Skewed priorities

When the institute of journalism is under threat , the pettiness and skewed news values born of circulation battles and partisan rivalries is particularly ill-afforded.

newspaper 88 (photo credit: )
newspaper 88
(photo credit: )
Two apparently tumultuous events shook the world last week. One, an earthquake in Haiti that left up to 200,000 dead; the other, a lawsuit filed by a former housemaid of Israel's first lady, Sara Netanyahu.
One caused suffering on a scale that is hard to comprehend; the other revealed accusations of hauteur and pretense - such as Mrs. Netanyahu allegedly forcing her accuser to flatter her, and to wear a different set of clothes for each chore.
Despite the enormity of the one event and the relative triviality of the other, they were afforded almost equal space above the fold by Israel's main circulation daily, Yediot Aharonot, on Friday. Not to be outdone, Ma'ariv, once Yediot's main rival, followed up Sunday with a front page item of its own on the Sara Netanyahu affair and four pages of coverage inside.
Yisrael Hayom, the upstart usurper in the tabloid ratings race, which has overtaken Ma'ariv and is challenging Yediot, left the issue untouched, but for an editorial asking: "Why the obsession with Sara  Netanyahu?"
Yisrael Hayom's bashfulness, however, was not necessarily born of more elevated news values; it has long been  accused by its adversaries of steering clear of most any topic that might generate negative publicity about the prime minister.
THE UNDERTONE to all three papers' approach touches on the bitter circulation war between the old guard tabloid duo and the freesheet newcomer, with the titles seeking to denigrate and marginalize each other as they struggle for market share.
This battle, in turn, is part of the wider challenges facing the entire newspaper industry - falling circulation as readers turn to the Internet, a collapsing profit model and dwindling public esteem. At a time when the very institute of journalism is under threat and the Fourth Estate calls out for deliverance, the pettiness and skewed news values born of circulation battles and partisan rivalries is particularly ill-afforded.
Skewed prioritizing in the Hebrew print media - born of the desire for a scoop, any scoop, to steal a march on a rival - is not new, unfortunately. Only a day after Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections four years ago, for instance, the Hebrew tabloids had marginalized a story that would long affect every Israeli in favor of insignificant "scoops" such as sneaking a reporter into a judge's chambers, where genuine news value was small but exclusivity was deemed paramount.
And the affliction is not limited to the print media. Ratings battles between the country's celebrity-culture-obsessed, corporate-serving TV stations mean that one or the other frequently opens its main nightly news broadcast with a story of paltry significance, even on days of momentous events, purely because it has an item its competitors have missed.
Privately, some of the more experienced correspondents in the TV news business are now often heard to complain they are not given enough screen time to tell Israelis about trends and developments that really matter.
INSTEAD OF print media blaming the rise of the Internet for its troubles, or for that matter looking to the Internet for its salvation, it would do well to refocus on its traditional core qualities of independence, accuracy, fairness, transparency and professional responsibility.
Only by returning to correctly prioritized, balanced and in-depth reporting, and by providing information that readers need and can rely upon, can newspapers, on whatever medium they may be served, compete with television and the worst excesses in all areas of the media of celebrity reporters masquerading as journalists.
It is by digging out the truth on matters of consequence that newspapers can secure their future, and not by pandering to a perceived public penchant for sensationalism or by pursuing private agendas.
All that is not to say that our politicians and their partners, whose privileges derive from their powers, should not be held to exacting moral standards. Too often of late, our lawmakers and civil servants have perverted their prerogatives.
But while the accusations leveled at Mrs. Netanyahu by Lillian Peretz, if they are substantiated, constitute more than a mere peccadillo, a sense of proportion is called for.
At a time when other items in the news have included, apart from the Haiti quake, the attempted assassination of Israel's envoy to Jordan, and the arrest of a sadistic cult leader who allegedly enslaved and abused 17 women and dozens of minors, the disproportionate focus on the case of the housemaid points to a lost understanding of journalistic obligation.