Behind the lines: They can't have it both ways

The same rules now apply to the prime minister's health as they do to any other journalistic focus of interest.

anshel 88 (photo credit: )
anshel 88
(photo credit: )
Even someone like me, who, for the past week, has been eagerly awaiting any new scrap of information from the seventh floor of Hadassah Hospital, was driven up the wall by some of the media's bright ideas this week. Like the rest of my colleagues and the country, I want the latest updates on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's return to consciousness. But I can do without hearing - four times a day on the radio - the latest Mozart piece being played to him. In addition, the report on Channel 2 news on Monday from the Buenos Aires neighborhood where two of Sharon's doctors grew up was totally pointless. As were the interviews with the wife of Hadassah Director-General Professor Shlomo Mor-Yosef. The popular press has a real problem when it comes to sustaining interest in one central subject for over a week. That's why it looks for these "colorful" diversions. This doesn't mean that there aren't enough serious topics to deal with following the prime minister's stroke. Ehud Olmert's qualifications to serve as prime minister, for example, or how the country is functioning without a real government - or what effect the absence of ministers in half the government's offices has on the citizens. None of these pressing issues has been properly treated over the past several days. Perhaps they don't seem pressing enough while the prime minister is fighting for his life; maybe they're just not interesting; or perhaps it might appear unpatriotic to be criticizing the government at a time like this. Sharon's illness is undoubtedly the most important issue in Israel right now, but everyone seems to have forgotten that - his incredible personal story aside - the real issue is the country and not the man. MOVING ON to some more serious news. For more than a week, we've been deluged with medical data, new revelations on Sharon's diagnoses and debates over the nature of his medication and the efficacy of his evacuation. There isn't a neurosurgeon in the country who hasn't warmed the benches of at least one TV studio, and for every doctor who comes out in the open, there are 10 others who are busy anonymously criticizing their colleagues and explaining how Sharon could have been saved if only things had been done differently. This medical mud-slinging has drawn a lot of criticism against the irresponsible press for dealing in things in which they have no expertise - and against doctors rushing to pass judgment without knowing the exact facts. Such criticism is totally detached from reality. The prime minister had a right to privacy, like any other citizen, but he gave that right up two weeks ago when he allowed his doctors to brief reporters on his medical situation. From that moment on, Sharon's blood pressure and cholesterol levels and anything else beneath his bonnet became fair game for the media. The same rules now apply to the prime minister's health as they do to any other journalistic focus of interest. It's too late to cry foul once the line has been crossed. This means that any and every accusation and bit of evidence is fit to print and broadcast. It also means that mistakes will be made here and there. Sharon's CT-scan readings aren't gospel. Nor are his doctors angels. Disinformation and spin can be found even in the neurology ward. So far, Hadassah has openly commented only on the story in Haaretz according to which Sharon was wrongly diagnosed after his first stroke. I am not qualified to forge a medical opinion, but the newspaper had every right to publish the question marks. Mor-Yosef and the Hadassah spokespeople want to have it both ways. They are pleased to supply us intimate details of Sharon's condition and treatment, but expect the press to treat them as the sole, infallible source. Mor-Yosef is no different from any other senior executive facing the media, concerned with the image of the organization he heads. The fact that he's a doctor shouldn't mean that he is incapable of being economical with the truth. Our expectations of doctors should be realistic. There is no reason to assume that they are more truthful than others when put on the spot by the media. The same goes for the medical pundits handing down their televised verdicts. So what if they haven't seen Arik's latest blood-test results? How are they different from the Israeli experts on Arab affairs who analyze the motives of the leaders of Iran and Syria without ever having visited those countries? While Sharon's surgeons were elevated this week to the height of national heroes, the medical profession was subjected to brutal and unprecedented scrutiny. Though it might have been excessive, it was definitely overdue. IN LAST week's column, I wrote that both the press and Sharon's media advisers should shoulder part of the blame in creating the pressure on him to return to work so soon after his first stroke - pressure that probably contributed to his second near-fatal one. So far, no one on either side has called for a reckoning, but there have been a few voices saying that Channel 10 shouldn't have broadcast its revelation that the police seemed to have proof of Sharon's having received a bribe from Martin Schlaff on the eve of the PM's planned catheterization. Blaming the network or its reporter, Baruch Kra, is scandalous. Sharon's office did everything possible to convince reporters that he was back to business as usual, released details and footage of his meetings and leaked medical reports that proved he was in good health. If that was indeed the situation, the prime minister didn't deserve any immunity whatsoever. If anyone had concerns that embarrassing revelations could harm his health, he should have been on sick-leave. It's important to keep this in mind, because there are already signs that Kadima is planning to plant the subliminal message in the voters' minds that Sharon's political rivals somehow contributed to his illness. If there were any truth to that, then Sharon was never the strong leader we thought he was. I'm sure that's not the point they want to make.