Media Comment: Socially responsible media?

Our media is not really bent on improving the lot of the poor, rather its main focus is improving its own lot. Most journalists belong to the middle class.

A man pumping gasoline at a gas station 370 (R) (photo credit: Reuters)
A man pumping gasoline at a gas station 370 (R)
(photo credit: Reuters)
The big media event last summer was the social upheaval. The media was active in encouraging the demands for social justice. As all media-orchestrated events go, the noise died down, and during these past six months, the country was allowed to return to some semblance of “normality” in which the central topics had to do with Iran, the shooting of rockets into Israel, the future of Migron and the like.
The winter, though, is over, and summer is looming. It has stopped raining, making it much easier to get people out to the street and so the social season is lurking in the background. Three central events during the past two weeks indicated what may be the coming agenda of our media.
Last week, on March 28, the Bank of Israel released its annual report. Arieh Golan, the anchor of Kol Yisrael’s Reshet Bet news program had this to say the next day in his opening personal preamble to the 7 a.m. news program:
“The economic policies of the government have caused an increase in the social gaps and did not help the lower income segment to extract itself from poverty. The price of housing is increasing, the cost of food is higher. All this may be found in the annual report of the Bank of Israel. But there is also the cup half-full. The Bank of Israel ascertains that the tax burden on the top income earners in society is lower than in other developed countries. A fantastic message to the bunch of happy people who rake in a million. Not a million per year, but every month. Every thirty days, a million shekels.”
Mr. Golan had nothing positive to say about the report.
On the previous evening, on IBA’s Channel 1 TV central news program, anchor Yinnon Magal asked the social commentator Oded Shachar: “...How is it that we have reached the top, one may say the dubious title of having the largest social gap in the world?” Shachar did not let Magal down. His professional answer was that indeed, the process started in 2003 when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was the finance minister.
The policy was to cut back services and taxes, he said, and “for whom? The rich. This is how the gaps started. Whoever is needy for pensions, education, health, gets nothing. The rich, their net income increased. A process that started 10 years ago, by the way, the process stopped during the past few years. Netanyahu stopped it, perhaps due to coalition considerations. ...The problem, though, is Trajtenberg... Trajtenberg costs lots of money. Where is it to come from? ...We will not see a dramatic improvement without tax increases or spending cutbacks. ...Cutbacks necessarily harm the weak.”
The message was clear: there is no way that the present government can do anything to improve the supposedly terrible situation.
THERE WAS another aspect to this week. Last Saturday night, a reported few hundred people conducted a “social march” in Tel Aviv. This very important event opened the news. The social unrest was happily back, the media had something to report on, something which would harm the present government.
The leaders of yesteryear were interviewed repeatedly, and exhorted with questions such as what will you be doing this summer, how will you again raise the flag of social justice?
A third aspect was the question of gasoline prices. Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz at the last moment lowered the tax on gas, to prevent the price from moving past 8 NIS per liter. This of course did not satisfy the media, the discourse went to the cutbacks that would be needed to finance the gas tax reduction and its negative effect on the poor.
It is of interest to actually look at the facts, not only to give in to a desire for headlines. The cost of living index from January 1999 to December 2008 increased by 20 percent. However, the net income per household per month of the lowest 10% increased over the same period by 25%. The average net monthly income per household increased by 35%. The top 10% had their average income increase by 39%. In other words, most of the increase in net monthly income went to the middle income bracket.
Contrary to the false claims of Mr. Golan, the Bank of Israel had some good words to say, for example, about the housing prices, which have decreased somewhat toward the end of 2011 due to, among other factors, government policy. The value of stocks decreased, as did the profit of the banks. Perhaps most importantly, although the report notes that the gap between rich and poor in Israel is one of the highest in the Western world, since 2006 the gap has stabilized and has even reduced somewhat. One of the central contributions to the income gap is the lack of employment in the Arab and haredi (ultra-Orthodox) sectors.
Our media is not really bent on improving the lot of the poor, rather its main focus is improving its own lot. Most journalists belong to the middle class. Lowering the price of gas aids the middle class, not the lower class, who cannot afford private vehicles. In fact, a responsible media would have attacked the lowering of taxes on gas. Helping the poor implies using taxes to support education, housing and jobs. It means lowering the price of public transportation. Since cars pollute our air, our media could have raised the issue that Israel should institute a pollution tax.
Our middle class has benefited from the lowering of prices in many spheres, such as electronics, car prices, especially used cars, clothing and many other items. Other items have become more expensive, especially housing. Israel’s economy is not perfect. We have poor people among us, and they should be aided. But only a spoiled society always thinks the neighbor’s grass is greener.
A responsible media would not try to set the economic agenda of the country but would report on what is really being done, and ask tough questions. The populism of Golan, Magal and Shachar create more harm than good.
The authors are respectively vice-chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch.