Is Israel slipping towards ‘videocracy’?

Media Watch: Benjamin Barber wrote that television does not “enhance literacy [so much] as render it irrelevant.”

TV 311 (photo credit: Hemera)
TV 311
(photo credit: Hemera)
Media vocabulary was enriched in 2009 by an Italian documentary about that country’s 30- year descent into broadcast inanity. The film, entitled Videocracy, was directed by Erik Gandini and established a paradigm: image possesses power over society.
The film’s message was simple: controlling images is a key to power. Those who effectively use media tools and understand media codes, Gandini insinuated, become leaders of the new-fangled videocracy and take control of society. The subtext of the film was the understanding that “without television you can’t do anything.”
That is especially true in Israel, where the media has been exploited not for economic as for political gain.
Professor Jeffrey Sachs, of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, warned in October that people were becoming “vidiots” and that new media devices have resulted in “countless ill effects,” including social fragmentation stemming from “television-driven social atomization.” Politicians are now brand names, packaged like breakfast cereal and sold with catchy jingles.
Power passes through the TV channels. Some neuroscientists even believe extensive TV viewing could rewire the brain and impair cognitive capacities. In a recent research paper on the media and the politics of the symbolic construction of reality, Sandu Frunza argues that the mass media plays the same role in modern society that myth used to play in traditional societies.
All of which provides backdrop to President Shimon Peres’ statement last month that the “fight for Channel 10 is fight for democracy.” The closure of the channel, Peres said, would lead to “social and economic bankruptcy.” He was concerned that if domestic media is harmed, youth will “all go to the Internet, read foreign newspapers, and not know what’s happening in the country.”
Waxing philosophic, Peres continued, saying “democracy rests on two wings – government action and the critical action of the free press. It’s not possible to separate the two and remain democratic.” Haaretz added that Peres viewed Channel 10 as “imperative for the state, society and the strengthening of Israeli democracy.”
THE MEDIA has the ability to weaken democracy by permitting non-elected elites to become dominant.
In addition, even the Israeli Left can criticize the media for being an indentured servant of the government. For instance, on January 2 Merav Michaeli bemoaned Israel’s loss of what she called an opportunity to achieve a peaceful solution to our conflict with the Arab world.
“It is not only the regime that is displaying total disregard [for the 2002 Saudi Peace Initiative]. The Israeli media – frighteningly establishment as it has always been – also almost completely ignored the Saudi initiative.”
Left-wing media critics such as Keshev’s Yizhar Be’er say military reporters serve as uncritical publicists for the IDF spokesperson.
“The media’s coverage of the first days of the fighting [during Operation Cast Lead] was characterized by feelings of self-righteousness... along with support for the military action and few expressions of criticism,” wrote Be’er at the time.
In a Knesset committee meeting on January 4, Haim Yavin described current leftwing attitudes towards the media. “We are in a kind of siege, suffocating... [but] our freedom of speech will not be stifled,” he said.
Significantly, however Yavin failed to demand freedom of speech for non-media types. This is ironic because the media routinely blocks others’ freedom to express themselves. The most powerful weapon the media possesses is the ability to prevent a true plurality of voices from being heard, as per the law of the iba. studies published by the second authority consistently show that certain sectors of the population - hareidim, arabs, immigrants, women - are essentially shut out of the “frame.”
PRESIDENT PERES’ remarks beg a fundamental question: Is democracy adequately served by Israel’s media? Could it be that the media undermines our democracy with unethical and unprofessional behavior?
At the Sokolov Prize for Outstanding Journalism ceremony in November, Raviv Drucker, channel 10’s investigative reporter, attacked Prime Minister Netanyahu, insisting “it is the job of the media to attack” the political regime in a given country. “This is not something personal. It is what the press is supposed to do,” said Drucker.
But Drucker and comrades have, however, developed a warped logical construction here - I am the media, and the media must criticize. Therefore, I must criticize. In doing so, they have placed a higher value on their criticism than on the intended result of their public oversight of elected officials: Good governance and a functioning society.
Benjamin Barber wrote in A Passion for Democracy that television does not really “enhance literacy [so much] as render it irrelevant.” Do Israel’s media consumers benefit from the programming they see and hear? Are media ethical standards of fairness, balance, lack of bias, etc. at work?
A new paradigm seems to have set in for Israeli media: Attack the corridors of power, regardless of the credibility of the attacks. Instead of objectively reporting the five "w's" - who, what, where, when and why - the media has chosen to mix reportage and opinion. That establishes the media not as an aide to the citizen or as a neutral observer but as an opposing focus of power which seeks to force its own values, ideology, culture and economic view on the public. And it does so undemocratically.
Politicians can and will be notorious. But they are elected. The public has a voice and can turn them out. That is the basis of democracy. Yes, the media should seek out and publicize their foibles, inadequacies and crimes. Nevertheless, the public has little opportunity to affect the media, the motives and behavior of which are, at times, no more pure than those of politicians.
In addition, the media demands “rights” not afforded to politicians or any other sector of society. The media regularly demand the “right” of inviolability and the “right” to immunity. When media owners fail to repay their debts, they demand a consideration not afforded any other societal group. The media wish to be out of reach of normal boundaries.
What is at stake in this Israeli version of videocracy is the protection by media elite, as Dror Eydar phrased it recently, of “the immoral advantage that the Left has,” not only on our screens but also within the legal establishment.
This presents an additional danger to democracy, for while the Israeli electorate votes consistently for parties that form right-wing coalitions, the main power centers of the media, the judiciary and academia continue to lie outside the democratic will of the people, in the hands of a small group with a multitude of spokespeople.
In the democratic West, media criticism supports the people. In Israel, the media supports the elitist cliques and criticism of the media is a sin, one the media will never forgive.
The authors are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel's Media Watch.