Media Comment: How ethical are legal commentators?

One wonders why our public airwaves are dominated by unbalanced, unethical legal commentary.

IBA logo 311 (photo credit: Courtesy of IBA)
IBA logo 311
(photo credit: Courtesy of IBA)
An accepted definition of the term “commentator” is “a broadcaster or writer who reports and analyzes events in the news on radio or television.” Moshe Negbi is a “commentator,” employed by the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA) since 1969. His weekly radio program, “Din Udevarim” (Law Matters), has been on air since 1981. He is the IBA’s sole legal commentator.
Negbi has an impressive resume. He is the son of a Labor Court judge. He has an MA in law from the Hebrew University, and did his legal internship with Supreme Court justice (ret.) Mishael Cheshin. He is a senior lecturer at the Hebrew University’s department of journalism and communication. He also teaches at three other academic institutions and has authored books on the media. He also writes for Haaretz where, on November 17, he wrote that “the Defamation Law... threatens to deal a lethal blow to freedom of the press in general and freedom of the investigative press in particular.”
Negbi sounds quite authoritative on practically all major legal issues of importance in Israel, especially human rights concerns and democracy. One rarely finds anyone publicly refuting him. Negbi’s radio program, however, is not quite the model of ethical correctness.
Israel’s Media Watch recently analyzed his weekly program over the period of September- October, 2011. Women’s rights are an important topic on Negbi’s agenda. Negbi strongly supports equality for women, yet only 16 percent of those invited to participate in his program were women. 74 different topics were dealt with during the two-month period. Of these 40% were slanted or unbalanced.
Some examples bring to light the atmosphere and spirit of his radio program. This past Sunday, the first half hour was dedicated to various issues having to do with the ultra- Orthodox or haredi community, ranging from the Tal Law dealing with their army service to women’s rights, which the rabbinical establishment “ignores.”
Negbi, as well as all four panelists, agreed that the haredim are not contributing sufficiently to Israeli society. They only disagreed on the tactics needed to bring them into the fold. None of the panelists represented the haredi community, so there was no explanation of their viewpoint as the IBA’s media code on pluralism demands.
On October 30, Negbi severely criticized the Israeli court system. Anat Kam, who stole sensitive security documents while serving as a secretary in the army, was found guilty of theft and breach of trust and received a jail term. She passed documents to Haaretz’s Uri Blau, who then publicized them. Negbi thought Kam was unfairly demonized and that Blau’s role in the affair was purely “ethical,” not criminal, and that he should not even be indicted.
Contrast this with his antipathy toward right-wing activists who have not been convicted or even suspected of a crime. On September 11 a discussion on his program dealt with “price tag” activities. Three people were in the studio, Negbi and Professors Michael Corinaldi and Shlomo Avineri, but there was no balance to the anti-settler sentiment and the obligation for fairness was not upheld.
The program always begins with Negbi expressing his personal opinion for several minutes. Perhaps he feels that it is imperative that his audience know his biases in advance, so that they can discount them when he then interviews people on the same issues. Negbi’s known left-wing slant also seems to influence his choice of guests. The ratio of left-wing to right-wing guests in his program, during the period covered, was almost 2 to 1.
Negbi is frequently on IBA news magazine programs as a commentator on legal issues, both radio and television. When the medical interns submitted a collective resignation letter, the state petitioned the labor court to prevent their resignation. Negbi, in his “commentary,” ridiculed the Justice Ministry officials for even attempting to go to court, claiming that it was obvious that everyone has the right to resign. Yet the court upheld the state’s petition. Negbi did not even see fit to present conflicting views on the issues. In fact, Negbi’s commentary is all too often onesided and lacks the breadth expected from a true professional.
Negbi is a staunch supporter of an activist Supreme Court and its absolute independence. Likud MKs last year tabled several bills that would somewhat reduce the court’s powers. On November 21, in the morning radio news program anchored by Aryeh Golan, Negbi reacted, referring to the: “severe politicization of the Supreme Court,” “attempt to assassinate Israel’s democracy,” “legislative actions, which I would say are almost hallucinatory, blatantly anti-democratic.” All this is under the guise of “commentary.”
The army radio station Galatz also has a weekly legal program, “Crossfire,” edited and presented by Dr. David Tadmor, that deals with the past week’s legal events. Dr. Tadmor was Israel’s Anti-trust Commissioner from 1997-2001. He has a BA in law and interned with the former president of the Supreme Court, Justice Meir Shamgar. He has an MA and a PhD in law from New York University and is today a partner in his own legal firm.
Tadmor also uses his program to voice his opinions. Thus for example when the name of now Supreme Court Justice Noam Solberg, who fined Ms. Ilana Dayan NIS 300,000 for libeling Captain R was mentioned on October 27, he declared: “In the libel case of Ilana Dayan, he earned his public image [as a right-winger] honorably.”
On the issue of Channel 10’s unpaid debts to the government he said on November 3 that: “It [the government] wants another media organ which will broadcast only the news the government wants,” and “wants to assure that others will not broadcast things the government doesn’t want.” His opinion on the Knesset is that “this is the worst Knesset ever, or at least in my memory.” Tadmor also does not invite many women to his program – IMW’s check of eight programs came up with only 7%.
One wonders why our public airwaves are dominated by unbalanced, unethical legal commentary. One wonders why our legal commentators are not accountable for their errors. At one time, Negbi’s superiors, under pressure, were obliged to appoint a special editor for his program. But this has long been forgotten. Why doesn’t the public oversight committee at least balance Negbi’s perennial program by bringing in a second anchor, or by providing an additional program anchored by someone with conservative opinions? It is high time the public received legal commentary rather than opinion.
The authors are respectively the vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch, .