Falling on the sword

The thing is that the substance of the public statements made on Iran have become meaningless. Every editor in town wants a headline on Iran.

Iranian Presidnet Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at OIC in Mecca 370 (R (photo credit: Susan Baaghil / Reuters)
Iranian Presidnet Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at OIC in Mecca 370 (R
(photo credit: Susan Baaghil / Reuters)
Watch the news or open a paper today and it seems that we’re seeing a trend which should have any person living in a democracy concerned.
Both here in Israel and in the United States, for various reasons, the press is being marginalized and forced into a weak position. This severely dilutes the public discourse and reduces the role of one of society’s important gatekeepers.
While some might see this a blessing, I see it as a danger to our pluralistic ideals. Examples of this deterioration can be found in the biggest stories both here and the US over the past couple of weeks.
Let’s start in the US, where the presidential race is now running on all cylinders following the Republican and Democratic conventions. I watched parts of both gatherings and I think it’s safe to say that the majority of the time is spent preaching to the choir.
After watching a fair share of the speeches, I believe that most of them are designed to motivate the base and not to convince the undecided electorate. More importantly, most of the media found these conventions to be unworthy of coverage. In the daily wrap-ups of the conventions, there was rarely anything more than a quick sound bite or two, with the exception of the big stars, of course.
Why is this happening? Well, it’s a part of a vicious cycle which is slowly leading to the demise of mainstream media.
On one hand there is the 24- hour news cycle which demands a huge amount of new material to keep it fresh. On the other hand, almost every news outlet is fighting for its life as their market share drops due to growing competition. This has led to many of them cutting convention coverage, taking only highlights.
Both parties understood the writing on the wall and tailored the conventions to meet the new priorities of the media. The result; a flat, scripted, sound bite-fueled snooze fest which has little to no value for the general public.
As to the substance of the conventions themselves, the candidates’ speeches were overshadowed in the media by the warm-ups. Mitt Romney and the Republicans will have a hard time getting past the Clint Eastwood fiasco. President Barack Obama, on the other hand, was outmatched by the savvy straight-talk of Bill Clinton and the emotion of Gabrielle Gifford’s pledge of allegiance. In any event, I doubt either convention will have any impact on the vote itself.
The question of how much of an effort public officials need to make for the press is not limited to the biggest political event in the US. Here in Israel it seems that the ongoing animosity between the much of the news media and the Netanyahu government is reaching fever pitch over the endless rumor mill surrounding the Iran issue.
I’ve written about this topic before, but now it almost seems like the news media is playing a game of chicken with the government and both sides are waiting for the other to blink. The problem is that this game not only has very damaging consequences for the Israeli people, but both sides come out losers.
Many stories about Iran have been published over the past two weeks, including; the reported confrontation between the prime minister and the US ambassador to Israel; the fallout from that confrontation; MK Tzachi Hanegbi’s claim that we are entering a critical 50-day period of decision making about Iran; and how the prime minister is said to want unprecedented authority which could circumvent certain officials in ordering an assault.
I even read articles on how an attack would impact our economy, public transportation and radiation levels. You name it. These stories come as Prime Minister Netanyahu shut down a cabinet meeting because of leaks to the press on the Iran situation while a day or so later, Defense Minister Ehud Barak came out with another statement on a potential attack.
The thing is that the substance of the public statements made on Iran have become meaningless. Every editor in town wants a headline on Iran. Everyone seems to want to make a statement about Iran. It grabs people’s attention. The problem is that some are making fools of themselves and the news media because everything is being written about.
At this point, does it even matter who says what? What’s worse is if that’s the case, what’s the point of reading the stories at all? Here’s the irony: the media has found itself fueling the fire which is burning up its own credibility. I think that the Israeli government might have initially wanted to use the media to get its message out about Iran but the plan backfired.
It started a snowball effect just after the Tishrei holidays last year and it has been at the top of the public agenda ever since. That’s not a good thing for anyone, especially the Israeli people – some of whom are living in fear of the day after.
While the damage to the Israeli public can be debated, there is no doubt in my mind that it is the news media which has taken a huge hit in loss of credibility. Israel’s news media is already in decline. It’s bad enough that Ma’ariv is reportedly going to stop printing its paper and Channel 10 is under constant threat of closure. If you don’t believe your news outlet, you won’t watch or read it, will you? That means more financial losses and more cutbacks.
Bottom line is that right now, the government in Israel and the political parties in the US see the media as an entity which needs to be manipulated and outwitted. For their part, news people are seen as treating elected officials as the enemy. While these attitudes might have short-term benefits, in the long run they are self-destructive. Politicians aren’t around forever – and many news outlets might not be, either, if this trend continues.
We need to return to a place of media reliability, government responsibility and for both to respect each other’s role in a democratic society. This is the only way to maintain continuity of the positive relation between elected officials and the people.
The writer is an independent media consultant. [email protected]