Media Comment: Media accounting

With the end of the Hebrew year and the approach of Rosh Hashana, it is appropriate to take account of the media, and even to hope that the media reviews its own performance.

carl bernstein 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
carl bernstein 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
With the end of the Hebrew year and the approach of Rosh Hashana, it is appropriate to take account of the media, and even to hope that the media reviews its own performance. After all, this is the Jewish state, culturally and religiously. This can only be done from a caring perspective, for critiquing the media is not an easy matter.
Complications arise because the media scrutinizes political figures, security concerns, economic matters and much more, and these issues are quite difficult to cover. But even more so, since the news is produced by reporters and their editors, humans who err but more often than not are too sensitive to criticism. They refuse, for the most part, to admit their own frailties and personal prejudices. It is even difficult for them to accept the fact that in any such similar large enterprise, mistakes creep in, even if only statistically.
As we have noted in our columns, the necessity to hold the media to certain standards of professionalism and ethics can be a daunting test of wills between the media and various bodies: the external regulator appointed by law, the consumer bothered by the product she or he is paying for, voluntary media review organizations as well as the media’s internal supervisors.
It is instructive to consider an example of the complexity of media professionalism from the other side of the world. Margaret Sullivan, The New York Times public editor, discussed last month the appointing by the Times of a full-beat correspondent to cover Hillary Clinton, the non-candidate for the Democratic Party presidential nomination in three years’ time.
Carl Bernstein, in the last chapter of his biography of Mrs. Clinton, A Woman in Charge, noted that she “has a difficult relationship with the truth.” He also related to Seth Mandell of Commentary who wrote that she is “someone who tries to write her own narrative.”
Sullivan’s estimation that “with the Clintons, there is a certain opacity and stagecraft and silly coverage,” reveals that actually journalists know that they are being fooled. If that happens in the US then we can be sure that it also occurs here in Israel.
Under the circumstances described by Sullivan, the question arises: how is the Clinton reporter, Amy Chozick, or any reporter in a similar position, to serve the news consumers, rather than the paper or TV or radio channel? Perhaps more seriously one may ask whether any reporter can produce reliable news without any external checks and balances.
Hillary Clinton is not the only politician to fudge the truth or spin deeds and intentions. But it is the media’s obligation not to forgive these faults or accept that they are actually necessary for the success of the policies politicians pursue.
Too often, the politicians themselves promote the political, social, cultural and economic agendas of the media personalities covering them. Haim Yavin, for many years the anchor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority’s TV news magazine, once wrote that there is no longer any objectivity in the media but that the best that can be hoped for (by the media consumers, that is) is fairness.
In June, London was the venue of “The Future of Journalism” conference which brought together high school pupils, teachers and major players from the media. The purpose was to familiarize the younger generation with the skills required for pursuing a career in journalism. The conference provided an unusual opportunity to discuss the profession, its challenges and problems.
The introduction was remarkable in its candor and openness. We quote: “Journalism is among the least trusted of professions.... In this session, some major players will put the case for why journalists are important, and why being a journalist can be a good and worthwhile.... Is the role of the press to inform rather than entertain? And who is to decide what is in the ‘public interest’ anyway?” Could we witness such a reckoning in Israel? Or is media review, at best, reserved for insiders only? As long as we are in England, we can learn yet more about media review.
The Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) is described by Wikipedia as “a right-wing British policy think tank whose goal is to promote coherent and practical public policy, to roll back the state, reform public services, support communities, and challenge threats to Britain’s independence.”
In an August 13 report it declared that “the BBC are more likely to cover left-wing think tank reports and to hail them as ‘independent’ while giving right-wing research a ‘health warning’ by pointing out its ideological position.”
That result parallels the situation here in Israel.
The Israel Democracy Institute, for example, is never labeled by its leftwing ideology. Its positions are invariably identified as “democratic.”
Extreme left-wing NGOs are labeled human rights organizations.
Their reports are treated as the truth from Mount Sinai. But other NGOs, such as NGO monitor or UN Watch, have a difficult time penetrating the editorial process and bringing their news to the public through the mainstream media. And if they succeed, they are labeled “right-wing.”
The CPS report went further: “The results are consistent with both subconscious ‘group think’ among BBC journalists or a more deliberate leftof- centre bias.”
Media review groups or columnists can only do so much. External critique is limited. A self-accounting – cheshbon nefesh – the first step prior to teshuva, repentance. As is well known, the process of teshuva as described by Maimonides has three steps: recognition of error, removal of the intention leading to the error and commitment not to repeat it in the future. We can only hope that many more of our journalists would take the “teshuva” process seriously.
However, it is always easy to beat on the other’s breast. The media consumer, too, should consider these days of reckoning. Do we allow ourselves to be carried away by the media? Do we continue to purchase news from purveyors who do not deserve our support, even if they are “interesting”? Do we encourage those journalists who often at high personal cost put ethics first and the “scoop” second? To a large extent, Israel’s media is a reflection of Israel’s society. If it is not something that we are proud of, then it is we who should come to the day of reckoning and ask where have we gone wrong. A society that demands and practices ethics will by necessity also lead to an ethical media.
The authors are, respectively, vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (