Media bias during the coronavirus outbreak - opinion

Media consumers presume, at the most basic level, that the media will inform them of the news using the most basic of tools, the four Ws: Who, What, When, Where and Why.

A newspaper rack in the United Kingdom (photo credit: REUTERS)
A newspaper rack in the United Kingdom
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The media are a many-headed phenomenon and expectations of their performance are high.
Media consumers presume, at the most basic level, that the media will inform them of the news using the most basic of tools, the four Ws: Who, What, When, Where and Why. They also know that they can expect investigative reporting when a long-term research project reveals root causes for failures. There are editorials and opinion pieces. And there is infotainment; content that is there basically to keep us tuned in by appealing to the more “be-happy” aspect of life.
All of the above represent a major responsibility resting on the media. An informed populace is one that can make decisions at elections, or participate in social actions or engage in demonstrations and protests. The media also can usurp certain functions by simply managing the news. It can frame what is happening to emphasize this or that element in disproportionate framing or endless repetitions or banner headlines.
On Friday evening, Channel 12 employee Rina Matsliah, participating in a panel on the coronavirus situation, brought up the matter of Bnei Brak. At the end of a long monologue, she announced that all she said was not out of causeless hatred but out of love and concern for the state. But what did she say?
She railed against demonstrations at Bar-Ilan Boulevard (from 25 years ago) and haredi (ultra-Orthodox) exemptions from military conscription, and demanded that the “arrangement” between the haredim and state institutions needs to change. She insisted “it cannot be that the haredim feel they are not obliged to the state.” It was only after prodding by fellow panelists Dana Weiss and Dany Cushmaro that Matsliah backed off and admitted she was nevertheless referring to “the majority” of haredim.
That too many rabbis from the haredi sector proved unable to grasp the looming tragedy, and that too many zealots sought to avoid the limitations on congregational prayer, including, allegedly, Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman himself (which he denies), is true. Matsliah’s generalized framing was not only wrong but exposed her, and not for the first time, to charges of incitement.
The litmus test for this is not complicated. All we need to do is imagine a right-of-center prime minister castigating Arab politicians and having his words misinterpreted by the media to mean he was being derisively racist, someone promoting discrimination. Actually, there is no need to imagine, for that has been the media message as regards Benjamin Netanyahu’s pronouncements about the Joint List.
More than that, though, as we pointed out briefly in our most recent column, one should also consider those stories shunted almost out of view and attention. The police have been quite active in enforcing isolation not only in Meah She’arim, Bnei Brak and Beit Shemesh, but also in the Ben Shemen and Iron Forests, and beaches and other outdoor recreational areas where non-haredi Jews and even many Arabs have been dispersed or fined by the police. Even President Reuven Rivlin felt obliged to comment on Sunday, saying, “One public or another mustn't be blamed.”
During the ceremony of his pre-Passover chametz (leavening) sale, Rivlin added, “Today, I want to speak out strongly against the voices I hear criticizing the ultra-Orthodox community: We are brothers and sisters and mutual responsibility is our guiding light. We must not make false accusations that one or another group is spreading the disease, and we must certainly not attack a whole community because of the bad deeds of individuals.”
He continued, “We must also not make generalizations about a whole community, the vast majority of which is carrying out the instructions of the Health Ministry in these difficult days.”
In a related matter, Baruch Kra of Channel 13 left a tweet on his feed on March 5 informing all that while he surely did agree that MK Ayman Odeh of the Joint List is anti-Zionist, he also asserted that United Torah MK and Health Minister Litzman is, and that his ideological base is anti-Zionist. “Both,” he wrote, “each in his own way, are seeking their complex place in Israel’s society.”
That such a leading reporter and commentator can present such a facile comparison is a major indicator that in significant sections of Israel’s media there has developed an inability to make objective assessments which, in turn, cloud their ability to be objective and serve the civic needs of Israel’s citizens.
IT WAS grating to listen to the main Lithuanian haredi Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky being told that “the medina” (the state) wants to close down the yeshivot. But unlike Odeh, the haredim want a more Jewish state, a more traditionally religious Jewish state.
For Odeh, if the state is Jewish then perforce it is racist and colonialist. His anti-Zionism is destructive, while that of the haredim is constructive. For Channel 13’s Kra to obfuscate the issue is to abandon his responsibility not only to be fair and objective but even to be intelligent.
Incidentally, let us not forget that it is the politically correct crowd that seeks to prevent haredim from obtaining college educations by demanding that they participate in co-ed studies.
Israel`s media emulate other media fashions, specifically when it comes to  a drawing of the lines between power as represented by elected government officials and politicians and that of the media. Is it the media vs. politics or the politicians vs. the media?
Like in America, our media are in an echo-journalism mode which harms its credibility. Rather than eliciting information, the media celebs seem to wish to score points. It is as if a press pandemic is raging without relief.
Echo-journalism seemed to be evident last Friday when a press photographer, working for a European news agency, after being confronted in Bnei Brak by a local, walked toward him and demonstratively coughed in his direction. Although masked, he obviously had seen the two or three instances highlighted by the media when a few ultra-Orthodox persons, in one prominent occasion a young boy, coughed at policemen.
That frame filtered over to this photographer with a regrettable result. It was an excellent example of how the media can take a minor non-representative event and blow it out of proportion, causing a supposedly enlightened member of the press corps to act dangerously. Was it necessary for the press to adopt military-related terms to describe the anti-corona measures taken in Bnei Brak?
A Government Press Office request on Friday that journalists refrain from reporting in ultra-Orthodox areas over Shabbat was taken to imply censorship, as if the GPO’s intention was to deny reporters their right to seek out stories, instead of suggesting how to do it without being overly intrusive or even antagonistic.
Was it professionally ethical for Ms. Inbar Toiser to pose as an employee of the Health Ministry and request someone to reveal that Health Minister Litzman had prayed in his apartment? If so, can the police use ambulances to capture terrorists? Where do we draw the line?
Corona is dangerous, it would appear, also for the working of the press.
On a personal note, we wish all our readers a Happy and Kosher Passover.
The writers are members of Israel’s Media Watch.