Tuesday, August 29, 2006

My Op-ed in Today's Jerusalem Post

Do Israel's media know their place?


News is what people want to keep hidden; everything else is publicity.- Bill Moyers

For four weeks this summer during the second Lebanon War, Israel's media provided consumers with more publicity and spin than hard news.

True electronic media consumers did not lack for breaking news. The three main television stations - Channels 1, 2 and 10 - all provided live continuous coverage of the war.

Studios were filled with commentators, politicians and reports from the field. Reporters, many of them women, went north to face the missiles. And who can forget Yoav Limor dodging an incoming Katyusha in Safed?

Reporters Itai Engel, Mukki Hadar and Amir Bar-Chen all accompanied front-line troops into battle and returned with outstanding reports and footage.

Israel Radio (Reshet Bet) and Army Radio provided a wealth of news, opinions and updates, even as broadcasts were often interrupted by announcements from the Home Command urging citizens in the North to enter their bomb shelters,

WITH THE war over, however, recriminations are being openly voiced about media partisanship and recklessness. Letters to the editor columns are full of complaints about how the media handled itself. Oversight authorities have received hundreds of complaints from consumers about television coverage particularly.

People are mostly angry that television stations seemingly provided information that could have been helpful to the enemy, and that too much time was spent airing personal opinions cloaked as news. I share many of these concerns.

There have even been suggestions from within the media that true soul-searching demanded the appointment of a media-specific commission of inquiry.

IN TIME of war the media is not only an objective information provider; it must also not assume the role of cheerleader. The media's role is to seek the story behind the story and try to explain the "why" behind the "what."

The media is an instrument of democracy and civil society. While some in the media correctly refused to take on the role of mobilizing society for the war effort, many more took advantage of the opportunity to advance personal agendas.

It's indisputable that, both prior to and during the four weeks of battle, there was a lack of investigative reporting on the central political, diplomatic and security failures that only came out afterwards.

Why should we, ex post facto, be demanding a commission of inquiry? Where was the press for the past six years while events were allowed to deteriorate?

Could it be that they were smitten by the mirage of a quiet northern border? Did they adopt Amnon Abramovitz's "etrog" paradigm of swathing favored politicians with fawning protection? Or did the press sound the alarm only to be ignored by politicos and the public?

Why did IDF Spokeswoman Miri Regev take advice from Reuven Adler, Eyal Arad and Leor Chorev, the triumvirate spinmasters who guided Ariel Sharon and Kadima? Was there a partisan agenda afoot? Did the IDF allow itself to become the agency of a political party?

JUST A week before the war Haaretz reporter Aluf Benn wrote that Hassan Nasrallah had been behaving responsibly, and that a balance of deterrence had been created on both sides of the Lebanon border. "Hizbullah is preserving quiet in the Galilee better than did the pro-Israeli South Lebanese Army," he had written.

Only on July 20 did Benn admit that "the mistake in my assessment stemmed, as always, from the idee fixe that what was is what will be."

There certainly was a recurring theme, but it was rooted in the ideological mind-set of Israel's liberal/progressive media elite. It hadn't stopped applauding Ehud Barak's run-in-the-night withdrawal from Lebanon, and was not about to admit the error in his move - certainly not in advance of Sharon's trade of land-for-nothing.

Asked, in a Ynet interview, if he felt frustrated that his prewar calls about the rocket threat facing Israel had been ignored, former Likud MK Uzi Landau responded, "I was made to look delusional, because part and parcel of the [media's] campaign against the disengagement opposition was a nonsensical discourse. They said I was a warmonger."

WHEN THE war began, elements in the media spent the first fortnight warning the government and the IDF not to send ground troops into Lebanon. The media also let Hizbullah know, in real time, exactly where the rockets were falling, and even the unit numbers of the battalions and divisions crossing the northern border.

Many in the media also covered up for the lapses of Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz, whose declarations during the fighting were mostly bluster.

There were exceptions, such as Haaretz's Ari Shavit, who was devastating: "Political correctness and the illusion-of-normalcy spread first and foremost among the Israeli elites... the media… have blinded Israel and deprived it of its spirit... Instead of being constructive elites [they] have become dismantling elites."

Yediot columnist Yair Lapid admitted the media was irresponsible, unrestrained, unfair and confused opinions with fact. In a Globes op-ed, Prof. Gabriel Ben-Simchon of Tel Aviv University's Cinema Department accused Haaretz of being a "newspaper in Hizbullah's service."

Israel's media has much to make up for. One step that should be taken is editors and media stars distancing themselves from relationships with the politicians and generals they cover.

One of the many lessons of the war is that the public needs a "free press," in every sense.

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