Media Comment: Who needs press conferences?

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the media seeking sources and the sources seeking publicity.

US president Barack Obama addresses reporters in the White House press briefing room, (photo credit: REUTERS)
US president Barack Obama addresses reporters in the White House press briefing room,
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It is usual that on the campaign trail, the media has full access to a candidate running for political office, even over-access, at times.
Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog early this year went so far as to have a reporter follow him everywhere to film his campaign, which he hoped would lead to victory. Once ensconced in office, however, most politicians prefer to keep the press as far away as possible. The cancellation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s usual round of interviews on the eve of the New Year this past week is an example of the frustrating situation that political commentators and correspondents face. Politicians avoiding the press is nothing out of the ordinary.
For example, in England, The Sun newspaper has been in a broil with Andrew Burnham, who is expected to take a senior job in the Shadow Cabinet as James Corbyn was elected Labour leader. Burnham has refused to speak to the paper during his campaign, and in fact since 1989.
The big loser is the public, which is not exposed to the opinions and actions of a leading politician.
The other side of this coin is that when the press treats a politician unfairly or blackballs a candidate, that is not only a problem for the candidate but a danger to the public and the democratic process.
We have always maintained in our columns that a free press, albeit responsible and committed to ethical journalism, is a requirement for a thriving democracy. Open access should be the norm (unless a specific punishment for egregious behavior is in place, which is also a time-honored practice in many countries). Unfortunately, the prevalent practice in Israel, as in many other Western countries, is that direct, open access does not exist. At best, a “senior government official” releases some information.
At worst, politicians feed scoops to their favorite journalists. An especially egregious example was that of former prime minister Ariel Sharon, who informed the public that he would be bringing the Gaza disengagement plan to a cabinet vote via a newspaper interview with Haaretz journalist Yoel Marcus.
Prime Minister Netanyahu maintains a Facebook page, the Government Press Office issues statements and there is a prime minister’s web page, but the live give-and-take of a press conference, even with the prime minister’s spokesperson, is missing. Such sparring is the heart of a democratic discourse between the elected and the voters.
As Aditi Bhatia points out in his 2009 academic article on press conferences, they are “a part of media discourse, since [they] are held more for the benefit of the general populace and members of the media...
in part creating the reality we are familiar with.”
The American system is different.
Most weekdays, the White House conducts, and then provides both video-recorded footage and a transcript of press briefings, including occasional briefings by the president and other administration officials.
The State Department follows the same basic practice.
The prime minister owes the public answers to many questions.
He, as well as the finance minister, should explain to us why for example they believe that reducing VAT by one percent will heal the economy.
The prime minister should explain why he does not keep his campaign promises, for example the further development of Judea and Samaria. The defense minister owes us an explanation regarding his decisions to evacuate Jewish communities while delaying planning and authorization of new construction.
The education minister should give an accounting of his handling of the crisis in the Christian school system, a crisis that is giving Israel a black eye abroad. Yet, none of this happens.
Instead, the politicians get away with Facebook or Twitter comments – or worse. According to Vigo, hired by the Walla news website to track the viewing statistics of a short video clip Netanyahu released on the theme “what the media won’t tell you about me and my government,” the number of times the mainstream media (television, radio and websites) mentioned the clip was five million, which more or less equaled the number of people who would have seen/read an interview conducted with him in those same outlets. That effort of Netanyahu’s was a form of talking to the public above the heads of the media. The monitoring traced at least 11,000 “likes,” 1,500 responses, 1,500 “shares” and another 5,000 spin-off “conversations.” Netanyahu beat the press on their own turf.
The public, and our democratic process, would have been served much better by a give-and-take interview.
The relationships between the press and politicians, and especially senior government officials, can be portrayed as murky and Machiavellian.
But the same is true for almost any intersection of any other institution with the media, from rock stars, industrialists and academics to sports club managers. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the media seeking sources and the sources seeking publicity.
Herbet Gans wrote in 1979: “[T]he relationship between sources and journalists, resembles a dance, for sources seek access to journalists, and journalists seek access to sources.
Although it takes two to tango, either sources or journalists can lead....” To paraphrase a 1993 study, the country’s highest elected official is more than newsworthy, but possesses the equipment to manage the flow of news. Instant news, photo opportunities and ceremonies are the tools. By using them (or not), one can exert considerable influence over the citizenry.
The essence, though, is interaction between the elected and the voter. If that interaction is disrupted, from either side, or one side or the other unfairly manipulates the information received or distributed, it is the public that loses out. In Israel, both the so-called “leading journalists” and politicians prefer the situation as it is at present; the former get scoops, while the latter can enact policy with no serious questions asked.
This practice undermines the media consumer’s ability to comprehend and make decisions on issues of politics, economics, diplomacy and culture; passively listening to or reading the words of a prime minister is the closest a citizen can get to an unfiltered conversation.
Almost unfiltered, that is.
The other side of the picture, which perhaps justifies to some extent Netanyahu’s avoidance of direct contact with the press, is that the media does not treat him or his government with the required objectivity. We would guess that Netanyahu is not averse to criticism – provided that it’s honest, as opposed to politically motivated and narrow-minded. Silly interviews such as those conducted in the past by people such as Aryeh Golan or Nissim Mishal are the other side of the coin; lack of jouralistic professionalism creates an aversion to the media among too many politicians.
Israel’s democracy and public would gain if journalists would simply do their homework and consider themselves agents of the public, rather than Netanyahu’s ideological rivals. If this were to happen, we would be in for a good start to a new year.
The authors are vice chairman and chairman respectively of Israel’s Media Watch (