The battered person syndrome

In the aftermath of the current election campaign, we think it quite appropriate to apply this description to those things, among others, from which Israel’s media are suffering.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
‘Battered person syndrome” is defined as a psychological condition that can result when a person experiences abuse, usually at the hands of an intimate partner. In the aftermath of the current election campaign, we think it quite appropriate to apply this description to those things, among others, from which Israel’s media are suffering.
It was in early January that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu usurped the 8 p.m. news shows. Instead of the pre-announced “important” message he promised – which was later upgraded to a “dramatic announcement” – he exploited the airwaves to inform the public that although he was suspected of bribery and unethical behavior in three separate cases, he was being treated unfairly, as he had demanded a confrontation with the state’s witnesses, and his request was denied. Many viewed that as injecting political propaganda into the campaign. But only one of the three television channels broadcasting his remarks live, Channel 10, decided to halt the live feed.
Pundits from all sides of the spectrum were incensed. But, like the battered person, they did little to change the situation, other than to write an op-ed column here or there and, of course, tweet their outrage.
That incident was indicative of a serious problem, and just the tip of an iceberg. Israel’s democratic process is in crisis, and it is not improving. Ever since prime minister Ariel Sharon was elected in 2001, Israel has not had any serious face-to-face debates between candidates. This is not a mere trifle. Such debates are very high profile, and as Netanyahu knows from the 1996 and 1999 election campaigns, they can make all the difference. In the first instance, he outclassed Shimon Peres. In the second instance, however, Yitzhak Mordechai, of the late Center Party, came out the victor.
Admittedly, debates are also show business, and as with Nixon and Kennedy, can create unexpected catastrophes for one of the candidates. Yet at the end of the day, serious reporters can pose questions to the candidates, and the candidates themselves can pose questions to each other. Such give-and-take is essential for the democratic process. The actual act of voting itself, as has always been stressed by political scientists, does not assure the democratic process. There needs also to be a culture of fairness within government, and a certain sense of dedication to principles which such a debate can highlight.
Holding debates is not easy, especially when there are nearly 40 parties vying for votes. The media cannot and should not decide on their own who has a chance to be elected and who does not. Just as in the Eurovision Song Contest – in which the final act comes after a process in which only the “best” are chosen by the public – so it could be for debates. The media channels could hold open debates, which are not necessarily given prime time, but rather first viewed only on the Internet. These debates would have a randomly chosen audience that could then decide which parties should go on to the next phase, ultimately leading to the final show, where only the leading candidates appear. One may think of other processes, such as independent public opinion polls carried out by the Central Elections Committee.
But this election campaign had very little of this. The media channels, time and time again, were used by the politicians as a venue to which to promulgate their messages, even on the polling day itself. The media not only had little influence on the quality of the messages, but indeed, played along with the candidates. Complicated and complex issues that required explanation ended up as one-liners.
FOR THE Left and center-left, the slogan was “Only Not Bibi,” and the Right played on the rhyme “Bibi or Tibi.” The messages on both sides were largely negative, some nasty and vicious, guided by “strategic experts,” students of advertising campaigns rather than democracy. The media failed in bringing to the public the information needed to make an educated and ideological decision.
Could it have been different? Yes!
The media, which know very well to use its weight when it comes to demanding money citizens’ taxes to support it (remember the Channel 10 debacle which cost us many millions?) turned out to be docile. With a bit of joint efforts, the major media channels could have made it clear to the candidates that any party which did not accept an invitation to participate in a debate would not be invited during the campaign to the studios, and its messages and slogans would not be available to the public.
The battered person can overcome the syndrome only if, little by little, they realize they are battered and can prevent this from happening again. But this is not what happened. The battered person typically needs a psychologist to help overcome fears and difficulties. The media need the same. But the various NGOs from Right and Left, such as Kohelet or the Israel Democracy Institute, remained mum, without criticism or attempts at help the media overcome their malady.
And a malady it is. Much has been spoken about the volumes of fake news emanating from various sources, especially from social networks. We do not want to prevent private citizens from using these outlets to express themselves, quite the contrary. But, here too, the media should have controlled themselves rather than being accomplices. The bot affair, publicized by no less than The New York Times in collusion with Yediot Ahronot, was classic. An NGO, clearly identified politically, came out with “research” that was, as it was presented, fake. Indeed, Walla News exposed the fake aspects of the story, and Guy Zohar, on his Channel 11 From the Other Side program, highlighted the media failures in their false presentation of the report. But that did not prevent the story from becoming a hot item on all the major news channels for more than 24 hours.
Election Day is behind us. Not much has changed. The right wing has retained its power, give or take a couple of seats. There will be surprises in store as far as the makeup of the new coalition government is concerned. But the lack of overall movement in any direction indicates that the election campaign was not about ideas or essential issues. 
There were a few media highlights, such as Kan’s providing the Arab population with a microphone through its Kol Yisrael program. But overall, the result, as well as the discourse after the polls were closed, was shallow.
The issue here is not between Right and Left, or liberal vs. conservative, or party A vs. party B. It is a question of whether we have a vibrant functioning democracy with a government committed to the ideals and needs of its electorate, or whether our elected politicians are smiling attractive models in a beauty contest. We should all be worried and do our utmost to stop this vicious downhill process. Our national health depends on it.
The writers are members of Israel’s Media Watch (