Who runs the media? 'Advertisers and politicians'

Broadcaster Ilana Dayan says ratings are the biggest barrier to journalistic integrity.

Ilana Dayan 88 (photo credit: )
Ilana Dayan 88
(photo credit: )
Who controls the media? For the commercial electronic and print media, it's the big money advertisers. In public broadcasting it's the politicians. This was the thesis of an address delivered by broadcaster Ilana Dayan at the 14th annual B'nai B'rith World Center Journalism Awards. Dayan was speaking at the ceremony honoring journalist Yaron Dekel hosted by Jerusalem's Begin Heritage Center Jerusalem in Memory of Wolf and Hilda Matsdorf. Dayan and Dekel, currently the Washington bureau chief of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, began their careers together at Army Radio. Both have since become highly successful broadcasters. The Argentina-born Dayan is best known as the anchor of Uvda (Fact), the investigative journalism program she launched in 1993. Dekel received the Matsdorf Prize for a television documentary series on Jewish life in the US in which he explored issues such as Jewish identity, intermarriage, assimilation and Jews relationship to Israel. An honorable mention was given to Elihu Bar-Onn, whose weekly radio call-in program, Israel Connection, reaches Israeli expatriates in the most far-flung parts of the world and sometimes acts as the bridge via which to return home. Dayan recalled that 22 years ago, when she and Dekel were both 20-year-olds performing their compulsory IDF service at Army Radio, they had traveled to Jerusalem to pay a condolence call. Once in the capital, they heard a terrible explosion and realized it was probably a terrorist attack. Without saying a word, they got into Dekel's car and headed back to the Army Radio studio in Jaffa, checked to make sure that there had indeed been a terrorist attack and then did what any good journalists does - reported the facts. Dayan anchored the program while Dekel, who was a police reporter at the time, kept moving between the telephone and the microphone, reporting updates. They acted instinctively, without any supervision, she said. They were not influenced by anyone or anything other than the events they were reporting. It still works pretty much that way at Army Radio, according to Dayan. Reporters have much greater freedom than at the IBA or at commercial outlets. "No one ever told Dekel what to broadcast or not to broadcast," she said. At the same time, Army Radio exudes youth and modernity, she said, bringing listeners the latest music and slang. All the new buzzwords are broadcast on Army Radio first, she said. This liberal, democratic atmosphere is not found elsewhere in the industry, said Dayan. She said that when a journalist is limited in what he is allowed to investigate, liberal democracy does not exist. "How can we do it when we are shackled on one side by big money and by politicians on the other?" she asked. "It's a war that every journalist fights daily." Sometimes journalists kill a story, she said, not because it's not a good story, but because it doesn't justify the risks that have to be taken for it to be properly investigated. Journalistic integrity demands both honesty and courage, Dayan said, but it's sometimes easier to avoid hassles by not covering a story at all, said Dayan. Acknowledging that the media is largely leftist in its political orientation, Dayan said this was no excuse for a lack of elementary curiosity. "How come none of us took [former science minister Ze'ev] Benny Begin seriously with regard to Oslo?" she asked. "No one wanted to listen to him and none of us had enough integrity after the collapse of the Oslo agreements to say that he was right." In a similar vein, she wondered why the media had not badgered lawyer Dov Weisglass, who together with then-prime minister Ariel Sharon masterminded Israel's disengagement from the Gaza Strip, over his failure to talk about the rocket bombardments on Sderot. "Why didn't he tell us about Sderot before the disengagement?" she asked. Ratings are one of the greatest barriers to journalist integrity in the electronic media, she said. Dayan said she tried to achieve a balance by presenting stories that are not "sexy" but that disclose significant irregularities or injustices, as part of a lineup that also includes stories designed to send the ratings soaring. For example, when she learned that retirees from Jerusalem's Misgav Ladach Hospital, like those from the capital's Bikur Holim Hospital, had not been receiving their pensions for five years, she battled her bosses and insisted on running the story. The ratings, as anticipated, were very low. Conversely, when she ran a story about film-maker and actor Assi Dayan and his recurring drug problem, it was a sure-fire topic for high ratings, but Ilana Dayan's journalistic ethics made things difficult for her. Assi Dayan, who had been hospitalized after taking an overdose of cocaine, was asked what he would if there was cocaine immediately available. "I would sniff it," he replied, "but I wouldn't buy it." The second part of the sentence was cut during editing. "Any good editor would have done the same," said Ilana Dayan. But it bothered her because it presented a dishonest version of Assi Dayan's words. And so an hour before going to air, she insisted that the missing phrase be restored. She was told that it was impossible, but she stood her ground - and the sentence was restored. "I had to save him from himself," she said. More to the point, she said, she had to preserve her integrity as a journalist.