MEDIA COMMENT: Media meddling

Netanyahu’s bravado is admirable. Several of his close aides, including Filber, have been, as the British say, assisting the police in their inquiries.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a weekly cabinet meeting, December 16th, 2018 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a weekly cabinet meeting, December 16th, 2018
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
It was on Sunday, December 1, just hours prior to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s participation in the lighting of the Hanukkah candle during a ceremony to mark the first day of the festival at Kfar Maccabiah, a traditional well-covered media event. Police announced their recommendation that the state prosecutor indict him in yet another of the cases of suspected bribery and illegal appointments, Case 4000 – referred to as the “Bezeq-Walla Affair.” That case itself is overloaded with media material.
The suspicions are that the firing of former Communications Ministry director-general Avi Berger was brought about by  Netanyahu and that he then instructed that Shlomo Filber, his former campaign manager be hired in his place. These moves, so went the accusations, were to assure that Shaul Elovitch, the owner of Bezeq, would gain unfair government favors. In addition, if there indeed was an over-favorable relationship with Bezeq, then Elovitch supposedly returned the favor and provided Netanyahu, and also his wife, Sara, through his Walla online news site, fawning coverage, perhaps to offset what Yediot Aharonot owner Noni Mozes didn’t do. If true, this would constitute bribery.
Netanyahu was quite blunt regarding the media aspect of this police construct and said, “Walla is a left-wing site that gave and continues to give me negative coverage for years now and especially negative coverage on the eve of elections.”
Netanyahu’s bravado is admirable. Several of his close aides, including Filber, have been, as the British say, assisting the police in their inquiries. What his chances are, legally and politically, to remain as prime minister until next November, or even after, is a tantalizing subject but not one for our column.
One matter that should be of interest is that only a few media outlets noted the obvious and purposeful intention of the police, or, perhaps, more specifically of the outgoing police commissioner Roni Alsheich, to drop a media bombshell on the last day at his job. Alsheich merited no extension of employment and had been at loggerheads in public spats with Netanyahu over the various investigations. And if they did, fewer recalled Alsheich’s extraordinary employment by special contract of Lior Chorev, a former Labor Party activist, and even fewer pundits still analyzed the implications of that employment not only politically but the implication that the Israel Police’s spokesperson’s unit was incapable of doing its job properly.
The media-related issues surrounding what we would call the Walla affair are not only whether the Walla company was and perhaps continues to be left-wing and whether its coverage of Netanyahu was and continues to be negative. The more general concern is that too much of Israel’s mainstream media are not only anti-establishment and anti-government but they seem incapable and unwilling to absorb and include within the normative public discourse items relating to the national camp, the religious, both of the crocheted kippot and the haredi communities, immigrants, Ethiopians and Arabs. To us the essential question is whether the media coverage was biased.
In the professional worldviews of the reporters and their editors, Israel’s media is more introspective rather than all-encompassing. Their filters and prisms are beclouded and dark. But that is not a phenomenon exclusive to Israel.
Writing in the November 1 online edition of the New York Review of Books, a bastion of hard-left literary, cultural and ideological progressivism, Michael Massing, former executive editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, took on America’s liberal mainstream media, terming their running battles with President Donald Trump, especially that of CNN a “case history of an unhealthy codependency.”
He noted that the bias revealed quite disproportionate time devoted to critics of the president, allowing unbalanced coverage, negative language employing clichés and tendentiousness, interview styles that allowed critics more time, less breaking-in to the conversation and complimentary remarks to them and the opposite to those supporting Trump. In short, he noted that “the network’s coverage seemed uninformative, repetitive, and nakedly partisan... it featured few in-depth reports on developments on the ground. Instead, it offered talking heads reciting familiar talking points.”
And he made one more observation worth quoting: “Journalists – heavily concentrated in cities and mixing mostly with other affluent, highly educated urbanites – face a natural barrier in getting to know... America... it remains mostly a foreign land. With the divisions in the country seeming to harden in the wake of the midterms, journalists need to do a better job of overcoming them”.
If that criticism sounds familiar, it is.
In Israel, the “concentration” of the mainstream journalists exists less in terms of geography (the previous “north of Shenkin,” Tel Aviv’s bohemian café-filled promenade delineation is a bit passé) and more in terms of a cultural milieu and an ideological orientation. In the past, the Ashkenazi/Mapai background of the vast majority of the journalists, as well as their almost exclusive secular character, although this has faded somewhat, would suggest that Netanyahu is not engaged in maniacal raving or exhibiting signs of extreme paranoia.
In the first week of December, the first of, so far, four Hezbollah attack tunnels was uncovered under the border with Lebanon. With the experience Israel had with similar tunnels leading in from Gaza, their potential danger was obvious. Netanyahu, who is serving as defense minister, would have been almost criminal to have ignored the direct danger as well as the indirect danger of the worthlessness of the UNIFIL unit stationed in Lebanon and whose responsibility it is to prevent such violations of UN resolutions.
And yet, voices in the media began to spin out that all this “discovery” was politically motivated. As Haaretz’s Yossi Verter wrote on December 7, “Netanyahu spins operation against Hezbollah tunnels into Armageddon-style mission. With an eye on the election and on his legal trouble, Netanyahu sows fear in the hearts of Israelis.” His voice was not the only one.
Earlier, a colleague of Verter at Haaretz, Anshel Pffefer, published this on December 4, “Has the IDF Become the latest prop in Netanyahu’s battle for survival? The media festival made out of what is just another stage in an operation suggests this may actually be Operation Netanyahu Shield.” There will additional “insights” from the media along this theme as if, by the click of a knob, a switch in transmission dictated that Netanyahu be portrayed in the most negative and scurrilous fashion possible.
Those in the media that took up this line of criticism were not analyzing but were meddling. They had no way to pass judgment except by presenting personal grudges and prejudices. This includes their editors and owners of their outlets who agreed to replace facts with fiction. Moreover, we did not see any leaks from within the IDF that would indicate the army’s commanders are feeling exploited for political advantages of the minister. And they are not shy of finding ways to pass on any critical observations they may have.
We are seeing today the negative results of decades of media bias. The media’s unreliability is the public’s loss. It has given credibility to Netanyahu’s claims that there was nothing there is nothing and there will nothing.

The authors are members of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imediaw.org.il).