Freedom from the press

Israel has the most vociferous press in the western world, obsessed with one goal: winning the race for the most sensational headline by besmirching politicians and public figures – regardless of the cost to both the individual and the country.

Israeli reporters on the job (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Israeli reporters on the job
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The April 13 banner headline of Haaretz daily made the following proclamation: “Haaretz WikiLeaks exclusive: Labor MK Herzog called Amir Peretz inexperienced, aggressive and Moroccan.”
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The headline and the story covered most of the front page of the paper. It revealed that Yitzhak Herzog had allegedly made the remark to a senior American diplomat. Not recently, however, but five years ago, in 2006.
Apparently that was the most important news that day. Not the reports from Egypt about Hosni Mubarak’s collapse, nor the reports from Damascus relaying the deaths of 200 people, or those coming from Europe and the US about the intention to declare a unilateral Palestinian independence, and not even the nuclear meltdown in Japan.
Scores of other items were also not worthy of mention on Haaretz’s front page (some of them not even making the inside pages). A remark that Herzog did or didn’t make five years ago in a private conversation took precedence. Once again, the Israeli press proved that its primary focus is on cheap incitement and sensationalism.
Not so many years ago, even the “yellow” press in our country would have relegated such a story to a back page. But today all the media channels – newspapers, radio, TV – are obsessed with one goal: beating the competition in the race for a sensational headline by besmirching politicians and public figures.
Until a month ago, the race focused on General Yoav Galant and in particular, dragging his name through the mud. It did not limit itself, God forbid, to Galant’s alleged infractions which, as everyone agreed, warranted investigation. That simply wasn’t sexy enough. So our county’s diligent reporters photographed Galant’s home from every possible angle and presented it to the public as a symbol of corruption. They recruited publicity-hungry psychologists and architects, who sagely informed us that the house was a testament to the dark currents in Galant’s soul. They checked and re-checked Galant’s financial records to find proof of an illicit income. They scoured the general’s past to unearth juicy evidence to support the claim that he is an enemy of the people. Indeed, perhaps Galant was not the right choice for Chief of Staff. But he was certainly the right choice for media crucifixion.
Last week a new scandal erupted, namely the “Bibi tours.” This was a series of allegations by Channel 10 against Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu - apparently guilty of the following heinous crimes: using double invoices for his and his wife’s flights abroad; his wife’s bringing dirty laundry from home to the hotels she stays at to have it washed at the nation’s expense; Netanyahu claiming to have read books that don’t exist; and so on and so forth. For the first time in many years, Netanyahu’s patience was stretched and he sued the reporters and Channel 10 for 3.5 million NIS in damages. I hope for his sake that Netanyahu will stick to his guns till the end.
There is no way to escape the glaring conclusion: Israel today has the most cynical and vicious press in the western world. Even the notorious British tabloids can learn a thing or two from the People of the Book.
Israel’s reporters have joined its weathermen in becoming the only two professions where pay has nothing to do with merit. Was there ever a case of a reporter being fired for wrongly accusing an innocent person? Or of the reporter being fined? Or even reprimanded? Like our weathermen, they give us in-depth forecasts about storms that never happen or winds that don’t blow.
There are two groups that aid and abet the press’ bloodthirsty hunts: Firstly, the public figures that “don’t want trouble” and therefore prefer to bow their heads and keep quiet even when they are wrongly accused, for fear that hitting back would cost them even more. And the other group that supports the press’ anarchy are the self appointed crusaders for the “right of the public to know” - even in matters that don’t concern it. The institutions of the Israeli press, as defenders of democracy and its values, and to which I was a member for more than twenty years, are absolutely impotent in the face of the current prostitution of their noble calling,. Whenever I happen to hear an interview of the present chairman of the press council, former supreme court judge Dalia Dorner, she is always defending the press; I never once heard her condemn the way  in which reporters and columnists are tearing innocent people’s lives to pieces.
I certainly support freedom of the press. But I also believe that sometimes people deserve a little freedom from the press.
The writer is a former Labor Party MK and the official biographer of David Ben-Gurion and Shimon Peres.