Media Comment: Seeking media independence

The major success the media in Israel have achieved is the stifling of the type of wide-open criticism the media is accorded in other western democratic countries.

Newspaper [Illustrative] (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/Diego Grez)
Newspaper [Illustrative]
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/Diego Grez)
Israel will be marking its 66th Independence Day shortly. As we have witnessed over the decades, Jewish independence has been achieved in remarkable fashion in military, political, commercial and scientific endeavors.
We would argue though that even with Oscars and other recognition that goes with literary prizes, our cultural and artistic achievements could aspire to more Zionist and Jewish content, not to mention values. And as for our media? It has been noted, half-facetiously but more than half-seriously, that there are only two professions dealing with life-threatening situations that do not require a diploma, license or certificate: parenting and journalism.
And that situation is quite unfortunate because the media not only is itself an important element in our social and political fabric, but is also of an all-pervasive character.
Journalists as well as other central media persons including program producers, editors and interviewers, seem to promote two different narratives. The first is that they are the most crucial and essential element for the preservation of democracy. In addition, so they claim, they are the most reliable and responsible agents of government oversight. It is the media that protects the public from the excesses of politicians, magnates and others who possess extensive powers.
The trouble is that the media itself can become smug, self-contained and isolated. Power, we know, corrupts. As Leon Weiseltier of The New Republic recently wrote: “Since an open society stands or falls on the quality of its citizens’ opinions, the refinement of their opinions... the process of opinion-formation is a primary activity of its intellectuals and its journalists.” Too many incidents here in Israel point to professional ethical infractions as a regular, rather than the exceptional, phenomenon. In fact, the media is a profession that is the object of an ever-increasing level of criticism, here and abroad.
Giles Coren, Jewish-born and British, has recently attacked the fraternity of journalists in The London Times, calling them “the least well-read people you will ever meet” and adding that “their ability with words does not develop over time.” As for columnists, their “deep-writing” skills, he said, had “gone the same way as their ‘deep-reading’ ones.”
Too many of Israel’s media commentators and “experts” can be similarly categorized. One must realize that the situation in Israel is bad.
The progressive leftist Melissa Bell of the “explanatory news site” is unembarrassed to note that, “We [the media industry] present the news in a way that puts forward the newest information, not the most important information.” What Vox does is to supply “cards” that provide “context” and “explanation” of key concepts, a system that has drawn accusations of peddling left-wing propaganda and lack of diversity.
New digital tools entering the field also make it easier for the news to be unethically reported. There’s a new and sophisticated technology facilitating bias in the media.
The major success the media in Israel have achieved is the stifling of the type of wide-open criticism the media is accorded in other western democratic countries. In enlightened countries, media criticism is not treated as subversive or fascist.
Another characteristic of Israel’s media may be summed up using a quote from Nate Silver of the new FiveThirtyEight: “Plenty of pundits have really high IQs but they don’t have any discipline in how they look at the world... [they] pull threads together from very weak evidence and draw grand conclusions from them... They’re just spitting out the same column every week.”
Media consumers need to realize that news today is being marketed, not presented. In too many instances, the news is subjected to a filtering process which distorts the actual facts. For example, Jewish Temple Mount activists, seeking an increased Jewish presence at the holy site, orchestrated a simulation of the Paschal Sacrifice a week ago Thursday. In a second event on the eve of the holiday, five persons were detained by police at the Dung Gate for attempting to bring a goat kid to the Temple Mount to be sacrificed. As in years past, the media’s treatment of the incidents ranged from benign neglect to denigration.
On the other hand, the Samaritan rite at Mount Gerizim, as part of which many lambs are slaughtered, skinned and placed over open-air pits to be roasted, with, at times, hundreds of onlookers in a semi-carnival atmosphere, is treated as a tourist attraction. Our media encourage people to attend. One report – the Paschal offering – is spun in the negative while the other – the Samaritan rite – is described positively, even though the actual acts are almost exactly the same. Actually, there is much more blood at Mount Gerizim.
A fifth element is the realization that even our public broadcasting networks are commercial. Their employees are concerned as much about money as about doing their job. And sometimes, even more so.
Workers’ unions of course have a legal right and a moral obligation to defend job security. In democratic societies, this includes going on strike, setting up a picket-line and purchasing ads. In Israel, the employees of the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA), under threat of closure and reorganization (a situation we addressed in our “Do we need public broadcasting” April 17 article), exploit their employment advantage on the public’s account.
As even The Seventh Eye website of the Israel Democracy Institute noted, the Tuesday evening Politika program devoted almost 40 minutes of it 90-minute slot on Channel One TV to the closure proposal. Oded Shachar moderated, Avi Ratzon, who is employed by the IBA in its sports division, railed against Communication Minister Gilad Erdan “throwing 2,000 employees into the street.”
Two other participants were senior IBA directors Miki Miro and Yair Koren. Two Knesset Members who supported the workers were panelists.
There were, to be fair, two who sympathized with the minister’s position, although their public profiles, and thus their standing in the mind of the viewers, were unequal to those of the others. The bottom line – 40 minutes of pro-IBA employee propaganda instead of public programming.
The Passover holiday is an occasion when Israelis take vacations, visit our beautiful natural areas, and take children to shows and shores. Tens of thousands visited tourist sites in Judea and Samaria and, in Hebron especially, multitudes came to the Cave of the Patriarchs and attended the all-day program there. As usual, the central news television broadcasts ignored or downplayed the number of participants.
This situation needs to be remedied. We want to be clear: we are not advocating the sort of aggressive treatment the American network NBC saw fit to employ in dealing with its Meet the Press host David Gregory, whose ratings have slid. It was reported this week that a “psychological consultant” was hired to work with him.
Nevertheless, we believe that professional intervention should be used to address some of Israel’s media woes.
Arguably the most important external steps would be aimed at assuring that the networks adhere to their own ethical codes, as well as to the law.
The authors are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (