Behind the lines: Hot off the press

An answer to the president's unprecedented diatribe against the media.

katsav angry as hell 248 88 (photo credit: AP)
katsav angry as hell 248 88
(photo credit: AP)
President Moshe Katsav has likened himself to Capt. Alfred Dreyfus over the last few days, but since no local Emile Zola emerged to champion his cause, he decided to summon the media for a press conference, and offered his own J'accuse. Katsav tried to put the police, the State Attorney's Office, the members of the Knesset, civil rights campaigners and, above all, "the hostile media" in the dock instead of himself. The irony of the situation - the president addressing the nation using the services of the very media that he spent most of his speech attacking - seemed to be lost on him. But, aside from the attempt by Channel 2's Gadi Sukenik to interrupt his flow, the dozens of other journalists present did nothing to stop him. The president's accusations are too serious to be left unanswered. Katsav and his spin doctors prepared the speech with the clear intention of playing to the deep hostility felt by large parts of the public to the media, which he wasn't blaming only for misconduct in his own case. In a much wider sense, he was attacking the underlying culture of Israeli journalism. The media, according to Katsav, are guilty of a prolonged witch-hunt against him which began far before the first charges of sexual misconduct surfaced six months ago. They had never accepted him as president, he said, deligitimizing his election from the very beginning by comparing it to "the end of Zionism" and the day that Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. During his first months in office, he charged, the press dug for dirt on him, searching as far back as his days in second grade. The media might have backed off for a few years, but the moment the allegations of rape and indecent assault appeared, they were prepared to listen only to one side. The media, in Katsav's book, are a bunch of lazy, superficial and unprofessional hacks, eager for headlines and not bothering to check the facts or investigate the truth. The journalists are in an unholy alliance with the police and the prosecution, and by issuing a verdict before he had a chance to state his case, they served a left-wing, elitist clique determined to topple a president from humble, Sephardi and religious origins, who, unlike them, consecrates family values and the sanctity of marriage. A blistering indictment, but one lacking in supporting evidence. LET'S START with his accusation that the media has had it in for him since the beginning. Both The Jerusalem Post's Amotz Asa-El, who called the day of his election "the end of Zionism" and Haaretz's Gideon Levi, who likened it to Rabin's assassination, were referring to the humiliation of loser Shimon Peres; neither questioned the legitimacy of Katsav's election. Nor can Katsav claim with any degree of honesty that he was strategically maligned by the press over the years. The media had a large part in his meteoric rise, building the image of the young maverick, Kiryat Malachi's first university graduate, local council leader at the age of 24, MK at 32 and minister by 38. The hagiography Moshe Katsav: From the Kastina transit camp to the cabinet, by Yediot Aharonot's Menahem Michelson, was far from being an exception. It's true that a few journalists did try to dig up stories from Katsav's past after his elevation to the presidency, but that would have been standard for any new president. Katsav also made some mistakes of his own, notably trying to appoint at least one person with a criminal record to a senior position within his office. None of that, of course, should excuse the media for misconduct over the last six months. But Katsav's claim that he wasn't allowed a fair hearing by the press is baseless. From the beginning of the case - first reported by Channel 2 as a complaint by Katsav of a blackmail attempt against him - all the newspapers, radio stations and TV channels repeatedly ask him for his version of events. "I really don't know what he's talking about," said one reporter who covers the president. "I came to every single event here at Beit Hanassi in the hope that he would finally say something." Every possible platform was offered to him, but when he finally relented by giving an exclusive interview to Yediot Aharonot's Nahum Barnea, he still refused to discuss the details of the case, talking only about the anguish it caused him and his family. Katsav kept to his decision to keep silent, but his cause was not lacking in champions. The Katsav camp fielded a formidable army of lawyers, spokespeople, friends and confidants with extensive contacts in the media. His personal attorney, Zion Amir, his brother, Lior Katsav, and unofficial press adviser, Amnon Shomron, all became media stars over the last six months. And they were all given ample opportunity to present the president's case. Every countercharge they launched, both behind the scenes on the air, was followed up. The public learned early on intimate details of the sex lives, employment records and criminal and political connections of the various women claiming Katsav attacked them. We read the transcript of the alleged "blackmail tape," and last week heard the deposition of an anonymous businessman claiming that he had paid for sex with the famous "A." In other words, even the most casual news viewer could easily recite Katsav's case for the defense. But Katsav seems to believe that the media should have accepted only his version. Did he really expect the press to bury accusations by a series of a women that he had raped or assaulted them on page 18 beneath the obituaries? TWO OF Katsav's charges do deserve some consideration. One is the incestuous relationship between the press and the police, which has been a matter of concern since long before this case emerged. The other is the attitude toward "outsider" Sephardi Likudniks. Police investigators are notorious for leaking information in a blatant attempt to put suspects under additional pressure, and journalists are naturally willing recipients. But why should they be blamed for that? A police officer or attorney leaking elements of a confidential investigation might be breaking the law, but a reporter receiving information on serious allegations against a senior politician would be forsaking his duty if he refrained from publishing it. A journalist's professional obligation is to weigh the vested interests behind the leak and present it accordingly. Did the press accept these leaks uncritically, serving as accomplices to a police witch-hunt? Perhaps a comprehensive review of all the reporting over the last six months is called for, but my general impression is that the various accusations against Katsav were couched in the necessary caveats and qualifications, as were the counterallegations made by Katsav's supporters against the two "A"s and other women. Yes, there were the usual slip-ups, but no more than in any other case. Here, though, another charge could be made against the media. Even if the basic rules of balance and fair play were adhered to, it is impossible to avoid the impression that at some stage of the affair, a great majority of the press had chosen a side and decided, at least among itself, who was telling the truth - and it wasn't the president. It can't be conclusively proven, but the tone was definitely there. This feeling was highlighted by the media attitude to another case developing in parallel. Some media observers have accused journalists of developing a double standard, whereby the sexual harassment charges against former justice minister Haim Ramon were generally pooh-poohed, while Katsav received much harsher treatment. One reason given for this was Katsav's outsider status, while Ramon has always been an extremely popular figure among journalists. But this is a superficial argument. Although both cases are about senior politicians accused of sexual misconduct, they have little else in common. With Ramon, both sides agree that there was a kiss, at least originally consensual. The main argument is over whether his ungentlemanly conduct provided grounds for his resignation and trial, with a significant number of law professors and veteran feminists saying they didn't. In Katsav's case, the very facts are under hot dispute. It is inhuman to expect reporters, after repeatedly being confronted with witnesses' statements, not to form their own opinions, and unrealistic to expect those opinions not to seep into their reports in some way. Let's not beat around the bush: A huge majority of journalists dealing with the case believe most of the accusations against Katsav. That doesn't mean he was treated unfairly. And it has nothing to do with his Sephardi or Likudnik origins. The Israeli media, especially the reporters covering crime, are far from being members of a left-wing clique, as some would like to believe. President Ezer Weizman got the same treatment, despite being an Ashkenazi peacenik. One thing was missing from Katsav's all-out attack on the press. He mentioned the "deligitimization" of his election six and a half years ago and the "witch-hunt" over the last six months, but where was the press during all those years in between? If anything, Katsav's term went underreported. Though he generally received positive coverage and credit for restoring stability to the presidency, for six years Katsav was usually absent from the headlines. A series of spokespeople failed to stoke media interest in his actions and statements. Some of them even wrote letters of complaint to editors over reporters' "ignoring" the president. But to no avail; Katsav was simply branded not sexy. No aspiring young journalist dreams of covering the presidential beat. It's usually an onerous burden added on to the workload of the most junior reporter in the Jerusalem office. Perhaps the media should be blamed for this; things might have turned out differently with some more serious scrutiny. Katsav mentioned during his speech on Wednesday that he had faithfully dealt with 10,000 pardon requests during his term - a fantastic number that can probably be challenged. But even if it's true, there is no way that such a workload could have been properly dealt with by the president and his small staff. The police found insufficient evidence to back up the claims that pardons had been for sale in Katsav's administration, but charges of cronyism and other corruption surrounding the pardon process remain uninvestigated. Other matters also escaped the media's attention, such as the basic question of how the presidency spent NIS 150 million over the last six years and what kind of return we received for our tax money. Katsav has much bigger problems to deal with now, but the next president should expect a different style of treatment from the press. We will want to know how the incumbent is filling the role of national figurehead, or the media might raise the ultimate heresy: Do we really need a presidency?