Civil fights: Regardless of who won, Israeli democracy lost

The media's relentless focus on gimmicks rather than issues deprived voters of the information they needed to make intelligent choices.

livni kadima 224 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
livni kadima 224 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
It is still too early, as this is being written, to know who won this week's election. But it is not too early to know who lost: the democratic system and the entire Israeli people. Throughout the campaign, voters were systematically deprived of information about the candidates' records and positions, thereby undermining their fundamental democratic right to elect people who represent their own views. And this lack of information severely hindered intelligent decision-making about who should guide us through the multiple crises ahead, just when we need the best leadership possible. Clearly, the candidates themselves are partly to blame: The major parties in particular tried hard to blur their positions and avoid detailing their programs. The Gaza operation, which ousted the campaign from the public and media eye for three critical weeks, also played a role. Nevertheless, the main culprit is the media. Not only did the so-called guardian of democracy fail to press the candidates on the issues or publish relevant material about their records, but it actively penalized candidates who tried to address the issues by ignoring them, while rewarding those who engaged in pointless gimmicks with lavish coverage. In a stunning display of hypocrisy, Haaretz published an editorial the day after the US election declaring that Israelis could only be "jealous" of the American campaign, which enabled voters "to learn about the positions of Barack Obama and John McCain on virtually every issue. The two presented their plans for ending the crisis in Iraq and thwarting Iran's acquisition of nuclear arms. They offered detailed positions on federal mortgage insurance, preventing home foreclosures, health insurance, fiscal policy, federal financing for research in the universities, wiretapping, carbon emissions, subsidies for solar and wind energy, gasoline taxes, abortion and more... This was a magnificent display of democracy at its best... a worthy model for emulation." Yet rather than trying to replicate it here by pressing candidates on the issues, Israel's self-styled paper of record did the exact opposite. It filled several pages every day with trivialities such as the pub crawls on which MKs embarked in an effort to woo young voters, or Kadima's ridiculous charge that Likud's campaign slogan - "It's too big for her" - was a chauvinist slur against Tzipi Livni rather than an assessment of her record. But when Binyamin Netanyahu, who polls then showed as a shoo-in to be our next premier, laid out a detailed program for education reform last year, Haaretz deemed this so unimportant that it went unreported aside from one paragraph in an opinion column on the business pages. And, needless to say, the tabloids were no better. THIS BEHAVIOR virtually forced candidates to focus on trivialities rather than issues, because they need media exposure to reach the voters. And since they knew serious discussion of the issues would be ignored, while gimmicks and personal attacks would get them headlines, they had little choice but to opt for gimmicks. The result was that many voters had no clue what the parties stood for, leading to surreal scenarios like the 12th-grader at a Tel Aviv high school who, moments before casting her ballot in a mock election - and a month before doing so in the real one - told a reporter: "[B]ecause I'm right-wing, I'm wavering between voting for Tzipi Livni [Kadima] and Ehud Barak [Labor]" - both of whom are left of center. That degree of ignorance is probably unusual. But I personally met far too many people who were only marginally less clueless. Outgoing Kadima MK Isaac Ben-Israel accurately described the problem in an interview published seven weeks ago. "Is there anyone who knows what [Tourism Minister] Ruhama Avraham-Balila's opinions are on the issues of security and the economy?" he demanded. "No one knows, because no one has bothered to ask. The newspapers write gossip and don't write about fundamentals. They are preoccupied by the esoteric, the sensational and the piquant. They do not take an interest in achievements and content, but rather in politics and celebrity." And the press thereby "corrupts politics in a fundamental way." IN FACT, it does so in two ways. First, democracy is supposed to enable voters to influence government policy by electing leaders who share their preferred policies. But when voters have no idea what the candidates' policies actually are, they have no way to choose candidates who share their views. Thus when the press feeds us a steady diet of gossip and gimmick rather than information, it undermines a fundamental aspect of self-government. Second, when politicians have to hone their policy positions in response to persistent media questioning, this forces them to actually develop clear positions. In contrast, when they know that what attracts media attention is gimmickry rather than policy, they and their staffs inevitably devote most of their time and effort to devising gimmicks rather than policy. Hence all too often, prime ministers enter office without coherent policies in place, leading to the shoot-from-the-hip style of governance that has hindered the country's development for years. Elections have thus repeatedly produced governments that a) fail to deal effectively with critical issues and b) enact policies opposed by the very people who voted for them. Both of these developments severely undermine public faith in democracy, leading to the worrying trends we have witnessed in recent years: low voter turnout, a growing "protest vote" for small parties with no chance of entering the Knesset, and the craving for a "strong leader" that propelled Avigdor Lieberman's rise. Thomas Jefferson once said that given a choice between a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, he would prefer the latter, because "the basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right." But when the press neglects its duty to give people the information they need to elect leaders who in fact represent their opinions, it undermines this "basis of our governments," and hence the democratic system as a whole. And it thereby increases the likelihood that people will someday come to prefer "a government without newspapers" instead.