Media Comment: Elections are upon us

The ongoing, close relationship between the political elite and the media is problematic to say the least.

Government Press Office's international Jewish Media Summit 2018 (photo credit: GPO)
Government Press Office's international Jewish Media Summit 2018
(photo credit: GPO)
If we may paraphrase Delilah’s words, as recorded in Judges 16 and thrice repeated, “The elections are upon you, Israel.” And we would add, “once again.”
In just over three months, for the 21st time, Israel’s citizens will go to the polls. They will vote after being presented with the candidates and the platforms of perhaps more than two dozen lists representing veteran, long-standing parties, new parties, particularistic parties, split-off parties, blocs and also lists simply seeking a bit of free publicity before they pull out.
The issues will be presented to the electorate in a variety of fashions. There will be rallies in city streets and town squares and we’ll see television clips. There will be face-to-face parlor meetings and we’ll be reading newspaper ads. There will be banner ads on social media platforms and there will be press releases handed out to reporters. There will be punditry columns and interviews and profiles.
In addition, there will be leaks, and also misinformation. There will be unattributed background material and there will be quotations from unidentified “senior advisers,” “staff,” “diplomatic” as well as “security” sources. We will hear from “IDF officers” but we will not know if they are actually serving, or serving in the reserves. We will not know how senior they really are and will not even be informed whether these “IDF officers” are per chance also politicians such as members of Knesset.
As we noted prior to previous election campaigns, the relatively short time period within which the elections are conducted places a special responsibility on the media. The importance of free and open elections which create the legislative 120 member Knesset and associated executive ministerial government is acknowledged by all. The elected bodies are, at least potentially, awarded a four-year term of office by our simple act of placing a slip of paper into an envelope and inserting it into a ballot box. Yet, this simple act is influenced by the flow of information that the voters receive, especially during the short election campaign period. Every non-professional and unethical act of journalistic bias is magnified. Past experience shows that sometimes, especially when dramatic changes occur very close to Election Day, media manipulation by the politicians as well as the media itself can dramatically affect the results of the election and thus the future of our state and even our personal fate.
The ongoing, close relationship between the political elite and the media is problematic to say the least. The voter who is also the media consumer becomes a very valuable commodity, subject to intense pressure to act based too often on uncertain information. It is the media’s task to gain the trust of the voter which is essential in enabling a fair election. Based on past performance, the media’s record is dismal.
The 2018 Israeli Democracy Index, for example, accentuates the challenge. To the question, asked of Jewish respondents only for some reason, “Which state institutions do Israelis trust?” out of a list of 10, the media was third from last with only 33% trust. Somewhat better than last year’s 30% among the Jewish population, but not something to be proud of. When asked to consider corruption in state institutions, the media was positioned at 58%. Clearly the media has a problem.
Our media has long rejected the demand for objectivity and fairness. The state-sponsored KAN network encourages personal opinion views of their staff. Even at KAN, infotainment has replaced serious news programming. This has created a blurring of the distinction between news and comment. The ability of media consumers to distinguish between them is impaired. There is “fake news” and it doesn’t always originate with politicians.
One of the central items used by political parties, as well as the various mainstream media channels, is public opinion polls. Over the years, these have deteriorated significantly, for many reasons. There are too many and the number of people willing to participate is at an all-time low. If only one out of 10 people polled actually respond, how can the results be meaningful?
Moreover, there is an inherent bias in that those who do answer, typically, they do so with an ax to grind. Yet, the media and the pollsters do not report this critical piece of information, of how many refuse to respond to the questions, which would reveal another aspect of the trustworthiness of their result. How are the questions posed and in what order? Are the pollsters male or female? It is well known that psychological factors influence the answers. The typical poll has 500 respondents and claims an accuracy of plus or minus 4%. Yet, when considering small parties, whose share of the total is borderline, the error is much larger, but this fact is not presented. Just this past week, the number of MKs predicted for the new Bennett-Shaked right-wing party, the New Right, went from six to 14! Shouldn’t the media stop this unreliable type of reporting?
What influences the citizens’ perception of trust? Reviewing our columns over the years here at The Jerusalem Post as well as academic literature, a list would include the character of the relationship between politicians and dominant media personalities. Unfortunately, Israel does not have a trustworthy organization which monitors media records and provides the public information on the veracity, fairness and unbiased reporting of our media “stars.” A record of press manipulations does not exist. The private citizens are left only with the option of trusting their instincts and intelligence.
A functioning democracy needs a media which provides the necessary information, the insight and, most importantly, the facts rather than rumors, inherent to an election campaign. We, the citizens, must demand fair and balanced reporting. We should receive the information needed to be aware of what researchers call “the systematic differential treatment of... one side of an issue over an extended period of time.”
Sadly, though, we should realize that although they claim to be journalists, most of our media is made up of just another group of purveyors of political ideas and influence. We probably could be better off listening directly to the politicians, posing them with questions and criticism directly rather than most of what we obtain in the papers.
In the past, televised debates were critical. These times are over. Debates, if they do occur, are moderated by biased journalists and are highly orchestrated by media advisers. The experience in the United States in this regard was quite blatant in the last presidential campaign. Our best bet is the written media, the Internet and the direct access through it to the candidates. Their responses will be available through search engines for posterity and will force them to be just a bit more reliable in fulfilling their promises.
One would hope that some of our more trustworthy politicians will use the electronic media to respond to voters queries directly and by doing so, force this methodology on all the candidates and parties. If done wisely, we will have a much better educated public and the results of the election will be much more democratic.
 The authors are members of Israel’s Media Watch (