yavin 88
(photo credit: )
Last night was the final Mabat broadcast for "Mr. Television," Haim Yavin, who has anchored Israel Television's (Channel 1) nightly news program almost continuously since its debut in the summer of 1968. Throughout the broadcast, and in a special salute afterwards, his colleagues, his rivals on competing news broadcasts, and various public figures saluted the venerable newscaster. There was plenty of emotion in the Mabat studio last night - but as usual, very little of it came from the calm, cool and collected Yavin. The stoic anchorman signed off for the final time just as he came on in the archive broadcasts of the first-ever Israeli news broadcast four decades ago - with little fuss, as a dignified class act. The 75-year-old Yavin's broadcast career actually began a decade before the relatively late arrival of television broadcasting here, and his influence on the development of the news business derives as much from his role as a behind-the-camera producer/editor at ITV since its very inception. But it is as the perennial face of Mabat that Yavin has become a genuine Israeli cultural icon, comparable in local esteem and impact to legendary American news anchorman Walter Cronkite. True, the man born Heinz Kluger in Oberschlesien, Germany, always projected a more restrained and proper "yekke" façade in place of the avuncular warmth that earned Cronkite the nickname "Uncle Walter." But if he was never anyone's uncle, it was nonetheless reassuring for viewers to hear Yavin's restrained authoritative tone night after night, in a nation where the daily news headlines so often veer sensationally from impending doom to imminent disaster. Though Yavin has been the mainstream media's voice for four decades, he has not always been a consensus figure. Although he always maintained an aura of cool dispassion behind the anchor desk, his dominant role at an ITV news department viewed by many on the Right as having a left-leaning agenda, has made Yavin a target of criticism from that sector ever since he so memorably announced "mahapach!" (upheaval) on the night the Likud first won election 30 years ago. In his own tribute last night, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made direct reference to this more contentious aspect of Yavin's career, by recalling an on-camera confrontation on election night in 2003, when Olmert accused Yavin of being disappointed with the Likud's victory at the polls. Those occasional barbs became a torrent of outright hostility when Yavin presented his controversial documentary series In the Land of the Settlers in 2005, which explicitly criticized West Bank settlements. Yavin responded to those attacks two months ago in The Jerusalem Post by saying: "An anchorman should sit [and read the news]. There's no such thing as objectivity, but there is fairness. And you can seek to be objective. As an anchorman, I always sought to be objective, but I've never hidden [in my documentary films] that this is my personal travelogue, in my name." Yavin is planning, in fact, to present more current affairs programs after he leaves Mabat, and no doubt will be even more forthcoming on his personal views. But in the last few months there has been a widespread outpouring of appreciation - and yes, even affection - for a figure whose restrained demeanor certainly never seemed to ask for such a response. In part, this has to do with the timing of Yavin's departure. In contrast to Cronkite, who retired 20 years ago when he was still the ratings king of a broadcast media scene in which hard news and serious journalists commanded the high ground, Yavin, in contrast, takes his leave at a time when his sober, no-nonsense approach already seems an anachronism in an Israeli television landscape, where Mabat and ITV have become the poor cousin to its commercial station rivals. "TV is a jacuzzi, an entertainment tool to titillate the viewers," Yavin told the Post. "One great porridge. People can't separate what matters from what doesn't. People want to be amused, to put their feet up and channel hop. Still, almost 80 percent of viewers here are watching the news, and the connection to TV is a kind of a lifeline, an oxygen line that connects you to Israeli society." Yavin, though, has made clear in several farewell interviews that he takes issue with what sometimes constitutes "news" these days. "A singer [Ninette Taib] getting a haircut, that's news?" he asked incredulously in a recent interview on Channel 2, which did in fact make that event a headline item. He also insisted that in the future, as in the past, he would refuse any offers to serve as a commercial pitchman, a rebuke of sorts to the path taken by some of his younger successors. It's that kind of attitude that had Yediot Aharanot this week label him (fondly) a "dinosaur" and his ITV colleague Yigal Ravid, who presided over last night's tribute, as "a sort of human nature reserve." Speaking on the Knesset Channel earlier this week, Ravid noted that Yavin is the last TV news anchor that uses the rolling "r-r-r-esh" sound that characterizes the formal Hebrew pronunciation - a trait that gets due emphasis in the impersonation of the anchor on the satirical show Eretz Nehederet that has the anchorman calling for reports from the field from correspondents who retired decades earlier. It is thus not just Yavin himself, but what he represents, that will be - and is already - missed. During his heyday, it was noted that in order to listen to Mabat it wasn't necessary to own a television set; all you had to do was walk down any street in Israel at 9 p.m. and listen to Yavin's voice emanating from the window of every home with the day's headlines. The Israel of that era seemed a far smaller, more unified (or uniform) society, characterized by common experiences that provided a shared cultural language for the vast majority of Israelis. Haim Yavin wasn't just an anchorman; he was the anchorman, and it was his Mabat that set the unquestioned national agenda of what was news, and what wasn't, what was important, and what trivial, what we should be thinking about and feeling, along with everyone else in this country. And because of the way he conducted himself on camera, that role seemed right and natural. Those days are already gone, of course - and now, so is their last reminder, Haim Yavin speaking to us from behind the Mabat anchor desk. [email protected]