Media Malfunction

We, the journalists, are responsible for the fact that the helm of the world's most complicated country was placed in the hands of a hollow, corrupt man - Ehud Olmert.

There is nothing left to say about Ehud Olmert. There are no words. On the first anniversary of his election, even the comparison to Richard Nixon has exhausted itself. Tricky Dick was a statesman of stature and a political scoundrel. By contrast, Cynical Udi is both a political scoundrel and a failed statesman. Israel has never had a worse prime minister. Israel has never had a more corrupt prime minister. Israel has never been put at risk by an unworthy leader to the extent to which it is being put at risk by Ehud Olmert.

Thus, on the first anniversary of this catastrophic government, the question is not about Olmert. The question is who catapulted Olmert into power. Who is responsible for the fact that in the 80 days that passed between the traumatic night of prime minister Ariel Sharon's collapse and the grotesque night of Olmert's victory, the truth about the deputy was not exposed? Who is responsible for the fact that during 12 fateful weeks, a thick layer of cotton wool enveloped the rotten fruit of Israeli politics and marketed it to the public like a worthy, glowing etrog, a fruit to be treasured? Who is responsible for the fact that between January 5, 2006, and March 28, 2006, the Israeli public was deceived?

The answer is clear: we, the journalists, are responsible. We are responsible for the fact that Ehud Olmert is now the prime minister of Israel. We are responsible for the fact that the helm of the world's most complicated country was placed in the hands of a hollow, corrupt man. We are indirectly responsible for the fact that the Second Lebanon War erupted as it did, was managed the way it was and exacted the price in human life that it did. In an indirect manner, we are responsible for the fact that Shula Zaken became the queen of the country and that Abraham Hirchson was entrusted with the state treasury. We are responsible for the fact that the current Israeli government is irresponsible, dysfunctional and tainted.

Why is our responsibility, that of the journalists, so preponderant? Because in the run-up to the 2006 elections Ehud Olmert was a very brittle candidate. Support for him was broad but wafer-thin. The fact is that when, on his Web site, investigative journalist Yoav Yitzhak performed the work journalists are supposed to do (he made public Olmert's real estate affairs in February 2006), support for Olmert eroded. In the same way, when Uri Blau did the real journalistic work (he published a comprehensive investigative report about Olmert in this magazine on February 24, 2006), support for Olmert plummeted.

If other journalists - more senior, more influential - had also done what journalists are supposed to do, the Israeli public would already have known during Purim 2006 much of what it knows now, at Pesach 2007. Kadima would have been forced to replace Olmert with Tzipi Livni or Shimon Peres. The Second Lebanon War would not have erupted the way it did and would not have been managed the way it was. The corruption would not have reached the levels it has. Last year would have looked different. Israel would have looked different. We would not be poised on the brink of the abyss.

Ehud Olmert evaded a television debate during the 2006 election campaign. Although the media criticized him for this, it did not press the issue. However, it cannot be said that Olmert avoided TV exposure. In a period of under two months he granted four interviews to three television channels. Given Olmert's vulnerability, each one could have provided the formative moment of the campaign.

In each interview, the leading candidate could have been asked about his past, his integrity and his suitability for the position. However, no such confrontation occurred. Five people interviewed Olmert without asking him the obvious question about his colossal failure as mayor of Jerusalem. Five people interviewed Olmert without asking him trenchantly and in detail about the affairs that have dogged him for 15 years. None of the interviewers exerted true pressure on the candidate. None of them tried to knock him off balance. None of them made a real effort to expose the truth beneath the mask.

Olmert granted the first - and most important - interview to Nissim Mishal on February 7, 2006. Mishal did a reasonable job. He noted that the Labor Party was claiming that Olmert was tainted by corruption. He pressed Olmert about a meeting he had had with the Gavrieli family. He asked critically about the evacuation of the outpost of Amona, about the strengthening of Hamas after the disengagement and about Olmert's lax leadership. However, the tone of the interview was soft and sympathetic. Mishal did not do to Olmert what he did to Ehud Barak in 1995 and to Benjamin Netanyahu in 1999. He allowed his interviewee to escape unscathed from the cordial chat.

Olmert granted the second interview to Ayala Hasson-Nesher on February 21, 2006. She, too, asked about the meeting with Gavrieli and she also inquired - with a smile - whether Olmert had any skeletons in his closet. She even went so far as to refer to the hot news item of the day: the sale of the house on Kaf Tet B'November Street in Jerusalem to Daniel Abrahams. However, the atmosphere of the interview was coquettish and sycophantic. The Channel 1 interviewer pitched Olmert a series of soft balls.

It was Yair Lapid, of all people, who proved to be a surprise. When his father's good friend sat down in the armchair across from his interview desk on March 6, 2006, Lapid Jr. fired six successive questions at him about his personal fortune, the suspicions against him and the antagonism he arouses. However, Lapid has a fixed repertoire. After four or five trenchant minutes, the conversation shifted to Olmert's morning jog, his diet and his wife's gentle nature. What did he want to be when he grew up? Yaron Zahavi, hero of the Hasamba youth books. Who would he take with him to a desert island? Aliza, the missus.

The most disgraceful Olmert interview of the 2006 campaign was conducted by the two beloved stars of Channel 10, London and Kirschenbaum. When they arrived at the deputy prime minister's office, just six days before the elections, Olmert's past affairs had already been published in Haaretz and the affair of the house on Jerusalem's Cremieux Street was already known.

However, these two veteran, experienced and critical journalists did not ask even one tough question. They did not mention the affairs of the past and did not touch on those of the present. The term "corruption" was not mentioned in their sycophantic conversation with the candidate. So much so, in fact, that when Kirschenbaum asked the last question, London remarked that, "Never before has it happened that an interviewer should throw his interviewee a ball like this." However, London himself immediately added that no interviewer in an enlightened country would have chosen to conclude an election-eve interview with a candidate for prime minister: "The athlete seated opposite was also perfectly fine," London told Olmert flatteringly.

Interviewers are not the only ones who can tilt elections. Researchers can, too. And when the leading candidate is a colorful person like Olmert, researchers can dig and dig. Amazingly, though, in the 80 days of the 2006 election campaign, not one biting investigative report about Olmert appeared in Yedioth Ahronoth or Ma'ariv, or on Channels 2, 10 or 1. Five of Israel's six major media outlets were silent. At a critical juncture they lost their offensive capability and their critical curiosity. All of a sudden the most professional of Israel's investigative journalists fell into a coma. The best and the brightest of us lapsed into a numbed daze.

It bears recalling: the investigation into the Bank Leumi affair began in November 2005, and the affair of the Investments Center inside the Ministry of Industry and Trade occurred in 2004-2005. Yet these two dramatic affairs were not brought to the public's attention before the March 2006 elections. While Yoav Yitzhak published the affair of the house on Cremieux Street a month before the elections, the major media outlets dismissed it as no-news. The affair over appointments in the Small Business Authority surfaced at the end of March but was either underplayed or portrayed misleadingly. With the exception of Haaretz and a few columnists in Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's highest-circulation paper (Yigal Sarna, Mordechai Gilat, Moshe Krief and Yonatan Yavin), no media outlet returned to Olmert's fascinating past episodes (the grant to Muzi Wertheim, the land transfer to the Dankner family, aiding the Ofer family, the benefits granted Alfred Akirov, his close relationship with Benny Steinmetz). The investigative media in Israel seemingly decided it had no interest in the goldmine called the life and deeds of Ehud Olmert; that it had no interest in the intersection of capital and government that our pal Ehud embodies.

The op-ed pages of two of the country's major papers were more or less fair. Both Yedioth Ahronoth and Haaretz provided a fine variety of opinions from both Olmert supporters and opponents. The ongoing coverage on the news pages of Haaretz was balanced - a bit less so in Yedioth Ahronoth. Ma'ariv leaned clearly in Olmert's favor, though in a few moments of grace it, too, tried to demonstrate integrity.

It follows that the essence of the Israeli media's failure in the 2006 election campaign lay not in the ongoing work. The essence of the failure lay in the questions that were not asked. No real attempt was made to clarify whether the leading candidate and acting prime minister would make a worthy prime minister. No real attempt was made to examine whether the buddy-buddy prime minister was a corrupt prime minister.

In complete contrast to the case of Richard Nixon, whom the liberal press examined under a magnifying glass, Ehud Olmert was neither examined nor checked. At the decisive moment of his political career, the media covered up for him and rebuffed any effort to seriously clarify what he is made of.

Yoav Yitzhak, Uri Blau, and to a certain extent also Motti Gilat, Yigal Sarna, Moshe Krief, Yonatan Yavin, Amir Oren and Ze'ev Sternhell deserve a collective Sokolov Prize for their behavior during this dark period in the history of the Israeli media. Channel 10's Raviv Drucker also deserves some commendation. However, most of the other senior journalists - each of us separately and all of us together - bear responsibility for the resounding failure of the profession at its moment of truth.

Those who bear most responsibility are Nahum Barnea and Dan Margalit.

Barnea, because he is the most influential journalist in Israel and has, in the past, made the lives of most prime ministers miserable, but this time around he became a poodle. When he interviewed Olmert (on March 10, 2006, together with Shimon Shiffer, another leading journalist from Yedioth Ahronoth) in an interview of strategic importance, he did not ask what he was duty-bound to ask and instead behaved almost like a pal. And also because in his weekly column he led the charge to undermine the state comptroller and to revoke the demand for moral integrity. In addition, he assured his readers that "Olmert is imbued with the experience and the self-confidence a leader requires."

Margalit, a columnist for Ma'ariv, bears responsibility because he did not deal honestly with Olmert's affairs. The multi-channel journalist, who in recent years has conducted a crusade against corruption in Israel, failed at the critical moment when the question of his good friend's being corrupt appeared on the horizon. "My friend of 35 years, Olmert, is not corrupt," he promised his readers. "It is good that Olmert is not corrupt and did not line his pockets," he reiterated in print. "I know him and I know that he is intelligent, connected to reality and sensitive - and is at a stage of his life in which the accumulated experience and his good health have ripened to place him at the top of the pyramid."

Nahum Barnea continues to defend Tricky Ehud even now, which is a pity. It would have been more deserving for the most impressive career in the contemporary Hebrew press to conclude on a more impressive note.

Dan Margalit is demonstrating greater courage and is trying to atone for his failure by means of incessant attacks on his former friend. For this he deserves congratulations. At the end of the day, the decent journalist in him triumphed. However, the rest of Israel's senior journalists still owe their readers explanations for how they failed, where they tripped up, and why they betrayed their mission at the critical moment.

I, too, owe an explanation. In February-March 2006, I published a number of pieces on the Haaretz op-ed page in which I attacked Kadima, its path and its leader. In the election-eve edition of Haaretz I published a piece in which I take special pride, about Israel being taken over by the country's wealthy families through Olmert's corporate party. However, looking back, it is clear to me that I did not do enough. I did not overturn every rock. I did not throw every stone. I saw disaster approaching and did not do all I could have done to prevent it.

I am hereby reporting my relative failure to my readers. I hope my colleagues will also report their failures to their readers. If there is a press in Israel, it must draw the lessons of its grave failure in the election campaign that brought Ehud Olmert into power. If there is a press in Israel, it must, as befits Pesach, engage in biur hametz - removing the impure - and thereby ensure that the shame of March 28, 2006, will not recur.