Black Box / Nonsense as News

Anyone who has wanted to watch a real news program - that is to say, a program that would present to him what is happening in Israel and abroad, during a single time slot (something totally elementary, no?) - will hardly have found this of late on any channel.

Anyone who has wanted to watch a real news program - that is to say, a program that would present to him what is happening in Israel and abroad, during a single time slot (something totally elementary, no?) - will hardly have found this of late on any channel. One of the main reasons for this is that the news broadcasts here, and even more than that, the news magazine programs preceding and following them, have gradually become stand-up comedy shows.

For example, there is the "London and Kirshenbaum" daily magazine, which is charming in and of itself, at 19:00 on Channel 10, or Guy Zohar's insolent "The Day That Was" at 22:30. In an arrogant context like that, the most tragic news item will immediately be stamped with the risible seal of the Kirshenbaumish-Londony "punch line," as though to say: What are you pestering us for? Everything is fine as long as it is possible to joke about it.

But the signs of the end of the age of seriousness are evident not only in the style of presentation, but also in the very things that television is choosing to present as news. And this is where we get into the thick of the news broadcasts themselves. For example: Is the declaration that the new defense minister, Ehud Barak, really castigated young men who evaded conscription in the Israel Defense Forces really news, and who guarantees that it isn't the fruit of public relations labor that has succeeded in slipping into the news? After all, it is clear that the phenomenon of draft dodging itself is not the news, but rather the fact that Barak said what he said. He tossed out the comment about the IDF becoming an army of half the nation, and presto! - there's something to talk about and deal with. For example, in the wake of the "army of half the nation," Geula Even troubled historian and thinker Zeev Sternhell, one of the most serious people in the country, to come to the "Today in the News" studio (Channel 1, Tuesday, 7 P.M.). He rained fire and brimstone upon the distorted values of Israeli society. And all of this without even noting that the spark that had ignited this conflagration was the media manipulation of a total cynic.

And what, for example, is the news value of the statement that President Shimon Peres made on Monday over the airwaves of an American radio station, which won wall-to-wall coverage on the news here? He said there that the president of Iran is a joke and that he worships the atomic bomb more than Allah. It is possible to hear 10 such comments a minute on all kinds of call-in radio programs like "On Zahavi's Nerves." In a certain respect, it is pretty embarrassing to think that Peres, Israel's No. 1 Citizen, has no compunction about giving an interview to a radio station that asks him to speak words of wisdom, and then running to tell the guys about it. It is as clear as day that after the interview on that station, his PR people inflated the business so that it would become a worthy news item, which appeared on our screens in order to prove that Peres is an active president who is fighting for Israel abroad.

Thus, day by day, there is an increase in the proportion of accumulated, endless repetitions of nonsense, which is awarded the status of news. The lion's share of this catalog of chatter that is piled on is accounted for by talk about the unfortunates. On Sunday and Monday, the unfortunates whose turn had come up were the Holocaust survivors and the minuscule financial aid that has been allotted them by the government. On Tuesday, the unfortunates' slot was filled by some families who live in the street after they were unable to keep up with their rent and mortgage payments. More unfortunates, who in the end got their due, are the people of the unrecognized Arab village of Ein Hud, who after 60 years have finally been connected to the electricity grid.

Another part of the catalog of piling-it-on satisfies the viewing public's hankering for the pornography of death: Just give it more and more of the latest "West Side Story" of brawls with knives that culminated in the murder of a teenager in Bat Yam. Give it a heart-rending show from the courtroom after a fatal traffic accident. The regular ritual makes excellent footage: a mourning father, in a skullcap, unshaven, waves about a picture of his dead son, and demands that the drunken driver who killed him rot in prison or die; a mother whose son was stabbed declares that she does not agree to the state's sinking money into the rehabilitation of her son's murderer in prison.

Also in the inventory of the piled-on stuff that masquerades as news are the success stories about the Israeli billionaires abroad. And an entirely different kind of nonsense is the endless presentation of Israeli politics as a story of personal bickering and insults at the top - as, for example, the disputes and "exchanges of harsh remarks" and "tension" between the justice minister and the president of the Supreme Court. Or between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Barak, or between Olmert and the state comptroller. In this manner nearly every matter of principle that comes up here assumes the coloration of a spat between servants in the marketplace, or a quarrel between sisters-in-law as to who will invite Auntie Farhouma to Rosh Hashanah dinner.

However, anyone who wants to know about the real problems that should have concerned Israel this week will go to CNN, for example. That channel devoted its evening magazine on Tuesday to the balances of powers in the Middle East, in the wake of the American secretary of state's visit to the region. Were Israeli viewers indeed undeserving of a similar serious discussion of the surprisingly generous - and not necessarily predictable - financial support that the Americans have promised Saudi Arabia? And what is the effectiveness of this bribery of Saudi Arabia (and Egypt) vis-a-vis the war against the strengthening of Iran? Can't the Americans see how hated they are in the Middle East regardless of how much money they spread around?

It used to be that an issue like this would come up for serious discussion by a television panel. Nowadays, when the rules of the game here require as many trivial and local things as possible, there is no longer scope for panels like that.

It is impossible not to mention in this context the decline in the level of satirical and pseudo-satirical programs, which should really be providing the entertainment and "laffs." One of the embarrassing low points in this area this week was "News Reel," a new program on Channel 2, moderated by Yair Nitzani (Monday, 9 P.M.). Is this satire? Satire is supposed to nip at the heels of the strong and the assertive. There wasn't a trace of this in "News Reel," which dealt in its entirety with displaying the participants' improvisational ability, on the background of a few amiable barbs at the prime minister and concerning former president Moshe Katsav's sexual prowess, and at the Arab contestant on "A Star is Born" (our version of "American Idol"). And I thought that imitating an Arab has long since been deemed tasteless.

The despairing viewer zaps on to the international channels. There, wonder of wonders, seriousness is still a solid value, as on BBC World in Humphrey Hawksley's excellent report "Bitter Sweet" (Tuesday, 7 P.M.), about the route that cocoa takes from the Ivory Coast to the profiteers and merchants in Europe and America, who sell it at the price of gold, with only tiny crumbs of the revenues reaching the wretched farmers and laborers, some of them children, who grow and harvest it. A film like this has no chance of being shown in Israel, because Africa doesn't interest Israelis, even though it should interest then greatly. Hawksley did the elementary thing that is expected of a journalist: He went out into the field and filmed the children working and their infected sores, he met Marc, a black teenager who sums up his miserable life story for him, and he goes to the places where this black gold accumulates until the end of its days. There is now a movement abroad that is demanding that consumers boycott any chocolate that does not have the official Fair Trade symbol on its package, which means that some of the profit that comes from the sale of the chocolate is invested in improving the lives and educational opportunities of the African growers and their children. This is a film that arouses respect, whereas from the news that masquerades as entertainment and from "laffs" and pseudo-satire - not a single school in Africa has ever arisen.