'The media wasn't patriotic, merely populist'

Israel's news outlets "functioned as a very Israeli media speaking to an Israeli audience about an Israeli conflict, and did not provide the neutral journalism we all learned in journalism school," Channel 2 foreign news editor Arad Nir told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday, after a panel on the media's role during the Gaza fighting. The panel was held at the IDC Herzliya's Sammy Ofer School of Communications, and dealt with the media's role in critical reporting of the conflict. "The media in this war clearly took a side. It didn't give an equal voice to the Israeli and Gazan sides in its reportage," Nir said. He noted that one of the reasons for this lack of coverage was the untrustworthy information "flowing to us from Gaza, which was basically filtered propaganda and not professional journalism. So there was a real problem broadcasting that information. "Still, I wish we had offered more complete and specific information on what happened on the other side," Nir said. While the media certainly focused on the Israeli side of the conflict, this was to be expected, according to Dr. Yariv Ben-Eliezer, head of the Persuasive Media Department at the Sammy Ofer Communications School at the IDC Herzliya. It was a result - not a cause - of the vast Israeli public support for the operation in Gaza. A Tel Aviv University poll publicized in the last week of the operation revealed that 94 percent of Israeli Jews supported the IDF assault on Hamas. The media's Israel-centric reporting is due to the fact that, at the end of the day, the news outlets' chief goal is high ratings, not social critique, Ben-Eliezer said. "The functions of the media worldwide are to report, to entertain, and to criticize the regime," he noted, "but it is the free market that sets the priorities among these functions. Just as in America where news programs are called 'news shows,' the central goal is to increase ratings and make money for the investors." Thus, during the fighting, Israelis were subject to "hours and hours of news that wasn't news, but emotion. People were clinging to television screens in anticipation of important breaking news, and the channels needed to hold them between news flashes," he said. Nir, a senior figure in Israel's largest commercial channel, agreed with Ben-Eliezer's premise. "There's nothing wrong with the commercial media's desire to present the news in the most interesting and attractive way," he said, but agreed that the commercial channels "appeal to the common denominator." Here there was a role to play for the government-owned and perpetually underfunded Channel 1, he said. "A publicly funded news channel should be a more comprehensive, alternative news source. Unfortunately, Channel 1 competes with the commercial channels and does not take up that role." At the end of the day, the media acted of its own free will, the panelists said. "The media was not patriotic, but merely populist," said Ben-Eliezer. It "was not mobilized, just restrained," said Nir. And it was responding to an overwhelming popular sentiment, not creating it, they both believe. "Don't overestimate the ability of the media to change widely held opinion," Ben-Eliezer said. "Eight years of Kassams - not the media - were the decisive factor in the support for the operation."