Media Comment: Consumer, beware

The unprofessionalism of journalism nowadays is compounded by the political rigidity of its practitioners.

Congressman Adam Schiff is seen leaving a meeting in Washington. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Congressman Adam Schiff is seen leaving a meeting in Washington.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Wall Street Journal expressed surprise at its colleagues in the press recently. Dealing with Rep. Adam Schiff – who obtained data from private telecom companies without any judicial order, seemingly abusing his power – the newspaper’s editorial bemoaned that he was not being criticized by the media. Schiff, in an interview, baldly declared “the blowback has only come from the far Right.” On that admission that he was benefiting from a biased media, the paper’s December 8 editorial read: “The same media that howled when the Bush administration gathered metadata to hunt for terrorists is silent when Democrats gather and release it against a conservative journalist and Republicans. Keep this double standard in mind when you next hear media lectures about violating democratic and institutional ‘norms.’”
This criticism can also be found in Great Britain. Writing in The Telegraph, Andrew Newman railed against the reality that “the Left continues in control of all of the commanding heights of our political culture,” pleading with newly-reelected Prime Minister Boris Johnson to “fight the battle for British political culture, a struggle…ducked since the fall of Margaret Thatcher… Why is every BBC show so painfully politically correct?... Why does the Civil Service only ever leak in a pro-Remain way?...”
Sadly, this same criticism is valid here in Israel
Back on December 13, 2014, Benjamin Netanyahu and Amnon (Noni) Mozes conducted a telephone conversation. According to the transcript documents submitted to court, Netanyahu, threatened by Mozes that his Yediot Aharonot media conglomerate would work against him, said, “I will not remain apathetic. If it is your mission this or that way to bring about my fall, to the defeat of the Likud… what do you think I will do? Are you leaving me any choice? I’ll need to open up with all the instruments at my disposal… I will not fight back?”
Whatever the outcome of the court proceedings involved in Case 2000, anyone reading this transcript must realize that Yediot Aharonot is not an objective bystander, simply reporting on what it sees, hears or what was surreptitiously passed on in the form of leaked documents or recordings. The “take-and-give” arrangement, whereby a reporter is provided with information and is then expected to find ways to support the supplier, is well-known and its existence has long been admitted.
There is, however, a concern that has sharpened the issue of media bias. The unprofessionalism of journalism nowadays is compounded by the political rigidity of its practitioners. As Tim Black noted in “Spiked,” following the British election, there is an “odd behavior of the mainstream media.” The “basics of journalism – sourcing and verifying stories – have been eclipsed by something else: a thirst for immediate sensation; a hunger for manufactured confrontation; and – most important and unforgivable of all – a staggering credulity. A willingness, that is, to believe something has been said or has happened because it confirms journalists’ prejudices, because it fits their narrative.”
Black continues and bemoans that “members of media establishment have abrogated to themselves the mantle of respectable, truth-seeking journalism,” although fake news “has come from the heart of the media establishment.” Worse, they “have forgotten the role of the journalist. They are no longer reporting and analyzing the news. They are making it. And, all too frequently, they are actually making it up.” And if they aren’t, as Alan Rusbridger wrote in last Saturday’s The Guardian, “you’ll be amazed how readily even the best journalists will repeat unattributable fictions”.
Is it damaging to the democratic fabric of a country to harshly criticize the media, especially a public broadcasting service as is claimed here in Israel? Is the press sacrosanct? Well, again, we look to England. There Andy McDonald, the Labour shadow transport secretary, declared in an interview on BBC this Monday that while he “treasure[s]… the BBC… they have trespassed with regularity during the course of this campaign into an area that they should not trespass into” and asserted that BBC reporters had deliberately slanting coverage to increase the chances of a Conservative victory. He added, “the way [BBC] people have gone about their business during this election does not fill me with confidence.”
In Britain, one could read, as published in the Financial Times on December 12 that “Tory hopes of decisive majority in doubt.” The Evening Standard’s December 12 headline read “Election becomes ‘too close to call’ as Tory lead shrinks.” A London School of Economics poll published on December 10 revealed that “A new expert survey suggests the UK’s general election will be tighter than expected” and the same day, The Independent informed that the “Tory majority [is] halved." Yet again, many election opinion polls were wildly off and incorrect.
Public opinion polls are but one of many explicit and implicit methods for influencing the public rather than keeping it informed. As proclaimed time and time again, polls are not predictive, but measure an instantaneous opinion. Today’s poll does not reflect upon tomorrow’s. In other words, adding five polls taken on consecutive days does not increase their accuracy or predictive power. At best, they can reflect a trend.
But especially disconcerting is the error. When measuring anything with say, N random choices, the overall error will go as 1/sqrt(N). So, for a sample of 500 the error will be roughly 4%. But the error is much larger when attempting to predict whether a party will garner the 3% votes needed to pass the threshold for getting a seat in the Knesset. With 500 people polled, 3% is 15. An error of 5 is very likely, so the percentages will be somewhere between 2 and 4%, how can one seriously use these figures to tell whether a party will or will not cross the threshold? We may assume that the parties themselves conduct much deeper and broader polls, but these are not made public. The next time you hear that party A will cross the threshold and party B won’t, don’t only disregard the message, but more importantly, understand that the medium passing it on is not reliable and so reduce your trust in it.
Here in Israel, with both Likud internal primaries and the upcoming general election being the subject of polls, the media consumer is faced with a dilemma. Should he pay any attention and will he or she be influenced to vote simply by poll results rather than issues? Should politicians? Will the reporting become fixated and notoriously off-target polling?
One example of ethical journalistic conduct in this election period is the decision of Geula Even-Sa'ar to remove herself from hosting with Yaron London, a current affairs culture program broadcast over KAN’s Channel One television. Her husband, Gideon, is challenging Netanyahu in the Likud internal primaries. Her move is in stark contrast to that of Galatz’s political reporter Michael Hauser-Tov, who we mentioned in our November 20 column.
The bottom line of all this is that as we enter the third election campaign, we call upon the media consumer to pay attention to reporting but not propaganda. The decision in the polling booth should be based on the issues, not on passing fads and unreliable polls.
The authors are members of Israel’s Media Watch (