When news is not really news

The comportment of the Israeli press hasn’t really changed over the years.

Newspaper (illustrative). (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Newspaper (illustrative).
In days gone by, most newspapers represented a party line. Was this bad? No, actually I think it was quite helpful. You knew that if you were reading Davar, you would get the Mapai point of view and if you were reading HaBoker, you would get the opinions of the General Zionists camp.
If you read Herut, you got its perspective and if you read Kol Ha’am, you knew it was an article approved by the Communist Party.
It was all very cut and dried. No one tried to make themselves look like something they weren’t, and no one aspired to appeal to everyone across the board.
These days, however, there are almost no party newspapers. In theory, we are supposed to trust that they are all providing objective coverage, which one may trust.
But is this really the situation? It’s clear that Israel Hayom has an agenda and that it supports one side of the political spectrum more than the other – some even say it supports a specific individual. And we all know that Ha’aretz also has an agenda that is supported by certain population segments.
But what about the rest of the media? What is Yediot Ahronot’s agenda, for example? Theoretically, it’s a paper that is driven by commercial considerations and has no political bias. But this is true only in theory.
In reality, its opinion pieces tend to promote specific politicians and parties and vilify others.
None of this would be that detrimental if the mainstream papers didn’t try to disguise their agenda, or if they would stick to the rules of professional, fair journalism. The most basic question people should be asking themselves about each newspaper is whether it differentiates between news stories and opinion pieces.
Unfortunately, almost all of Israel’s large papers are guilty of failing to stick to this basic tenet. Readers of papers who identify with certain groups, such as Hamodia or Zo Haderech, are not expecting the news items in these newspapers to be clear and objective and they know reports will be eschewed beyond recognition. But it is a very different situation when a person reads an item in a paper that does not identify with a specific political movement – especially in a pre-election period, which seems to be an almost permanent reality in our small country.
ON DECEMBER 25, 2012, I filed a complaint with the president of the Israel Press Council against Yedioth Ahronot, its editor, and the journalist Itamar Eichner in reference to an item that was published that same day. This is the exact wording of my complaint: “Yedioth Ahronot readers were greeted this morning with an explosive headline in huge bold letters in yellow, red, black and white that took up the entire top third of the front page of the newspaper.
“One might have thought that Israel had attacked Iran during the night or that the Assad regime had fallen. In actuality, nothing of the sort had taken place. The headline that had been printed so prominently on the paper was in the end a quote from a ‘high-ranking political official’ who claimed that ‘Netanyahu was leading us toward disaster.’ An entire page was devoted to this article (except for a small “marginal” item that read, “Obama is considering retracting his nomination of Chuck Hagel as defense secretary”) in the first part of the newspaper, with other “insignificant items” such as Assad using Sarin nerve gas on his own people and half of Israeli citizens did not have gas masks appeared in the back sections of the paper.
“One would expect that such a strong headline would be followed by incredible discoveries. And yet, the article that follows offers readers no information at all to support this claim. The only information Israeli readers are given is that ‘a high-ranking political official’ [according to whom? The newspaper? The official? How do you determine who is high-ranking?] has strong reservations about the prime minister’s policies, which he believes ‘will blow up in all of our faces.’ “This sensational headline is just one more of a long list of exaggerated articles that Yediot Ahronot has been publishing for a substantial period of time against Benjamin Netanyahu. One may wonder whether it is appropriate for a newspaper that supposedly is not affiliated with any party or movement, to have a political agenda that advocates one side of the spectrum.
In any event, a newspaper should aim to be fair even when attempting to promote a particular policy or political candidate. In the instance regarding the above-mentioned headline, there was no information relayed in the article, and so it is clear that its only purpose was to malign the prime minister and his party. The high-ranking official quoted in the article did not provide even one tidbit of information that the public was not already aware of to substantiate his claim. What he did was to take information that had been previously published and use it to express his reservations and concerns about the prime minister. This was an opinion piece par excellence and not a news article at all.
As the person who headed the Committee on Press Immunity, I would be the last to demand that the newspaper disclose the identity of the sources of any journalist. The necessity for confidentiality of sources was recently upheld in a Supreme Court case (Criminal Appeal 761/12; State of Israel vs Makor Rishon). This immunity is essential to ensure the flow of information and to enable the press to be faithful to the important role it plays in a democratic state.
“It is not clear, however, what role immunity should play with respect to a news item that fails to include any news. Similar op-eds were published widely in Yedioth Ahronot.
Publishing another opinion piece written by a high-ranking figure, adds nothing to the op-eds published before. However, it embodies the reservation from granting immunity privilege fearing that it might be misused by the newspaper to transmit its own views while hiding behind ‘an anonymous source.’ “It is, moreover, unclear according to which criteria the rank of the source was regarded ‘high’ and how many other officials with the same rank as the source have decided not to come out against the prime minister. Above all, it is unclear whether this unnamed official has had a conflict with the prime minister and as a result wishes to inflict harm upon him. This would not be considered relevant had the source transmitted facts. However, in this case, the source only expressed an opinion.”
It is extremely significant when a senior official, who is identified by name and position, comes out publicly against a prime minister. In that case, the source who revealed the official’s expressed opinion should be granted immunity. But what is less understandable is concealing the name of the official, the seniority of whom is at best known to the editor and journalist covering the story. In this case the story is no longer newsworthy. I am under the impression that the newspaper, the reporter and the editors took advantage of the sacred principle of freedom of the press and journalistic immunity in order to engage in blatant election propaganda.
I believe it is the duty of the Ethics Tribunal of the Israel Press Council to take a stance on this issue.
In addition, I would suggest that the president of the Israel Press Council instruct the media properly in the period leading up to Knesset elections.
As I expected Yedioth Ahronot to immediately discharge a personal counter attack aimed at myself, I wrote in introduction to my complaint: “Before I lay out the details of my complaint, I would like to clarify the following: I have no association with the Likud-Yisrael Beitenu list, and I have never belonged to any organization that does. I have no personal acquaintance with the prime minister. I am lodging my complaint as a citizen of the State of Israel, as a lawyer, and as a professor of constitutional law and communications who serves as dean of the Peres Academic Center Law School.”
The newspaper’s attorney, Mibi Moser, one of the most well-respected attorneys in Israel, refuted my grievance with the most bizarre claim: that the article was in fact “a newsworthy journalistic item” and that “there is great significance to the fact that a high-ranking political official was the one who expressed the criticism.”
In response to my claim that the newspaper was mixing opinion and fact, Moser responded with the following snappy comeback: “The news item stated that a high-ranking official made a statement about the government and the prime minister’s policies. Everything the high-ranking official was quoted as saying was clearly his own opinion.” (The bold appeared in the original). And here is the punchline: “It is not the Press Council’s duty to prevent the publication of news items and opinion pieces that are not welcomed by the complainant, for political or other reasons.”
In response, I wrote: “I highly regret the cynicism that has spread among us. It is truly sad that instead of dealing with the complaint, the focus has been turned to the complainant’s motivations, and now the fateful question has been changed to what does the complainant have to gain from making the complaint? “Since Advocate Moser is familiar with the milieu in which I work, he is certainly aware that I have nothing personal to gain from lodging this complaint, which could be interpreted, even indirectly, as support of the prime minister or his party.
“It is interesting to note that the simplest explanation of all – that the motive of the complaint was genuine concern for the status of the press – and yes, also of freedom of the press – did not even occur to Advocate Moser. I would have expected that following the many years we have known each other and our prolonged academic cooperation in the field of freedom of expression and freedom of the press, he would have thought better of me. In fact, I am sure of this; otherwise his office would not have approached me and asked for my support of his office stance in a court case dealing with freedom of the press. At that time, a senior lawyer approached me saying that, ‘the moral support of an individual as well-respected as you are would have a significant influence on the court.”
I WOULD like to assure Advocate Moser that even if the subject of the news article I lodged a complaint about had been Haneen Zoabi, and if the high-ranking official that was quoted had said on the eve of the election that her election to the Knesset would lead to a serious security risk, my actions would have remained identical.
“I realize that this is a well-known lawyer’s ploy of trying to move the focus away from the defendant and instead trying to defame the complainant. However, we must keep in mind that my motives – be they real or imaginary – are not the subject of this inquiry.
Rather, the actions of his client are.
“There is one thing I do not understand, especially since we know each other well.
How is it that Advocate Moser reached the conclusion that I was unhappy with the statement made by the official for political reasons? The Press Council’s legal adviser decided not to press charges against Yedioth Ahronot for the following reason: “The newspaper’s decision not to expose the identity of the high-ranking official who was quoted in the article has a direct bearing on the amount of weight the public attaches to his words. It is clear to the reader that because the official refuses to reveal his identity, his motives cannot be judged, and therefore one should think twice before accepting his words as the truth.”
However, the adviser suggested bringing up with the presidency of the Israel Press Council the question of whether specific rules of ethics should be drawn up pertaining to a pre-election period. Finally, the Press Council held a plenary discussion on the subject and I was invited to present my concern. I had a very easy time explaining my complaint as all of the council members expressed their outrage at Yediot Ahronot. I am including only two short quotes from the discussion. Prof. Yehiel Limor said, “I must admit that when I saw the article in the newspaper, I felt extremely uncomfortable because it went against all the norms of professional journalism.”
Retired judge Gavriel Strassman, who was also a senior journalist and served as Ombudsman for Ma’ariv had an even sharper response. “This article was not news at all.
It was an opinion piece. And opinion pieces should be placed on the op-ed page, or at least bear the title “Opinion” at the top of it so that the paper can meet the strict ethics code that calls for separation of news and opinion.
Anonymous sources cannot be used in this way. This is just not the way things should be done.”
An email I received from Hanoch Marmari, one of Israel’s most respected journalists and editors, sums up the issue well. “We might not be able to rule on the ethical behavior – we might have to be content with public contempt of a newspaper that acts in such way to express its own views,” he wrote.
There is one more layer to this story that shows us just how disturbing the article is.
Two days after Yediot Ahronot printed the blaring headline, the exact same words were used in a paid advertisement for Hatnua party in Ma’ariv. Underneath the original headline appeared another sentence: “What he knows should scare us all.”
We once again find ourselves in the midst of an election period. Has the comportment of the Israeli press changed? It’s sufficient to flip through a random copy of Yediot Ahronot to see that nothing has changed.
The author is dean of the Peres Academic Center Law School. Translated by Hannah Hochner.