Media Comment: What happened to that ‘diplomatic tsunami'?

The tsunami predicted to hit Israel in the month of September went the way of so many other predictions that have been made about the Mideast.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas at the United Nations 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Chip East)
PA President Mahmoud Abbas at the United Nations 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Chip East)
Recent media studies have identified an ominous development: predictive reporting. This is a form of journalism in which attention isn’t drawn to actual events or quantitative facts from which conclusions can be drawn and checked. In essence, journalism with no accountability.
In 1996, James Fallows, in his book How the Media Undermine American Democracy, wrote about this development.
“It builds the impression that journalism is about spectacles and diversions... this useless distraction has become a specialty of the political press. Predictions are easy to produce, they allow the reporters to act as if they possess special inside knowledge, and there is no consequence for being wrong.”
Following the Palestinians’ September bid for statehood at the UN, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman waxed poetic regarding the months of dire media predictions that preceded it.
“There is no diplomatic ‘tsunami,’ or even rain on a cloudy day. I remember all the predictions of doom and all the people who said there would be a catastrophe... I have reservations about the Quartet’s decision, but the fact that it calls for negotiations without preconditions is a great achievement for Israel,” he said.
Observers of Israel’s media during the run-up to September have to ask: What was its intent? To sell more papers? Undermine the government’s position? Confuse the public? Embarrass Israel? To be fair, it was Defense Minister Ehud Barak who first used the “tsunami” metaphor.
Speaking to participants of the Research Division of the Institute for National Security Studies on March 13, Barak, referring to the natural disaster in Japan the previous week, said, “We stand to face a diplomatic tsunami that the majority of the public is unaware of.”
He added that “for the past two years we haven’t tried to put the core issues on the [negotiating] table.”
Barak’s words provided the media with ample fodder to attack Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Israeli media turned Barak’s statement into an agenda. In May, in this newspaper’s weekend magazine, David Harris- Gershon wrote, with a bit of hyperbole, of a “crippling fear of September’s UN General Assembly” and predicted “that, with help from the prime minister, Barak’s self-fulfilling ‘diplomatic tsunami’ prophecy may actually come true.”
He was not alone. For half a year the media rallied itself behind the “tsunami” image.
Headlines, questions from interviewers, panel discussions, expert comment and op-eds all were linked to the upcoming September tsunami.
No matter which channel or which page, the media consumer found him/herself all but consumed by the media wave.
On May 8, one headline referred to a “legal tsunami.”
Haaretz columnist Aluf Benn described Netanyahu as falling into a diplomatic trap in April.
An editorial in that newspaper on August 9 pictured Israel’s government as “hysterical.”
On September 15, Ari Shavit, also in Haaretz, stated, “uncontrollable violence would break out in the territories.”
Inexorably, panic was being generated. Fears of Arab-initiated violence and Israel’s failure were heightened. Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon tried to stem the surge of bias in a Ynet interview on July 11, saying “... there is a series of scare tactics being used from within the coalition” but he was a lone voice, outside the media frame.
The media scare campaign reached it climax in the weeks preceding the actual events.
On September 11, Ma’ariv’s Ben Caspit had his readers focused on this scenario: “It’s happening now: the start of the tsunami. It’s difficult to find a leader who didn’t warn Netanyahu and his ministers of the coming tsunami... Now that it’s coming – it’s too late.”
Again, Ari Shavit, in Haaretz on September 1, declared, “in a few weeks, Netanyahu will pay the price... the Palestinian state will be established with a large majority... the spring is over; the storm will hit in the fall.”
The media brimmed with dominating overconfidence.
TRUE, THERE were some journalists that analyzed the situation differently. These voices, however, never reached the “value-added” media status that accrues to the “stars.”
These media stars not only are provided a home platform but are invited to other media outlets, notably radio and television.
For example, Ari Shavit is a permanent member of the experts’ panel on Channel 1 TV’s Friday night weekly roundup, with no balance from opposing media representatives.
And what, in the end, was the public’s opinion after the supposed tsunami failed to materialize? A DAHAF poll that appeared in Yediot Aharonot on September 30 registered 66 percent as believing there will never be peace with the Palestinians.
Seventy-six percent considered Netanyahu’s speech to be good, with less than 10% holding a negative view.
A Dialogue poll for Haaretz had 41% satisfied versus 45% unsatisfied with Netanyahu’s performance at the UN.
Asked how they felt watching Netanyahu’s UN address, 40% expressed pride, 21% hope, only 13% expressed frustration.
It would be hard to dispute Moshe Arens’ comment, published on September 28 in Haaretz: “It turns out that the tsunami predicted to hit Israel in the month of September went the way of so many other predictions that have been made about the Middle East in recent years.”
In retrospect, we again note that Israel’s media set an agenda – a campaign to force Israel’s government to provide concessions to the Palestinian Authority in return for negotiations. Even after the Palestinian move failed miserably, Yediot Aharonot was not willing to concede Netanyahu’s success; rather their headline screamed that Netanyahu was returning to a hopeless situation.
The same type of agenda-setting occurred during the expulsion from the Gaza Strip and north Samaria. What is surprising is that the public, which should by now be well aware of the media’s predominantly undemocratic attitude, does not respond. It is high time the public demands accountability, especially from the public media outlets.
Those commentators, whose dire predictions turned out to be false, should be identified as propagandists, rather than journalists. The public should demand that they be replaced.
The name of the game is accountability.
The writers are executive director and vice chairman of Israel’s Media Watch.