Pressed into politics

Yehimovic certainly created no precedent. Knesset rolls abound with ex-journalists.

sheli yehimovitch 88 (photo credit: )
sheli yehimovitch 88
(photo credit: )
Media celebrity Shelly Yehimovic made news herself yesterday when she announced her departure from Channel 2 and her political debut at Amir Peretz's side in Labor. That resulted both in fawning coverage on the airwaves and a flurry of demands that a cooling-off period be imposed on journalists-turned-politicians. We find both reactions objectionable. Yehimovic's move must be viewed dispassionately. Journalists have as much right as anyone to run for office, but uncritical accolades from like-minded colleagues on the one hand and hysterical denunciations from political rivals on the other both miss the mark. Yehimovic certainly created no precedent. Knesset rolls abound with ex-journalists. Most of the numerous parliamentarians who since the first Knesset listed journalism as their profession (including Ben-Gurion) hardly qualified for the title. Often they were no more than occasional op-ed contributors. There is absolutely no problem with those who published their views on opinion pages, identified themselves with political causes and ran on tickets reflecting their expressed creeds. Newspapers, entirely legitimately, served as their soapbox. The same goes for publications like Haolam Hazeh, which launched Uri Avnery's politicking. There's likewise nothing untoward with alumni of party publications - most of which are now defunct - who openly campaigned in the service of political ideologies (like Yossi Beilin in Davar). This sort of undisguised sectarian journalism once proliferated in Israel. Journalists with beats like economics aren't as troublesome either because their reporting is limited to very clearly defined spheres (like late Liberal Ariel Weinstein and currently Silvan Shalom). Equally inoffensive are those who toiled behind the scenes in editing and similar occupations, rarely becoming celebrities who can abuse their status. Media that claims objectivity, however, is another matter. Shinui leader Yosef Lapid's years in Ma'ariv and the IBA were nonetheless over by the time he threw his hat in the ring and his move from reporter to candidate was hardly instant. When he opted to field Shinui he was far from pretending impartiality. He was a pensioner who never minced words. It's against this background that Yehimovic becomes somewhat unique. She attained and cultivated celebrity status mostly in state-owned electronic media (like Kol Yisrael), where objective reporting and presentation were at least pro forma a prerequisite. It's here that she often transgressed. She had no problems suggesting to a caller to her prestigious radio chat program that he name his dog Bibi and had no qualms vehemently lashing out against Shari Arison in what many compared to broadcast lynching. When Yehimovic admitted yesterday that she "always had an agenda" and wished she "could have actively foiled various Knesset moves instead of just reporting them," she exposed the tendentiousness of reporting by our state-owned media, which maintain the pose of prohibiting advocacy journalism. This is what should concern us more than Yehimovic's career change. The fact that she pursued a political agenda while taxpayers of all political persuasions paid her salary wasn't unknown yet wasn't censured. Indeed the voluble Yehimovic never made too great an effort to cover up her inclinations. Thus in 1988 she predicted with unerring accuracy that "the media will enlist in its entirety to topple Netanyahu from the office of prime minister. It was against him in the past and will oppose him in the future." The fact that she continued broadcasting right until she hopped on Peretz's bandwagon may be unseemly but it mustn't result in legislation that would impose mandatory cooling-off periods, as some MKs rushed to propose yesterday. Journalists - even if inappropriately biased - aren't civil servants or generals. Their misbehavior is something their audiences should protest. There are too many categories of journalists to fit legalistic classifications. We can demand - especially of those reporters obliged to conduct themselves with professional integrity - that journalists not abuse the prominence accorded them. But in the final analysis it's down to the individual consciences of journalists - and to the public, whose right and duty it is to rebuke misconduct.