The Lavie project
Despite award winning coverage of 9/11, the Iraq War and more, TV news producer Yael Lavie is virtually unknown in Israel. But now she's left ABC to return home - for good
At one point during the 2005 Emmy Awards ceremony, between the third and fourth cup of champagne, Yael Lavie felt her patience was wearing thin. This was not her first time attending the ceremony. She had three nominations behind her as well as one statuette - for being part of the team that broadcast for 90 consecutive hours following the destruction of the World Trade Center. Nevertheless, boredom seeped in.
As a producer and senior editor with 14 years of experience at America's ABC News network, the faces of the other senior television producers and editors seated around the table were familiar to her. Onstage, legendary news anchor Dan Rather was speaking.
"I was a nominee, together with four other producers, for an hour-long documentary that followed what happened 24 hours after the tsunami struck eastern Asia," she related this week in her Tel Aviv apartment. "I always felt that things I was proud of were not nominated and things that could have been done a lot better were nominees, and this was one of them. Luckily for me, the 12 minutes that were my responsibility were about Banda Aceh [the Indonesian locale must severely affected by the tsunami]. But the rest of the clip dealt, totally seriously, with a model hugging a tree in the nude. So there were hundreds of thousands of people killed, but they must have repeated maybe 15 times that she climbed a tree and hung on to it while nude."
But Lavie was thinking of other things - of her father, who had passed away a few months earlier, and of how she could no longer find her place in the United States. "We didn't win," she continued, "and that same night I came home and there was a package sticking out of the mailbox. It was a package from the Disney corporation, which owns ABC."
She jumped out of her chair and ran to another room, returning with a wooden plaque with a metal bas relief of Mickey Mouse, hands outspread welcomingly, with a rhymed inscription underneath indicating that she was an employee of the Disney corporation. She sat back down, lit a cigarette and smiled. "The next day, I quit," she recalled.
Lavie, 37, is the younger daughter of the late singer Aric Lavie and the actress and singer Shoshik Shani, and the sister of Noa, who is a singer and actress. For the last three years, since her return to Israel, she has been working as chief editor on the Middle East desk for the British Sky News network. She was born in the U.S., while her father was appearing on Broadway in "To Live Another Summer, To Pass Another Winter," and therefore has an American passport. She resembles her mother a lot, petite and very beautiful.
Despite her important job, she is not a recognized face in Israel. For her, that is a blessing. In the past, she tried to get into Israel's media industry, but her family ties actually worked to her disadvantage. "They asked me, what does Aric Lavie's daughter know about news?" she said.
Her return to Israel was closely connected to her father's death a few months earlier, which caused her to think about the future and about "what's important." These feelings joined what she refers to as "the break," great dissatisfaction with the American media and the way it runs.
"I looked around me and reached the conclusion that I didn't want to grow old there," Lavie explained. "I had all the conditions; I earned a salary that I'll never earn here; I had an Emmy, and I was nominated three more times; I was offered the chance to manage the weekend morning shows. As far as what you can think about work, it was as high as you could reach. But I received the Mickey Mouse plaque; we stopped covering Iraq and Afghanistan; they wanted to send me to California to cover the Michael Jackson trial; it all combined."
She began her commercial career at ABC as a researcher, after having decided, as a 22-year-old student, to show initiative. A few weeks before the peace agreement with Jordan was signed, she used her American passport to find out was going on in the Hashemite kingdom firsthand, and she sold the report and her notes to newspapers around the world.
"In Israel, I appeared in the Yom Kippur weekend holiday supplement. It was naturally marketed as 'the Red Rock's daughter travels to Red Rock,'" she said, referring to "Hasela Ha'adom" ("Red Rock"), a famous song of her father's about the ancient city of Petra in Jordan. "In the U.S. it was marketed as 'risking one's life to get a look at Petra.' I knew that with anything I did there, there would never be the argument 'well, of course, she's the daughter of...' After that, it was easy for me to get work at ABC."
In journalistic terms, Lavie's accomplishments are dazzling. Her resume includes stints as the foreign news editor of the network's morning broadcasts, a job that included working closely with news anchor Diane Sawyer, and as a producer and editor of special programs, in which capacity she visited and worked in countries where her Israeli identity would not have been well received, to put it mildly. Afterward, she was an editor and director in the documentary department, and now she works for Sky News.
She lives on her own in an apartment with high ceilings and painted floors. The living room has Moroccan furniture and her cat was nibbling on a flower from a bouquet in a vase. All of this differs dramatically from other sites she frequently worked in - as, for example, when she directed and produced a news crew that traveled around Iraq in the period before Saddam Hussein was captured.
"When Iraq was still of interest to America," she said sarcastically, "they would send us there for periods of four to eight weeks. On one of those occasions, before Saddam was caught, I went out with a photographer, members of the crew and a security man to the Iraq-Iran border to do a report on the border crossing and the rise of the Shi'ites. As fate would have it, the place where we were shooting was very close to Tikrit."
That same day, Hussein was captured in the city, after his hiding place - a pit in the ground, concealed under a silo - was discovered. "We were a short distance away from Tikrit and we stayed there for two days, while I forced the reporter to go in and out of the pit. It was funny, because even though this was Iraq and it wasn't pleasant there, it was during the time my father was sick. I asked to go there because it took less time to get to Israel from Iraq via Jordan than it did to get there from New York. True, it is Baghdad; but it's two hours away from Israel."
And with your Israeli background, weren't you concerned about going there?
"All the times I was there, the first time and every time after, I was very worried. I'm not a suicide journalist. An integral part of my work is going in with crews and I always covered wars. The first thing I'm concerned about is the safety of my crew and my own safety."
What could happen?
"At the moment, as either an Israeli or an American, if they catch me in Iraq now, it's the same thing: They hate us both just as much. I was not worried by the dual identity, but by the fact that this is a war zone. But I believe in fear, because it makes you a more careful journalist. I may be in the line of fire, but I'm not right under the shells. And if I feel the situation is unsafe, I will move my crew away. I am afraid, but on an ideological level, I believe the information has to get out."
This comment, which Lavie made repeatedly in connection with what she called "the break," is responsible for the change that occurred in her life. Little by little, she recalled, she started feeling disgust with the way things are done in America - from the way things are covered to the way other things are not covered at all.
"I had an Israeli intelligence source who is close to American intelligence officials," she said. "During the 90 hours of broadcasting, I spoke to him and he told me, 'within a year the U.S. will enter Iraq and this is the excuse.' This was before Afghanistan, before Bush's speech. I went to my bosses and asked them to do an interview, even off the record, with this man. The answer I received was that it is unpatriotic to do something like that. It was the Bush era, when a journalist got up at a White House press conference and asked whether [America] ought to examine whether its foreign policy was one reason why this happened, and Ari Fleischer [the White House spokesman at the time] told her he did not think she was asking a very patriotic question. It was a situation in which a country that sanctifies freedom of the press collapsed. To this day, it is still the same to a large extent. For example, you won't see funerals, because we were banned from covering them. I found this situation very hard to accept."
So hard it would cause you to leave?
"America is actively at war with Iraq. Afghanistan is falling apart. If you go the U.S. now and watch the news broadcasts, you'll hardly hear a word about it. It doesn't interest them. As a journalist, I was bothered by it. When you have so many soldiers in two wars and you are told that the audience doesn't care, in my eyes, our job in the media is to make them interested. The American media is much bigger than what exists here; there are huge budgets. I produced hours of documentaries with budgets of half a million dollars. To waste time on arguments about our role in this ... The understanding is that it has to be terrible, really terrible, on the level of September 11, for people to care enough. It turned into Africa, where if Angelina Jolie doesn't go there to hug some child, then the story doesn't exist, never mind if millions are dying there."
Lavie returned to Israel for a two-month vacation that turned into the job at Sky News, where she also soon became involved in war zones, such as the Russia-Georgia war. "On the day it really ended, we stood behind the Georgian 'army,' which consisted of four police patrol cars. Facing them were 20 Russian tanks with burly soldiers inside. I am one meter and 60 [centimeters tall] and I was the only woman among them."
Is this something you find yourself dealing with a lot?
"I'm usually the only woman. There are few women who reach this point. At Sky there are two women reporters on the lines and apart from me, there is one other woman producer on the lines. The situation at ABC was a little better, but I've reached the conclusion that this is not a female-friendly profession; that's how it is."
In what respect?
"As much as we tell ourselves that the world has progressed and there is equality, it's a lot of baloney. In Georgia, they gave us a chance to enter with the Russians on the way to Gori. I'm sitting there, with a bulletproof vest and the whole works, but then suddenly I think that I'm completely dependent on them. I'm there with a photographer and a reporter and if they decided to take us ... It was the same in Tikrit and at the lynching in Fallujah. What bothers me is not the fear; it's the mere fact that I'm the only woman."
How does Lavie think wars should be covered? A news story, she replied, must first and foremost undergo personalization. "The story of one man is more powerful than the story of the war. Through one person, say a Fatah refugee who fled from Gaza, it is possible to relate the entire story of the West Bank. This is the only way it is possible to stir the reader or viewer and create empathy in him."
And isn't there a degree of Disney in doing so? Looking for the story that will cause the viewer to tear up?
"The Hollywood moment is when things explode in front of your eyes and it looks like a Schwarzenegger film. I believe that the moment you makes things personal, the moment a person starts to think what would happen to him in the same situation, or the moment he realizes that it could also be him, something changes. In another five years, there won't be satellites that relay broadcasts and there won't be a reporter who goes into war zones. There will be people with advanced cellular devices and everyone will be able to send out the big picture.
"My father used to say that if there had been electronic communications, perhaps there would have been no Holocaust," she continued. "I say that in the information age, with this overload, who knows if this would have stopped us, whether it would not have turned into Africa."