You don't need to be a major media maven to recognize that too often in the recent past the temptation to publish has gotten the better of wisdom and consideration. Little paper notes, so it seems, are a turn-on for certain journalists. Ben Caspit, for example, published Gilad Shalit's letter despite the censor's reprimand, and this weekend the note that Barack Obama placed between the stones of the Western Wall was revealed.
While in the case of Shalit's letter there is room for balancing public importance against the censor's somewhat paranoid considerations, it is difficult to defend the voyeurism entailed in publishing Obama's note. The public significance is nil, in particular because of the ordinary nature of the note's content - wishes for health for him and his family and not much more. And it points to the moral laxness of the gatekeepers of the media outlet that made the note public.
The sacredness of the Western Wall and the understanding that putting a note in its stones is an act between a human being and the Creator is not the taboo that was broken here. The Rubicon that was crossed is the journalistic ethos, which seeks to ascribe to those in the profession judgment and even a minimal ability to withstand temptation. Avishai Ben Haim, who published the note, boasted in an interview to Razi Barkai and Ilana Dayan on their morning Army Radio show Sunday that he wasn't the one who removed the note from the Western Wall. He claimed it was a yeshiva student out for a lark who brought him the journalistic bomb.
A reporter does not have to refuse categorically all material that comes his way by improper means. He is, however, responsible for weighing the public significance of that material against the degree of impropriety involved in acquiring it. Leaking the transcript of the prime minister's questioning by the police, for example, is a violation of the law by the source, if the "leaker" is a police investigator or an employee of the state attorney's office. But the news people involved have a solid defense: It's not voyeurism, it's a vital public service.
Publishing Obama's note is nothing more than an unnecessary violation of privacy. The report does not endanger U.S.-Israeli relations, despite what it might make Obama think about us, but it does say something about the slippery slope on which Israeli society is stepping. The increasing competition between media outlets, the development of monitoring technologies and the decline in good taste put up temptations that are difficult to resist, and those who do are left frustrated, in part because they are not rewarded for their efforts. If you don't publish the item, how will the reader, viewer or listener know that you made a good decision?
The press, so it appears, is taking on more and more characteristics of reality television, the main one being the lack of boundaries. While television has no pretensions beyond achieving high viewer numbers, the press is misleading itself and its consumers in an attempt to attribute to that voyeurism some journalistic pretense. No mere note could cover that nakedness.
The notes placed in the Western Wall may be a matter between the writer and his God; the decision on whether to publish them is a matter between the journalist and himself, his editors and his ethics. All of these were once sacred.
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