Israel's Journalists Have Lost Their Readers

A journalist's work always arouses anger, feelings of discrimination, accusations of bias. But the legislator's benighted, opportunistic war will stand no chance if we succeed in regaining the public's trust.

The worst mistake Israeli journalists could make would be to launch a brutal attack on the legislator over the amendment to the Libel Law currently going through the Knesset. (The amendment would make it possible to sue a newspaper for libel, not only for commensurate compensation for any tangible damage caused but for an additional sum of NIS 300,000 - without having to prove damages.) I know it's frustrating, upsetting and frightening, and it seems as if such an unbridled legislative onslaught ought to be met with sharp tactics, painful reports, a determined battle against those who have long since abandoned all restraint. But that is exactly what the benighted people who raised their hands in favor of the amendment are hoping for: a fatal mistake, the classic error whose signs are already apparent.

Legislatures specialize in identifying the mood on the street, and that is especially true of the current one. It knows the media will harass it over the series of oppressive laws it has passed recently, but it's convinced the public has its back. It has accurately discerned the huge gap, the alienation that exists between the media and its target audience.

What is seen in the talkbacks, what is heard in private conversations, has long since ceased to be legitimate criticism of the media's functioning. It is schadenfreude. Far too many of the readers, viewers, listeners and surfers are applauding the legislature for taking revenge on the media on their behalf. They don't understand that they are the ones who will pay the price. This is a time of mob rule, and the inflamed masses are celebrating. It's a Pyrrhic victory, but who has the time or the ability to figure that out right now?

The truth is that we lost them. To our great embarrassment, we simply didn't manage to communicate with them. We, whose profession this is, screwed up. Not because we were part of some conspiracy, but mainly because we forgot that they - not our colleagues - are our true target audience, our most important reference group.

This line of argument is not a call for a fawning media or for refraining from publishing stories that fail to flatter Israeli patriotism and depict our society in all its nakedness. It's bad enough that we betrayed them; if we betray ourselves as well, it will really spell the end. But we do need to take a long, hard look at ourselves to discover how the rift developed, how it happened that only a tiny minority sees us as the watchdog of democracy, as loyal, honest - and effective - public servants.

Our failure is not connected to standards of objectivity that no human being is capable of meeting. We survived that cheap and demagogic populism, and it seems the public, too, was not led astray by such empty accusations. The tragedy is the loss of our sense of smell - perhaps the most fundamental and essential quality of any journalist. We were intoxicated by the scent of our own perfume, by the uniformity of opinion of those around us, and we didn't notice the very different, suppressed currents that run deep in Israeli society.

The fact that we took up for one social protest - that of Daphni Leef and her friends - is not ample compensation for our many omissions. Rather, it is an effective weapon in the hands of our critics, who justly ask: why this one and not others? Why now and not before?

The public is not rejoicing at our misfortune because we are leftists and a legislature has finally arisen that will put us in our place. The alienation and hatred that is aimed at us crosses party lines. A journalist's work always arouses anger, feelings of discrimination and accusations of bias, but this time it seems we have crossed the Rubicon. Parts of the public are already speaking in terms of "Let us die with the Philistines" when we remind them that silencing the press will also hurt them.

But the legislator's benighted, opportunistic war will stand no chance if we can succeed in regaining the trust of the public, which throughout human history has often stood on the front line in defense of freedom of expression and freedom of the press. That is what is meant by mutual responsibility. A good press - one that is self-confident rather than full of itself, one that is free, critical and intelligent - must be capable of finding the way to do this.

Once again.

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