Democracy and media manipulation

Surprisingly, a recent panel on Israel Radio at Haifa University did not draw the media attention it deserved.

At that panel, Hanan Naveh, the chief editor on the Israel Broadcasting Authority’s news desk at the time of the withdrawal from Lebanon, boasted that “three broadcasters – Carmela Menashe, Shelly Yacimovich, and I – pushed the withdrawal from Lebanon in every way possible … [W]e took it upon ourselves as a mission – possibly not stated – to get the IDF out of Lebanon.”

He explained that three of the news editors had sons in Lebanon and were determined to bring them home.

Even in retrospect, Naveh was totally unapologetic. “I’m not apologizing … It came from the guts because of the boys in Lebanon … I’m very proud that we had a part in getting our sons out of Lebanon,” he said.

Similar confessions of media mobilization on behalf of a particular political agenda, and a similar lack of embarrassment when the the preferred policies come a cropper, are an Israeli commonplace. Veteran IBA News anchor Haim Yavin once bragged, for instance, “Without the Israeli press, the intifada would not have led to Oslo.”

Free speech and a free press are fundamental to democracy. They help guarantee a well-informed citizenry upon which democracy depends by ensuring that crucial facts are not hidden from the public and that there is a robust debate on the issues facing the country.

BUT FOSTERING public debate and transparency is not how most Israeli journalists view their role. Rather, they see their task as making sure that the public reaches the proper conclusions. That is particularly true of those in public broadcasting, which holds a near monopoly over the air waves – a power of which the broadcasters are acutely aware.

Those caught in morning traffic jams are “captive – they are ours,” according to Naveh. At the same Haifa conference, Army Radio’s Razi Barkai noted the power of the morning radio to set the national news agenda for the rest of the day.

That monopoly power over the air waves is frequently abused, even to the point of outright fraud. In one IBA telecast, more than a minute was edited out of a speech by prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu to make it appear he was waving and smiling in response to chants of “Death to the Arabs” by some Betar Jerusalem fans. Long after the Shamgar Commission investigating the Rabin assassination determined that the infamous Eyal swearing-in ceremony was a hoax staged by agent provocateur Avishai Raviv and the IBA film crew, the IBA continued to air the clip as an example of the right-wing incitement prior to the Rabin assassination. And the producer of the clip remained on the IBA payroll.

THE QUALITY of national decision-making has been profoundly affected for the worse by our mobilized press. Last summer’s war and the devastating impact of Hizbullah’s missiles caught the Israeli public largely by surprise because the press had hidden the dangers of the withdrawal from Lebanon from public view. Having led the charge for withdrawal, the press then deliberately played down Hizbullah’s missile build-up in southern Lebanon.

The national debate over the Gaza withdrawal was similarly impoverished, as the press took to heart Channel 2’s Amnon Abromovitch’s advice to protect prime minister Ariel Sharon like a precious “etrog.” Sharon was never forced to lay out the strategic assumptions behind withdrawal, and was allowed to portray all opponents of withdrawal as solely motivated by a Greater Israel theology. As a consequence, serious security concerns were largely ignored. When Shin Bet head Avi Dichter warned, for instance, that the trickle of arms into Gaza would become a mighty river after withdrawal, his testimony was relegated to the back pages.

IMMEDIATELY after Naveh’s confession, Justice (ret.) Dalia Dorner, the president of the Israel Press Council, urged journalists to continue to show courage in exercising their power to “determine the daily agenda.”

She, in effect, held Naveh up as a role-model. Her only caveat was that journalists should not create a “hostile public opinion,” which might adversely affect freedom of speech. In other words, continue to lead the people, but don’t be so obvious about it that you get caught.

Dorner completely missed the ways that the exercise of monopoly power by a handful of editors and broadcasters is inimical to the core justification for free speech and a free press – i.e., free and open debate. She assumed that the editors of the morning news shows should utilize “their ability to influence public opinion” and encouraged them to continue doing so.

THAT IS hardly surprising. Israeli Supreme Court justices share with the media elites a certain arrogant assurance of their own wisdom and their mandate to impose the fruits of that wisdom on their fellow citizens.

Both have a problem grasping the basic premise of representative democracy – in the words of Judge Richard Posner, one of America’s most respected legal academics and appellate judges, the idea that the determination of public policy should be made “by governmental figures who stand for election at relatively short intervals and are thus accountable to the citizenry.”

Just as the journalists view their monopoly position as a mandate to tell the public what to think, so do the justices view their positions as granting them the right to determine all public norms. They even claim the right to pass down their monopoly power to hand-picked successors.

That attitude endangers Israeli democracy without even the redeeming virtue of having led to wiser public policy.

Appeared in the Jerusalem Post.

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11 Responses

  1. Moshe Schorr says:

    Jonathan, it’s a shame your words do not reach the audience which _might_ take them to heart – the great “unwashed masses” the the “elites” seem determined to mold into their own image.

  2. Ori Pomerantz says:

    The US also suffers from this problem. See, for example, this cartoon. Of course Israel is a smaller market, which means there is less media competition. That makes matters worse.

    The problem isn’t journalists who are willing to abuse their power. It is human nature to abuse power. The problem is that the audience lets them. I suspect we do it because we all suffer from collective ADD. Consistent stories are a lot easier to digest than the real complexity of issues, and there are so many other things that compete for our attention (intellectually demanding work, TV, cell phones, blogs, advertising, etc.).

    Unfortunately, I can’t see any solution that would preserve democracy.

  3. Steve Brizel says:

    There is much evidence that the liberal media in the US and its members are strongly pro Democrat and even donate to Democratic candidates. (There is no newspaper that tries to shape one’s thinking on a wide range of issues and which is resolutely anti Bush, anti Israel and anti-anything that remotely reeks of religion quite like the NY Times.)
    There is a website that recently profiled the amount of these donations. IIRC, one well known female journalist was quoted in the course of one of the Clinton campaigns that she would do anything ( Hamavin yavin vhamaskil yaskil vain makaom lhaarich yoser kaan) to “help” Clinton’s reelection.

  4. Garnel Ironheart says:

    What has always suprised me is that, with all the wealthy right-wing Jews in Israel and Golus, none of them have tried to launch a well done set of newspapers, radio stations and TV stations to counter the constant left wing propaganda in main-stream Israeli media.
    What right wing stuff is out there (Arutz Sheva, etc), while battling valiantly, lacks the panache and slick presentation of the left wing competitors.
    Why is that?

  5. HESHY BULMAN says:

    Essentially, the problem is that in Israel there is as yet no viable “alternative media”, aside from Arutz Sheva, which is widely perceived by secular Israeli society as fringe lunatic, and which, indeed, is given to exaggeration and hyperbole at times. Most disheartening is the fact that even if some enterprising individual or group were to attempt to establish such a voice, the Israeli establishment (almost certainly, the courts) would quickly either silence it outright, or make it impossible for such a station or program to continue operations, through other means. And, of course, the more popular the program might be, the more urgent the need to silence it. In areas such as this,the Israeli government has shown itself to be far more draconian than the U.S. The “fairness doctrine” (read: “THE LEFT WING AGENDA”)has long been firmly in place in Israel, and there is no indication of the political will to abolish it at any time in the future – perhaps yet another vestige of our Country’s Communist origins. Alas, I fear, there is no Jewish Rush Limbaugh on the horizen. We shall have to do with Moshiach, may he come speedily in our days.

  6. Menachem Petrushka says:

    Then there are Hamodia amd Yated Neeman the bastions of freedom of expression and speech Their writers never aim to set their readers’ agenda and control their thoughts. They only offer free and open debate

    Kol haposel bemumo poseel

    The real issue for Jonathan Rosenbkum is not that “the Israeli Supreme Court justices share with the media elites a certain arrogant assurance of their own wisdom and their mandate to impose the fruits of that wisdom on their fellow citizens”. It is pure and simple envy. The Supreme Court justices are in control and the Charedi leadership is not. Both the leftist elites and charedim believe in Plato’s Republic, they only differ on who the wise men are.

    I would bet dollars to donuts that Mr. Rosenblum does not favor
    “that the determination of public policy should be made by RABBINICAL figures who stand for election at relatively short intervals and are thus accountable to the citizenry.”

  7. Elozor Preil says:

    Sounds as if the Zionist ideal of a “democratic Jewish” state fails on both counts.

  8. Tal Benschar says:

    The major difference is that in the U.S. there are many alternative outlets for news and alternative opinions, incuding the internet, talk radio, and FOX news. In Israel, there is almost a monopoly on news dissemination and the elite like to keep it that way.

  9. HILLEL says:

    In Stalinist Russia, the members of the propaganda press were an integral part of the government. Pravda was Stalin’s lapdog.

    In most of the world, there is no such thing as an “independent” press. Each media organization speaks for a particular party.

    The only way to get a full picture of current events is to hear opposing sides of each argument by reading about the same event in two disparate news sources. This is only posible when the Government does not establish an ideological monopoly on who can broadcast over the airwaves.

    In Israel, near-monopoly by the left over the airwaves is the rule. Those who want to broadcast a more religious perspective are termed “pirate” media.

    Now that the Shas Party has taken the Communications portfolio in the Government, an attempt is being made to legitimize the “pirate” media.

    Let’s hope this initiative succeeds.

  10. David says:

    Aren’t some of the enterprises that Mr. Rosenblum mentioned publicly financed by tax dollars and wouldn’t that be a key difference between them and the Hamodia?

  11. HESHY BULMAN says:

    I second David’s astute observation. Furthermore, any Jew who believes in the Torah must give credence to the fact that it is at least possible for people whose sole occupation is Torah to posses greater truth than those whose sole occupation is the advancement of their political careers, and the protection of their rears. You may tell me that you don’t believe that there truly exists a Rabbi whose sole occupation is Torah, and I will tell you that I don’t believe that there truly exists an Israeli politician who has any concern in his life whatsoever other than his own personal advancement. I’ll cast my lot with the Rabbi’s, thank you.

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