MEDIA COMMENT: Self-interest

In defense, the KAN people claimed that Seeing the World is no longer needed.

Watching television (Illustrative) (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Watching television (Illustrative)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
From its beginnings, the old Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA), before it became KAN, the Israeli Broadcasting Corporation, modeled itself after the British Broadcasting Corporation – the BBC. Just like the BBC, part of its ethos was to provide the Israeli public with broad coverage of events and culture both in Israel and abroad. The flagship world affairs program was Seeing the World, or in Hebrew, Ro’im Olam. It was broadcast on Channel 1 television, beginning in 1987, on Saturday nights at 8 or 9 p.m., depending on the season.
The program was moderated by veteran journalist Yakov Ahimeir, who himself was a broadcaster for the BBC in the late 1960s when it still had a Hebrew-language division. He used the venue to bring to our attention issues of importance occurring abroad. Very often, one saw televised excerpts from programs such CBS’s 60 Minutes. Ahimeir frequently interviewed known international personalities, whether political or cultural. International art usually ended the program. In the days when the Internet was not very widespread and one could not really observe what was happening abroad, this was the only way to have some idea of foreign programming.
This changed over the years. Cable access to CNN, the BBC and Fox News became the norm. Nowadays, one does not even need to pay for such access, as many foreign media networks can be viewed directly online. One could then argue that the program is no longer needed.
However, most Israelis are not fluent in spoken English or in Spanish, French or German. Ahimeir’s program had Hebrew subtitles or other means of translation to Hebrew. This was valuable especially to those viewers who were not exposed to international affairs, did not have businesses abroad and were not academics.
After 32 years, the program, as recently announced, will be discontinued. Mr. Ahimeir was dismissed from all his duties at the KAN conglomerate and forced into retirement.
This situation caused a small storm. Ahimeir, a recipient of the Israel Prize for Communication in 2012, the Israeli Prize for Media Criticism in 2007, among many other citations, is over 80 years old. Perhaps the time has come for ending an honorable career? However, even so, his dismissal was viewed by many as political.
Not only is he the son of Revisionist leader Abba Ahimeir, but over the past few years, through his private newspaper articles and social media platform comments, it became clear that Yakov does not belong to the left-wing media mainstream. In contrast to his colleagues, he kept his opinions to himself when on air, believing that the journalist’s job is to report, not to tire the audience with his own thoughts on issues. Israel needs journalists of his stature.
In defense, the KAN people claimed that Seeing the World is no longer needed. They stressed that KAN radio Reshet Bet has a daily program on foreign affairs and this is sufficient. There is also a short daily television program, The World Today, presented by Moav Vardi. As is often the case, a heavy hand creates unnecessary bad blood. The conglomerate could have eased the dismissal by keeping Mr. Ahimeir for a few more years as a special correspondent for foreign affairs, for example.
BUT THIS is not the main issue, for the real question is why was Seeing the World discontinued? The managers of KAN know that there is a real difference between radio and TV. One picture is worth 1,000 words, so goes the saying. A report from, say, Swedish TV on the political situation there or their attitude toward the Middle East is far different from a radio program. And Vardi’s broadcast is but 30 minutes long and shown at around 7 p.m. This is not a conducive hour for digesting the background of serious news, beside one’s evening meal.
We would argue that the termination of Seeing the World is symptomatic of something much deeper. It is characteristic of the self-interest of members of our media, who consider themselves as political leaders rather than purveyors of information. The first law of politics is self-interest. You provide the public with what interests you, with content that serves your own world view.
A good example is the place of honor given the left-wing New York Times and its journalists in our Israeli media. It happens quite frequently that an op-ed in the Times having to do with Israel will become headlines in our media. Typically, such occurrences present severe criticisms of Israeli actions and are used to warn right-wing governments to beware.
Let us consider, though, the Times. Is it really a reliable purveyor of news? Historically, it has failed dismally. It did not properly report the Holocaust while it was taking place, nor did it let the American public know the criminal actions of dictators such as Stalin. Even in our times, the media giant continues its infamous heritage.
President Donald Trump is an enemy of the Times. His decision to kill Iranian arch-terrorist Qassem Soleimani was roundly criticized by the Times. It claimed the action was not legal, was not thoroughly thought out, will bring further chaos to the Middle East, etc. There’s nothing wrong with criticism, but it was completely one-sided. As Jeff Jacoby has written in The Boston Globe, American media outlets are “convinced that fallout has been overwhelmingly negative”.
The idea that Soleimani, a criminal responsible for the deaths of many, was brought to justice played no role except for a lone article by the former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post Bret Stephens, published on January 4. But even Stephens would not openly put in a good word for Trump. The same goes for a Monday article in the New York Times describing Americans who lost their loved ones through Soleimani’s tactics, who felt that his death was some modicum of justice. The Times could not put in a good word for Trump.
The KAN conglomerate, as a public service, could provide the Israeli public with a balanced and objective review of “important” international newspapers and TV stations. For an embattled country like Israel, attacked by international organizations such as the International Criminal Court, one might think that it is important to understand the international point of view and how one should relate to it. This is, of course, if KAN was truly interested in providing the public with information.
Sadly, though, this idea is foreign, and not only to KAN. Israel’s media consumers are exposed to too-narrow a field of foreign press outlooks, making for an unreliable reflection of what views are really being debated abroad. The foreign sources are used mainly to further the media’s self-interests. The need for the public to be informed is at best secondary.
It is self-interest that brought about the end of Seeing the World. With a bit of thinking out of the box, our media could become a world leader, just like our hi-tech industry, but somehow the leadership needed for this is lacking.
The writers are members of Israel’s Media Watch (