A final media comment, but media scrutiny is more important than ever

The last 20 years have seen an awakening of public sensitivity to media issues in Israel and abroad.

Israeli newspapers (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Israeli newspapers
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Our column appeared for the first time on a regular basis in The Jerusalem Post in July 2002, although occasional articles of media criticism appeared earlier, on the invitation of David Landau. We felt honored to follow in the tradition of David Bar-Ilan’s “Eye on the Media” column, and we merited to receive input from this paper’s former executive editor.
It was discontinued abruptly in 2004 when David Horowitz replaced Bret Stephens as editor-in-chief. It was reinstated on a weekly basis by Steve Linde in July of 2011, and then turned into a bi-weekly column in July 2016. After almost 10 continuous years, the Post is refreshing its opinion pages and our regular column has reached its end.
We deeply appreciate the trust of our editors, and especially Seth Frantzman, our op-ed editor until recently. It was a privilege to write in the Post a column we believe was by no means easy to tolerate by many.
When this column started, we were practically the only ones who were willing to call a spade a spade. We had no hesitation in pointing out media personalities, positively or otherwise. At the time, many in the media castigated us for this. Today, everyone does it. After all, media personalities have a public responsibility and, we believe, should be willing to face the music when necessary. Just as the media justifiably demands a reckoning from others, so, we believe, the public has the right and even the duty to demand the same from them. It is easy to demand accountability from politicians and officials, but many who make up the media, whether up front or in the background, get away with shallow commentary, lack of precision in facts and bias that colors their journalism.
Just as the judicial system lacks accountability and this has been decried by many, the same holds also for the media and the instruments set in place to review whether the public is indeed being served professionally and reliably. Time and time again we have shown how the various regulators and ombudsmen are derelict in their job, not willing to really cope with serious ethical issues. Sadly, this has been the situation over a period of more than two decades since we founded Israel’s Media Watch. Government media regulation is almost a lost cause. The only alternative the public has is to choose those print, broadcast and digital networks it trusts. Even this, unfortunately, is limited, given that the media in Israel is far from being pluralistic and balanced.
Media legislation is in a sorry state. As shown repeatedly in this column, politicians simply do not have the courage to seriously deal with the media, with too many of them viewing the advancing of such legislation as political suicide. Although in this day and age with social media platforms, it could be presumed that the politicians would be a bit freer in dealing with the media, this has not happened. The waste of money by our public media, funded from our pockets, is an issue we dealt with extensively, notably Army Radio. At times, some politicians and even army chiefs of staff stated the same publicly, but nothing much was done. The public broadcasting corporation and the army radio station continue with their elitist-biased programming, their hiring of celebrities as well as antiquated employee relationships that sap finances that otherwise could be used to provide us better programming options.
This is not to say that we have not seen improvements. Perhaps the most striking is that the monopoly of the Yediot Aharonot media company has been broken, mainly through the establishment of the Israel Hayom newspaper. Our first article, in July of 2002, described the efforts of then-MKs Yuval Steinitz (Likud) and Tamar Gozanski (Hadash) to push through legislation that would reduce the monopoly. This did not work out at that time, but competition did the job.
Even in the sphere of TV broadcasting the situation has improved with the addition of the i24News and Channel 20 television channels. Although their market share is not as large as it should be, they do offer the viewer an alternative.
Especially in Israel, media review cannot be limited to Israel alone. Israel’s image abroad is influenced to a large extent by the local foreign journalists, who as we often pointed out, are spoon fed by Israel’s enemies from without as well as elements from within while very little and certainly not enough is done effectively to counteract it. Part of media review is also to understand whether Israel’s representatives abroad are carrying out their job in defending Israel from media onslaughts. Too often, we noted, our ambassadors do not speak the local language, putting them at a severe disadvantage. Other times, we found that they do not defend government policy for ideological reasons or a lack of understanding of the damage done to Israel.
The last 20 years have seen an awakening of public sensitivity to media issues in Israel and abroad. The importance of media review organizations such as CAMERA or Honest Reporting cannot be overstated. Here, in Israel, we do not read or view regularly foreign media. NGOs who engage in this field open our eyes to the challenges and provide us with ability to support them in their endeavors. Unfortunately, the sensitivity to the media is high in the US and the UK, but much less so in Europe. Organizations such as the Swiss Audiatur, rarely come to the forefront here in Israel. For years, we have called upon the establishment of an international media review organization that would bring under its roof all the NGOs helping Israel in its struggle against journalistic defamation and antisemitism.
We have also witnessed the very real challenges facing the media from financial woes to revolutions in the newsrooms. The resignation of Barri Weiss from The New York Times, the observation of Jeff Jacoby in his August 3 column in The Boston Globe that “journalists regard themselves today as troops in the culture war, and their ideological loyalties are reflected in their coverage” and the anger John Kass of The Chicago Tribune expressed in his July 29 column at demands he self-censor all point to the need that the media should, even must, be subjected to independent critical voices from all sides of the political, economic and cultural disputes that all societies experience as part of their democratic practices. The media is part of our democracy, not its overlord.
Indeed, as The Guardian’s former editor in chief Alan Rusbridger wrote on August 2018 in that newspaper, “If journalism is a force of immense influence – and I think it is, and should be – then it surely deserves scrutiny.” We are proud that we were afforded an opportunity to contribute to that necessary scrutiny. We are grateful to our faithful readers who appreciated our efforts, for their encouragement and comments over these 20 or so years. We thank, again, The Jerusalem Post editorial staff and hope that media review continues to be an important issue for it.
The writers are members of Israel’s Media Watch.