There was a great deal of shock expressed these past few days over the election billboard that went up in Tel Aviv featuring pictures of four leading journalists under the caption, “They won’t decide.”
The Likud poster features photos of Channel 13’s Raviv Drucker, Guy Peleg and Amnon Abramovitch of the Israel News Company and Maariv’s Ben Caspit. All four have reported widely on the corruption allegations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Many commentators argued the billboard constitutes incitement and that it puts the journalists at risk. But while Netanyahu is indeed conducting a rather ugly battle for survival, he has unintentionally given the Israeli mainstream media a boost.
One of the well-known theories regarding the interface between democracy and journalism is the theory of the public sphere. This approach, developed by Jurgen Habermas, holds that a democracy must have a public sphere in which there is public debate that is free and accessible to all. Without such a space there can be no way for the public to form opinions, and without public opinion there is no significance to the will of the majority. In modern times, this public debate is facilitated by the media, which is why they are so crucial to democracy.
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But applying this theory poses two main problems. First of all, the public sphere isn’t really free and accessible to all. As journalist A.J. Liebling famously wrote, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” The mainstream media are controlled by interested parties with power, money and political influence. They can control the debate and distort it, resulting in tendentious reporting.
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The second problem becoming increasingly serious in our times is that there is no public sphere common to all. In the internet era there are an infinite number of “mini-spheres,” whose members echo messages the others in their group want to hear, and ignore information or analysis they don’t agree with. Here, too, those with the time and technical expertise can manipulate the debate to falsify reality.
These two failures in the model of the public sphere are particularly grievous in Israel, a polarized society where tribalism reigns on the one hand, while on the other the large media companies are controlled by tycoons with money to burn (since these companies often generate huge losses) for the sake of holding onto these power centers and influence the public and the decision makers.
Both these developments have led to a slow but deadly undermining of the public confidence in the mainstream media, like the ones represented by the journalists on the Likud billboard. Much of the public feels it can get information from alternative and supposedly more reliable sources. The web is full of blogs, websites and Facebook pages where certain commentators, some using false identities, have followings of hundreds of thousands of people.
This situation isn’t so good for Netanyahu. When the debate is dispersed, a politician can’t control the agenda and deliver the messages he wants. It also undermines his years-long political strategy. He always needs a demon, an enemy, to fight against and “the media” was always a favorite.
Netanyahu understands that his end is nigh. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit is reportedly going to charge him in what’s been dubbed Case 4000, the Bezeq-Walla case of alleged bribery. But though the billboard was probably a desperate move, it gave the mainstream media a lifeline. According to Netanyahu, then, journalists like Drucker, Peleg, Abramovitch and Caspit are the ones who formulate the debate in the public sphere that’s so important to democracy. Netanyahu strengthened the feeling that it is the mainstream media that determines the public agenda, and that one must take the information they present seriously. He has restored the mainstream media to its former glory.
But this won’t be enough to save the mainstream media. To really clean the stables and restore public confidence in journalism, law enforcement has a unique opportunity to uproot the ills that have infected the Israeli media – again, because of Netanyahu. Case 4000 could expose the alleged bribery between Netanyahu and Bezeq/Walla owner Shaul Elovitch, who held the Walla website for a few years. But that’s not enough.
For this purpose it’s Case 2000 – in which Netanyahu allegedly offered to rein in Israel Hayom’s potential circulation in return for favorable coverage in Yedioth Ahronoth – that’s more important. Much of the public’s loss of faith in the media is the result of Arnon Mozes’ decades-long hold on the Yedioth group and, through its long reach, over many other media outlets as well. Case 2000 must be fully investigated to reveal all the facts, otherwise even Netanyahu won’t be able to help Israeli journalism.