'To befuddle and put you to sleep'
The pieces collected in this book, culled from The Seventh Eye's 12 years of publication, paint the picture of a lazy press that has fallen down on the job.
"Eyfo ta'inu, itona'im mitbonenim al atzmam: mivchar migilyonot ha'ayin hashevi'it" ("Where Did We Go Wrong? Selected Articles from Issues of The Seventh Eye"), edited by Uzi Benziman, Israel Democracy Institute, 404 pages, NIS 85
The title of this book - "Eyfo ta'inu, itona'im mitbonenim al atzmam" ("Where Did We Go Wrong?") - leads the reader to expect to find in it profound professional and ethical soul-searching by Israeli journalists. And indeed, the book contains quite a few interesting, important articles, which highlight unflattering - to say the least - aspects of the local press. Yet, the collection seems to suffer from a serious blind spot, an oversight that is in many ways characteristic of the work of the Israel Democracy Institute, publisher of The Seventh Eye and now of this book as well.
This blind spot turns The Seventh Eye - a publication that has stopped putting out a print edition, but is available online - into a decent professional, semi-academic journal, and a necessary publication of its kind, which does good work, but ultimately cannot extend much beyond narrow professional study. The Seventh Eye is not a leading, thrilling journal capable of asking the deep question, "Where are we going wrong?" - that is, where are we headed, what are the purposes and motivations of journalistic work in contemporary Israel, what reason have we, as journalists, to exist. All it can really ask is the technical question, which concerns symptoms: "Where did we go wrong?" - i.e., where did we stumble within the usual set of assumptions, within the journalistic routine that is swept along by the current and in essence conducts itself automatically, without much contemplation.
The pieces collected in the book, culled from the journal's 12 years of publication, mostly paint the picture of a sloppy, vacuous press, which operates lazily and out of a stupid inertia. Nahum Barnea writes about a press conference in which "there is no press and no conference. At best it is a grotesque encounter between the microphone and the regime." Rafi Mann asks why local journalists tend to report on the future, on what is expected to happen, and not on the past, on what has already happened. He explains that covering the past, dealing with the question, "How could something like this have happened?" requires in-depth investigative work. However, reporting on the future, in the spirit of the small-talk question, "So, what now?" offers newspaper readers more immediate pleasure and makes the task of the journalist easier. Shalom Kital discusses the laziness of "many reporters, who prefer to stick to the story (in many cases derived from a single, biased source) and avoid, as much as possible, confirming the information with the subject of their report, who is supposed to comment on the story."
In a fine piece titled "Lefutim bekisos ha'ivelet" ("Clasped in the Ivy of Folly"), Haaretz's Doron Rosenblum writes of the "inert emptiness, perhaps superficiality and intellectual laziness" that causes purely secular journalists to interview a chief rabbi, of all people, on the subject of a drought, asking him about the link between the absence of rain and prayer - all in order to "fill up airtime" or "fill up newspaper pages." Hanoch Marmari discusses the new tabloids, both in print and on the air, that "have embedded the yellow [sensationalist] motifs at the top of their agenda. They focus on particular cases, easily obtained, supposedly in order to demonstrate social injustice, and thus relieve themselves of the need to engage with the essence in a more complex way."
Amnon Dankner laments the all-too-easy path taken by "the mainstream press, which believes in absolute dichotomies, in a war of good against evil; indeed, the enlightened against the benighted, the progressive and the advocates of globalization against those backward people who hold on to the expressions of nationalism."
Even assuming that all these charges are appropriate and true, they still do not add up to an interesting critical comment on the nature of Israeli journalism today. They convey the impression that if only we could replace the lazy journalists with hard-working ones, we would get a good, worthwhile press. As though nothing has changed at the very base of journalistic work in Israel, a change that allows the journalistic laziness described above to exist and flourish.
Perhaps the essential flaw of the critical writing in The Seventh Eye can be illuminated by what Uzi Benziman, editor of both the journal and the book, writes in one of the essays, entitled "Lemi yesh kavod" ("Who has Honor"): "Journalists trade, not to say pander, in words. Essentially, their job is to report what they learn to the public. Their input in the process of making information generally available is limited: They must be accurate, focus on the important aspects and report what they know in language that everyone can understand. This is not a very complex task: The journalist is ultimately a pipeline that pours out what is dripped into it."
Benziman's assumptions that there is such a thing as "the public" and that the journalist needs only convey information to it are dubious ones. They immediately revive a fascinating debate about the role of the press that was waged in 1927 in the United States, the birthplace of modern journalism, between journalist Walter Lippmann, author of "The Phantom Public," and philosopher John Dewey, who wrote a rebuttal work entitled "The Public and Its Problems."
Lippmann argued that there is no such thing as "the public" taking part in the democratic process. Citizens, he claimed, are "deaf spectators": They know that the actions of those in power somehow affect them, but they have no idea how nor what it means, and they generally do not care. Dewey, by contrast, believed that sometimes there is a "public," but he argued that its existence is dependent on certain conditions: When a large group of people feel that the actions of those in power are harming them systematically, over time, the public entity is created, its consciousness is formed and it rises up to take action. For this to happen, Dewey claimed, we need a high-quality press providing information and criticism, knowledge and wisdom. To him, that is precisely the role of the press: to bring the public to its feet, that is, to inform it of the decisions and actions that affect and harm it. In other words: The press must offer critical coverage of what those with power and money do, and thus give the public a chance to come together.
According to Dewey's traditional view, the critic of journalism must examine how the press does its job and ask how much it exposes and communicates information, knowledge and wisdom. That is, to what extent it puts the information in context and explains it in relation to the offenses of those in power - information that might in turn prompt individual readers to gather into a "public."
And so, the question "Where did we go wrong?" (or, better yet, "Where are we going wrong?") requires both an illumination and a questioning of the basic assumptions of journalistic work. Indeed, we are used to regarding the newspaper as a diverse product containing coverage and reporting, entertainment and criticism. But what in this mixture is the most important for journalists? What is the essential job of the reporter?
Clearly, coverage, reporting and the "pipeline" transfer of information can be (and are) effectively performed by various spokespeople and publicists. Entertainment is the job of the entertainers. Journalists are clearly distinct from spokespeople, publicists and entertainers only when they report and cover critically. That is, when the questions they ask about the event they are covering are not only the famous "five Ws" of the classic news item - who, what, when, where, why - but also: whom does it serve? What are the relations of power? Who is strong, and who is weak? Who is the perpetrator, and who is the injured party?
End of an era
And thus, the appearance of the book and the cessation of publication of the journal in print mark the end of an era and constitute a challenging landmark in the history of journalistic criticism. The essence of journalistic work is changing before our very eyes, as is the essence of journalistic criticism. In his essay, Rosenblum notes that while the motto of Yosef Haim Brenner's journal Hame'orer was, "For it is to awaken you, brother, that I come," the motto of today's press seems to be, "For it is to befuddle and put you to sleep, brother, that I come."
Rosenblum offers no explanation for this beyond the intellectual laziness of reporters, but clearly something deeper than that has happened to our media since the days of Brenner, something that will be harder to uproot. Newspapers have long since abandoned their imaginary "reader" for an imaginary "customer." Marketing and journalism, which for many years managed to coexist side by side, are slowly merging and it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell them apart. And if the reader is only a customer, and the public as a whole is a crowd of consumers, how can criticism exist? What language, what value system, will the critic of journalism speak? Will journalistic review be committed from now on only to the "satisfaction" of the customers? To the values of accessibility, lightness, credibility? Will journalistic work be tested in terms of service? Of efficiency?
This must be acknowledged: The Israeli press is a right-wing press. That is, the economic philosophy guiding all local newspapers and the vast majority of local journalists - including most of those who write for The Seventh Eye - is that of neoliberalism (and it is interesting to note that out of about 100 essays included in the book, only two - Eli Avraham's piece on the coverage of Israel's peripheral areas, and Tal Arbel's on the poor - explore Israel's deepening social rifts; both are very good, and both were written by academics, not journalists).
This is not an incidental matter; it is at the heart of the matter itself. The neoliberal thinking espoused by most journalists in Israel is a system designed to disarm the public of its public nature. In other words, it is a system that disarms journalism of its most essential role. The editors of The Seventh Eye allude to the journalism of a different era, the era that preceded globalization and the great privatization; the era of nationalism and Zionism and the self-evident welfare state. An era in which journalists criticized the government and its rule, investigated corruption and asked for comments, for the public and on its behalf. Yet, the editors did not notice that this "public" has since disappeared from under their noses, the same public to whom journalists are supposed to trickle information through the pipeline - a public that has since disintegrated into its constitutive elements, the consumers.