Economic policy is complicated stuff. Explaining its rationale to those who don’t come naturally to number crunching can be a formidable task. So can convincing those challenged by charts and graphs that what’s going to pinch, sting and even downright hurt will ultimately be good for them – or maybe not.
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Which may explain why journalists with a knack for putting the complexities of economic policy making into simple, understandable terms have always been valued, even as others in their profession increasingly find themselves dispensable.
That is, until recent weeks, when Israel’s newly appointed finance minister, Yair Lapid, decided that journalists, too, had served their purpose.
Why bother with the traditional media, he says, when there’s Facebook? Press releases? So 2000. Media briefings? Absolutely prehistoric. So much easier just to go right over their heads, post a status update and get your message across exactly as you want – without the processing, evaluating and rewriting that goes on in the newsroom. Why, indeed, bother with old-school concepts like balance, perspective, context, background and hard facts and figures that might dilute the message?
Reporters covering economic policy making – one of the most taxing jobs in journalism, especially here in Israel – are waking up to a reality in which all the rules have changed. Gone are the days of news conferences, exclusive interviews, background briefings, leaks, off-the-record chats and on-record doomsday warnings – all those things that once required journalists' presence and mediation, not to mention their healthy skepticism gained through years of experience. The traditional media have become so irrelevant that according to insiders, even official queries addressed to the ever-so-media-savvy minister – it would seem almost a matter of principle – go unacknowledged, not to mention unanswered.
Indeed, in the words of one veteran beat reporter who requested anonymity, the job these days has been reduced to “logging into Facebook four times a day to see what Lapid’s up to.”
But as Lapid has surely learned this week, it all comes with a price. Just witness the public outcry following his “Mrs. Cohen from Hadera” posting, which underscored his disconnect from the middle class he purportedly represents. No, Mr. Lapid, many offended readers wrote back, most Israeli middle-class households do NOT earn NIS 20,000 a month, nor do they take vacations abroad every two years.
It goes both ways, as Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, head of the media reform project at the Israel Democracy Institute, notes. “A politician who uses social media to go over the heads of the traditional media also sets himself up for more immediate and more forceful public criticism,” she says.
Still, she’s convinced Lapid's on the right track. “Yair Lapid understands that he needs a good narrative if he wants to succeed as finance minister in almost impossible circumstances,” she says. “What Facebook does is allow him to share with the public his learning curve as finance minister. He’s not yet using it as a way of promoting public participation in decision making, as others have started, but it’s certainly become a tool for him to increase transparency and thereby win the public over.”
Another media strategist with considerable experience in government policy making, but who requested anonymity, was not as convinced that Lapid’s almost obsessive reliance on Facebook would yield benefits in the long run. The assumption that it’s possible to bypass the traditional media, says this expert, is about as naïve as the assumption that Lapid can do without a driver.
“What does he think – that he’s going to go driving around looking for parking in Tel Aviv? He’s making the same colossal mistake by thinking he can avoid the media," the media strategist says.
"First of all, not everyone’s on Facebook. People like my parents still read the papers, and that’s where they get their news. Most people still need professionals who can explain complicated economic policy for them. Beyond that, Lapid needs to understand that most people still attach greater credibility to stories that appear in the press than they do to postings on Facebook.”
Just like Bill Clinton
Prof. Tamir Shefer, an expert on political communications at the Hebrew University, notes that Lapid is certainly not the first politician to try to take his message straight to the public.
“Bill Clinton also tried to go over the heads of the media – in those days, before Facebook, it was through town meetings,” says Shefer. “Reporters did not take well to it then, and neither do they today. Eventually he gave up.”
Although Lapid is certainly not the first or only Israeli politician to post and tweet, adds Shefer, he seems to be using social media for different purposes than other policy makers. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "also uses Facebook a lot, but to the best of my knowledge – and admittedly I haven’t been following this systematically – he uses it more to reach out and connect to the public, whereas Lapid has been actually including the public in policy-making discussions,” he says.
Indeed, in his post about “Mrs. Cohen” (the Israeli version of “Mr. Average Joe”), Lapid disclosed rather intimate details of a recent closed-door meeting with top treasury brass (the sort of details journalists of a former era would have considered a coup to obtain from their trusted sources).
And by the way, Mrs. Cohen’s biggest problem in life, as Lapid divulged to his treasury subordinates and later to his almost 200,000 Facebook followers, is that she has no money put aside to buy her children apartments when they leave home. That may certainly come as news to those outside Israel who may not be aware that purchasing your children apartments is considered an entitlement of the middle class.