Media Comment: Democracy in the hands of journalists

The law, which still states that it is forbidden to use the airwaves for campaigning, is violated daily.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman 390 (photo credit: Flash 90)
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman 390
(photo credit: Flash 90)
Channel 1 TV has been running a self-congratulatory promotional clip in its lead-up to election day which goes: “We don’t hug infants, we don’t kiss grandmothers nor do we press the flesh in the markets. Our journalists have chosen not to run for office, but have decided to be journalists.”
Based on that declaration, they expect and, to be fair, the other channels and radio programs expect as well, that we the voting public and media consumers trust that the various candidates and their lists running for a seat in the 19th Knesset are all getting relatively fair exposure in our media.
But are the reporters, editors, interviewers and program hosts acting not only professionally but, especially in this crucial period, with due consideration for the needs of the voter? Is Israel’s democracy being served? This election campaign is the sixth examined by Israel’s Media Watch (IMW).
In the distant past, Israel, at least judging from its laws, did not trust the media.
Politicians were barred from appearing or being heard for 60 days prior to election day. Such drastic measures assured the media would not be able to significantly affect the outcome. At the same time, it meant candidates did not have much of a chance to really present their agenda to the public.
As the years passed, the media increased the pressure on politicians to give them a free hand. The journalists claimed that especially with the increase of media outlets, everyone would get a fair shake. The fact that time and again we found that the media could not overcome its natural inclinations, which tended to the Left, did not really convince politicians, who preferred to have as much exposure as possible.
The upshot is that in this year’s election there are hardly any restrictions on the media. The law, which still states that it is forbidden to use the airwaves for campaigning, is violated daily. Politicians try in every interview to call upon the public to vote for them, the journalists tell them “no, no, no,” and the show goes on.
IN PRINCIPLE, in a society where fairness is considered of supreme importance, one would not need any restrictions. Indeed, one should allow politicians to advertise their wares and let the public decide.
Unfortunately, Israel’s democratic values fall far short of that high standard.
At IMW we have monitored the appearances of the various candidates on the central news programs of five media outlets – the evening news magazines of TV Channels 1, 2 and 10, and the early-morning radio news programs of Army Radio and the IBA’s Reshet Bet. The period covered is October 14 - January 1. The bar chart tells almost the whole story.
The media appearances of the Likud Beytenu joint party vastly outnumber all the rest. Perhaps understandably, as it is the largest party and the ruling one. Yet there are some additional nuances.
Of the various party leaders, Likud’s Binyamin Netanyahu had 195 appearances, Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman 101, Labor’s Shelly Yacimovich 115, Hatnua’s Tzipi Livni 77, Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid 52, Shas’s Arye Deri and Eli Yishai 44 and 22 respectively, and Bayit Yehudi’s Naftali Bennett 40.
The media consistently under-represents the religious-oriented parties. Polls indicate Bayit Yehudi will be the third-largest party in the next government, so why aren’t their representatives being interviewed? Israel Radio’s Reshet Bet and Arye Golan provide perhaps an extreme case. Meretz, which is much smaller than United Torah Judaism (UTJ), appears no less than 25 times, but UTJ only once.
Consider just the past week. The prime minister was interviewed on Reshet Bet for almost half an hour. He is followed by Yacimovich and Livni, with less than 20 minutes combined.
The next day, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz gets the royal treatment and Labor’s Avishai Braverman is asked to respond. The next day, Likud’s Silvan Shalom is the opener.
Shas and Bayit Yehudi presumably are not expected to know anything about economics, even though this subject is central to the election campaigns of both.
The excessive media focus in the prime minister is also interesting. For the past four years, the prime minister has consistently refused to be interviewed. He also refuses to participate in a debate with the other candidates. One might think the media would pressure on him to do so; isn’t this the essence of democracy? Instead, we find the media fawning upon him, seemingly in awe of the fact that finally they can interview the prime minister.
The media’s lack of interest in the Arab sector is also striking. Balad and Ta’al together had 29 appearances. Our media simply does not think the Israeli public needs to hear from the Arab representatives, or be able to ask them difficult questions.
Small parties have hardly any chance in the mainstream media. There were a few beacons of light, such as David Witzthum of Channel 1 TV who interviewed the outsiders of the smaller lists, but other than that the total number of appearances for parties with no MKs came to 15.
One may argue that Israel needs a twoparty system and that its current plethora of small parties is too much, but regardless, one should expect more openness to new ideas and new faces.
ARE THESE unprofessional standards merely a reflection of the liberal and political correctness bias of the media, or is there something more insidious at work? Let’s not forget the extent to which Israel’s media is at the mercy of the government.
We reported in a previous column how the Likud caved in to the outrageous demands of channels 10 and 2. Could it be that these channels are now returning the favor? The present government has spent hundreds of millions of shekels on the IBA.
Is the IBA just expressing its gratitude? Even Army Radio has received “goodies” in the form of added advertising time.
Does media bias seriously affect the outcomes of elections in Israel? The experts differ; there is no real “proof” that the media’s efforts really change things. Too much exposure can also be detrimental.
The real losers in this whole story are the journalists. It is precisely their lack of judgment, fairness and ability to think out of the box which creates the broad dissatisfaction of the public with the media.
The writers are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch ( They thank IMW’s Nili Ben-Gigi, Chaya Grossman and Sarit Moskowitz for their extensive research.