Media Comment: Criticizing the media

Israel is a country which has just witnessed a former prime minister being sentenced to a jail term, along with others, for criminal corruption. The media had a field day, whether they supported or opposed him.

US Secretary of State John Kerry with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (photo credit: REUTERS)
US Secretary of State John Kerry with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas
(photo credit: REUTERS)
US Secretary of State John Kerry addressed the issue of press freedom, noting that May 3 was World Press Freedom Day. He said that “for too many, a free press is under assault.... People everywhere count on a free press to keep us informed, hold leaders accountable, filter fact from fiction and unmask false narratives masquerading as truth.”
Indeed, a central problem with the media is that those in the profession of reporting the news have to a great extent succeeded in sealing themselves in an impenetrable cocoon, insulating themselves from criticism. To criticize the media has become tantamount to “destroying democracy.”
For example, Lara Logan of CBS News decided to incorporate punditry in her news stories, a particularly acute problem here in Israel. Interviewed about the apparent ethical violation of mixing news and views, Logan said, “politics are critically important... I’ve acquired a reputation for having some depth of knowledge... you should be entitled to give [your opinion if asked] and not be vilified for giving it.” Logan later failed miserably in the 60 Minutes Benghazi story when her source was revealed to be a liar. She is now on a long-term “leave of absence,” her opinions notwithstanding. Her bubble burst.
There are other media bubbles. No media organization can exist without a director, managers, administrators and technicians, or without an economically sound and sustainable budget. These individuals are behind the scenes, but they, too, are the media. Last week, our state-sponsored media conglomerate, known as the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA), became a news item when the State Comptroller published a report on the IBA’s off-screen performance.
The IBA has been a regular feature in state comptroller’s reports. Here is what was published in this newspaper: “Reforming the IBA and revising the Broadcasting Authority Law has been on the agenda for a long time.... While management has definitely made an effort to repair some of the flaws in the system, it has not yet done enough, the comptroller’s report notes, and what still remains to be done is of a very critical nature.”
That was written by Greer Fay Cashman and appeared in on May 6, 2009.
In 2012, she reported on a state comptroller’s probe to be launched regarding claims of unfair politicization of employment tenders. We ourselves, many times, have touched on this aspect of Israel’s media, for example on August 4, 2011, in our article “The new director-general of the IBA.”
However, the situation is different this year. Communications Minister Gilad Erdan is insistent that the IBA be not just reformed, but shut down. It may be reestablished, but only if it is restructured.
One of the most basic problems of the IBA is that it has never really internalized the idea that it is a public broadcasting network. If there is one matter government bureaucracy has difficulty with, and not only in media affairs, it is the responsibility to genuinely represent the interests of the public. As we have highlighted in the past, quite simply, the “public” is rarely found, either in the administrative institutions of the IBA (and even less, for that matter, in the Galatz Army Radio station) or in the editorial departments and the newsrooms.
The concept of “public” too often morphs into the insular “us” or, to use the local slang, the “branja.”
An advantage possessed by the on-screen and on-mic celebrities is that their high-profile presence creates for them a nearly star-like quality. Their biases and ethical misbehavior are one problem, another is that there are those, according to the comptroller’s report, in the offices at Romema who mismanage the taxpayers’ money, contribute to the ruination of publicly- owned property and promote an atmosphere of irresponsible laxity.
The report this year zeroed in on contracting procedures for the production of local television programming, how the film and vocal recording archives are (not) preserved and the supervision of the digitalization project of the archives.
The comptroller established that the lack of sufficient progress of digitalization is due to the fact that “over the years, the IBA acted without any yearly program... no orderly work plan was prepared for the project’s operation that would include objectives, output measurements, establishing priorities, scheduling and budget.” Moreover, up until 2012, the IBA did not have in position someone who would oversee the long-term project and who would be intimately familiar with its requirements, potential difficulties and possible solutions.
Contracting procedures for programming are no mere trifle. The cumulative sum of taxpayer money involved is estimated to be, between 2012 to 2017, NIS 650 million. IBA economic reporters do not hesitate to criticize government spending. They harp on the expense of the prime minister’s travel, or Judea and Samaria communities, or the salaries of deputy ministers’ offices, and describe them as examples of unjustified splurging. Yet these examples pale when compared the financial failures of the IBA’s own directors.
The report constantly highlights its disappointment that too many in charge at the IBA seem to ignore the “important need to protect the public interest and public funds.” Reading the report, it becomes more and more obvious that not only is there little “out of the box” thinking at the IBA, but that those behind the desks prefer a very “inside the box” reality, with no one reviewing their output, or rather the lack thereof.
Given such a depressing reality, one suggestion we can make, which might prevent the repetition of such reports, is to give the IBA executives a preparation course in management. There is, of course, another option. Just recently, the editor of The New York Times, Jill Abramson, was fired.
Ostensibly, her “management style” was the cause of her departure. Whatever we may think of the justness or even correctness of the newspaper’s publisher, Arthur Sulzberger’s statement identified a pattern of “arbitrary decision- making, a failure to consult...
inadequate communication and the public mistreatment of colleagues” as his reasons for firing her.
In a bad week for female media editors, Natalie Nougayrède, Le Monde’s editor-in-chief, resigned, announcing that she could not “accept being undermined as head of the paper... no longer hav[ing] the means to run it with all the necessary peace and serenity that is required.”
Her move came after several top editors pointed to a “lack of confidence in and communication with editorial management.” Again, without entering into the rights or wrongs, the principle overseas is that poor performance is unacceptable, one way or another.
Israel is a country which has just witnessed a former prime minister being sentenced to a jail term, along with others, for criminal corruption. The media had a field day, whether they supported or opposed him.
The IBA, it is true, is not the only public media company whose managers have failed. There are others, such as TV Channel 10, who have also wasted huge sums of public money and resources. It is sad, though, to see that in the words of Ecclesiastes, “what has been will be and there is nothing new under the sun.” It seems that when it comes to the media itself no one really cares.
The authors are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (