Media comment: Democracy’s blind watchdog

The media's self-imposed blindness is harmful to Israel’s democracy and social fabric. The blindfold should be removed, and the sooner the better.

Building in the West Bank (photo credit: Courtesy)
Building in the West Bank
(photo credit: Courtesy)
One of the most effective media defenses that have been constructed to defend unethical media practices from criticism has been the claim that the media is “democracy’s watchdog.”
At the award ceremony of the Abramowitz Israeli Prize for Media Criticism, caricaturist Shay Charka wittily drew several images of his view of the media’s “watchdog” status, summing it all up by drawing a blind dog leading a blind person – the media consumer.
As it happens, the title of Morten Skovsgaard’s research article in the April 2014 issue of Journalism reads “Watchdogs on a leash?” It deals with a perceived professional autonomy and the relationship of front-line media personnel with superiors. His main finding, based on the presumption that journalists actually do seek to maintain professional autonomy and independent discretion – a position we think is less than universally upheld – is that they seek to be free of business, political or other constraints.
As suggested by Shay Charka, in Israel, more often than not the public and even the news networks are those who are on a leash held by the journalists. Worse, it is the ombudsmen, whose job is to protect the public from journalists who abuse their position of power who are, or who have allowed themselves to be, tied up in chains of ineffectualness.
But they overwhelmingly reject complaints, justify the unethical product of journalists and rarely apply any punishment. Excelling in this regard is the Israel Press Council headed by a person now seeking to become Israel’s next president.
Journalists, interviewers and news anchors seem to have the last word, thus inserting a particular political viewpoint in a biased and unprofessional manner that goes unchecked. The semantic power, using special language codes, is a crucial instrument in the hands, and mouths, of media people.
The “language” used by journalists includes not only the text. In its broad sense it uses the subtexts, such as how scenes are filmed, whether slow-motion effects are used, music, close-ups, balance and more to present a topic.
These not only color subjects but more often than not exclude the possibility that a certain side could possibly be correct. The “language” is most apparent when dealing with issues relating to Jews residing in Judea and Samaria.
As we now know, the purchase of “Beit Hashalom,” a building purchased by Jews close by Kiryat Arba, has been approved by Israel’s Supreme Court. From the outset, the legitimacy of the purchase should have been considered only form the legal perspective. If legal, then there is nothing wrong with it and if illegal, then the authorities would be called upon to deal with the case appropriately. But from the start, much of the media treatment sought to portray the story in a negative and contentious frame. This was not because of the media’s normal tendency to sensationalize but primarily because Israel’s media and following its lead, the foreign media, will refuse, it seems, to accept any perspective other than that of conflict. More credence was given to claims of the local Arab Hebron residents, their allies among Israel’s post-Zionist camp, their sympathizers from non-Zionist NGOs and from the groups promoting a “human rights” agenda, when “human” excludes a Jew residing east of the 1949 armistice lines.
In the first instance, most of Israel’s media followed the lead of Haaretz, calling the property the “House of Dispute” rather than the name it was given by its legal purchasers, i.e. “House of Peace.” The IBA’s then ombudsman, Amos Goren, had to issue a directive to the staff under his supervision not to employ the derogatory description, but to little avail. His successor, Elisha Spiegelman, promptly rescinded the directive. Any suspicion that would portray the Jewish purchasers negatively was highlighted while the seemingly disturbing actions taken by the military government’s legal department were treated with understanding.
The Israeli media completely forgot its watchdog status.
Any other day of the week, anything done by the government establishment in any other area is looked at askance by the media. But here, the “House of Peace” was cataloged in the news rooms as a “bad Jew” story and anything adding substance to that story was swallowed hook, line and sinker.
AN IN-DEPTH review of media coverage involving the Jews of Judea and Samaria will reveal a similar pattern of “blind watchdog” behavior. Only a very select group of journalists are capable of breaking through the media mindset that Jews in the territories are bad news. The social, political and even psychological atmosphere in our newspapers, radio stations and television channels is such as to keep the dog’s eyes closed.
This is not to be interpreted as a blanket excuse for ignoring negative or even criminal acts committed by Jews against Arabs. There is no denying the large number of so-called price tag attacks against Arabs. The media has justifiably consistently demanded action by the police against the perpetrators. Yet the same media is rather quiet when it comes to rock-throwing incidents, in their hundreds, against Jews. It is neither outraged nor incensed about the violation of religious freedom of Jews on the Temple Mount. The demand that violent Muslim extremists harassing Jews on the Temple Mount, throwing rocks at them and worse be brought to justice is not heard.
Last year, Dorit Yurdan-Dothan, a left-wing activist, photographed an “attack” of an Arab woman at the Kiryat Moshe Light Rail train station, by Jewish teenagers. Her clip went viral. It was presented as a prime example of violent racism of Jews against Arabs. A year later, other pictures taken by the security cameras at the site, proved it was the Arab woman who initiated the contretemps.
One might have thought newsmakers would come out with headlines such as “Left-wing activist fabricated events (again).” But no, 12 months later the media hides behind the excuse that no one recalls the matter and that it is no longer “relevant.” The truth is that the negative impression created a year ago lingers on and today’s delayed “minor details” will not dispel the false impression created by the media.
Andrea Levin of CAMERA, in writing of Haaretz, notes that “factual accuracy is often sacrificed to political predilections.”
Amira Hass, the paper’s reporter based now in Ramallah and previously in Gaza, was ordered by a Magistrate’s Court to pay $60,000 in damages to the Jewish community of Hebron for a false column back in 2001. Last April, her paper published her opinion piece which claimed that “throwing stones is the birthright and duty of anyone subject to foreign rule” and that PA schools should offer “basic classes in resistance.” Has anyone demanded that she and her publisher be brought to a court of law for incitement to violence? The media in this country is blind, not because of the hand of God, but because it has purposely blinded itself. Its self-imposed blindness is harmful to Israel’s democracy and social fabric. The blindfold should be removed, and the sooner the better.
The authors are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch.