Media Comment: Concentrated media power – in whose hands?

Has Israel’s media twisted out of control?

felice friedson 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
felice friedson 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
“The press loves reading about the press... and those corners of it which I neither understand nor knew about, well, they’re all the more fascinating.”
That incisive observation was not made of Israel’s media, although one could be excused for assuming so. It belongs to Hugo Rifkind, who published a column on November 19 in the UK’s Spectator on press standards.
He added: “We’re on the quite frightening cusp of accepting that media is becoming an organic, twisting thing that nobody can ever quite understand or control.”
Has Israel’s media twisted out of control, a version of HAL 9000, the computer villain of 2001: A Space Odyssey? HAL suffers from a contradiction: although he is to accurately process information without distortion or concealment, nevertheless he submits to other, secret orders.
Last year, on July 7, this paper quoted the IBA’s Moshe Negbi, who stated that Israel’s media were “guilty of promoting one-sided coverage of the Gilad Schalit story... promoting [an] agenda to garner a ratings boost... shirking their responsibility toward the public.”
He believed that commentators in the media were letting their personal beliefs cloud their journalistic integrity.
Most newspaper, television and radio outlets, with some exceptions, he asserted, were engaged in “slanted coverage.”
THIS PAST week, Israel’s journalists gathered in “emergency” conclave.
The message was that the freedom of the press is under attack by the government and Knesset legislators.
They are incensed over a bill which calls for increased fines for libel, with no need to prove damage. Worse yet, the legislation demands prominent publication of the right of reply for anyone who is criticized.
Such “draconian measures,” they claim, would silence the media. The “exorbitant” damage payment would jeopardize the economic foundations of media outlets to the extent that investigative reports would be stifled for fear of retribution through the courts.
The auditorium in Tel Aviv was full.
All the “stars” were out. The speeches were full of pathos, damning the dark powers-that-be, those who would put an end to democracy.
There were some contradictions, however. Meirav Michaeli wrote in Haaretz that “the media are pro-establishment by nature. They identify with the ruling power, until they don’t, according to their own need for drama.”
Was that cognitive dissonance a la HAL? Ilana Dayan spoke at the conference, admitting in a mea culpa that demonstrations and protests of the national and religious Right were not covered as were those of the liberal Left.
In the same week yet another serious issue was placed on the agenda.
A report by the Knesset’s research unit, initiated by Independence Party MK Einat Wilf, discussed the possible dangers inherent in the concentration of media ownership in Israel in the hands of a select and small group of financial moguls.
Cross-ownership of media outlets, as well as multiple ownership of businesses and journalistic establishments could lead, according to the report, to serious distortion of the public’s right to know and suppression of freedom of expression.
Four business groups – the Ofer family, the Dankner family, Mossi Wertheim and Yitzhak Tshuva – have holdings in media companies, including cross-ownership and diagonal ownerships whereby a company owns shares in a media company and other business interests. A prime concern is that news coverage could be biased in favor of economic interests.
Cross-ownership weakens the advertising market. During the discussion in the Knesset this week, drama producer Yariv Horovitz claimed that Wertheim, who also owns the Israeli Coca Cola franchise, purposely froze advertising costs on TV so as to lower the expense for the Coca Cola company.
The press could be used to influence politicians to make favorable decisions for the other holdings of the same mogul. Hadash MK Dov Henin spoke wistfully of the days when Israel’s media was owned by the various political parties. In those days there was more pluralism, and one knew exactly what the paper’s owners and editors were thinking.
Although the two issues, of libel legislation and media cross- and multiple ownership would seem to be different issues, in reality they are two sides of the same coin - the extent of freedom that the press should have in a democratic society.
While the need for investigative reporting cannot be denied, if a reporter honestly errs and clearly admits the error there would be no cause for a libel suit. The new legal measures apply when the media outlet insists that it reported the truth and the victim can prove that he was libeled. At most, the new legislation would force some reporters to finally do their homework, lest they be forced too often to submit retractions, which could harm their careers and reputation.
Multiple media ownership can lead to slanted news coverage. Professor Sam Lehman-Wilzig and Nava Sharvit of Bar Ilan University published in 1999 a study which showed how Yediot Aharonot, Ma’ariv and Haaretz slanted their reports on media companies owned by the conglomerates “Yediot Tikshoret” and “Hachsharat Hayishuv” which, in turn, own the papers.
The damage to the media consumer in Israel from concentrated ownership is not the most pressing challenge facing our society. The moguls have little influence on the public broadcasting stations which make up a sizable fraction of Israel’s media.
Israel is a very small country. The number of media outlets is small, so necessarily the number of owners is not big. The TV business, especially, is necessarily a very expensive one, and Israel’s advertising market is limited.
Only the very rich can afford the luxury of owning a TV station - and of absorbing its losses.
The real danger to Israel’s democracy and freedom of the press comes from the media itself. Dror Eydar of Yisrael Hayom observes that in the Israeli media “there are almost no balanced debates... only the ‘sons of light’ versus the ‘sons of darkness’ ...the media has itself become a political player... [with] charlatanism, anti-intellectualism, silencing of voices, and lack of independent thinking... There is no desire at all to maintain a balance, hear the voices of people who think differently, and accord legitimacy to different world views.”
Razi Barkai of Army Radio, who organized the journalists’ meeting, would be well advised to heed those barely audible voices who insist that freedom of the press is not a license to willfully attack innocent people.
Nor does it give him and his friends the right to usurp the media for their own purposes. Such standards are certainly more dangerous than the not-too-frequent meddling of some rich owners.
The writers are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch.