Shielded From the Truth

Israel's daily newspapers and television networks do not meet their obligation toward their readers and viewers

"Me'akhorei Homat Magen" ("Behind Defensive Shield") by Daniel Dor, Babel Publishers and Keshev - The Center for the Protection of Democracy in Israel, 94 pages, NIS 58

Anyone who thinks that the press influences public opinion is invited to leaf through the pages of last month's newspapers. If the press really had an influence, the media reports of alleged corruption in the Likud should have caused the party's percentage points to crash in the public opinion polls. After all, Israel is a democracy that has great respect for law and order. In the meantime, however, the Likud is far from smashing to smithereens and is still leading in the polls, well ahead of the other parties. There are two possible explanations: (a) Despite the rumors, the press really has no influence on public opinion; and (b) Corruption is a phenomenon that people can easily live with.

Judging from his book, "Behind Defensive Shield," one might have assumed that Daniel Dor would have chosen the second option: In the society he describes, corruption is almost a self-understood phenomenon. Israeli society, or at least its collective awareness, he writes, is "despondent, frightened, confused, vindictive, dissatisfied, sarcastic and totally convinced that its behavior is just."

In the eyes of outside observers, notes Dor, this unhappy society seems to be "slipping deeper and deeper into the abyss of blind, angry chauvinism, [becoming] a society that is unified by feelings of humiliation and unjust treatment and which is no longer able to hear other views and to examine itself and its actions in an objective, responsible manner." It is thus not surprising that corruption in such a society should be perceived as the mildest of crimes, and as nothing more than merely a form of understanding that is not accompanied by any moral blemishes whatsoever.

How does Dor know that this is the nature of Israeli society? Between March 29 and April 26, 2002 [during which the Israel Defense Forces reacted to a series of terror attacks by launching Operation Defensive Shield, entering Jenin and other cities in the territories with the goal of dismantling the terrorist infrastructure developed by the Palestinian Authority] - he read the reports in Yedioth Ahronoth, Ma'ariv and Ha'aretz, and watched the newscasts on Israel Television's two channels daily. He also held conversations with journalists and newspaper editors. Dor is a scholar specializing in the fields of communications and linguistics, who teaches in Tel Aviv University's departments of communications and English.

In his excellent book, "Newspapers under the Influence" (published in Hebrew by Babel Publishers in 2001), Dor proved that, in its reporting of the events of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, the Israeli press betrayed its moral and professional missions. In "Behind Defensive Shield," he seeks to prove that the local press has not changed very much since the publication of his previous book.

According to Dor, the Israeli press is the "eyes of the entire country." The Israeli public stands at the very edge of the dark, threatening abyss, bending to look down into its depths and waiting for the journalists to descend into the fearful darkness and to report back from there. However, the journalists fooled the public. They did not descend into the abyss and they concealed from the public the fact that their reports were actually dictated to them by the government and the military.

"We did not see the millions of Palestinians who were placed under curfew, who were unable to go to work or to school, and who found themselves in the middle of a humanitarian disaster," writes Dor, who assigns the Israeli media a central role in this blindfolding process: The Israeli press rarely reports what is really happening in the territories. Military commentators and correspondents, he notes, rely exclusively on Israeli sources and stick by the official position that "we have nothing to do with all this."

The reports and commentaries that question this official position are pushed to the back pages. Israelis are all locked in one, big hug of national unity - an embrace whose underlying basic message is the following: "Israel's only goal is to wage war on terrorism and this is a war that has been forced upon Israel by the Palestinians."

Ratings and ideologies

Why, we must ask, does a free press act in such a manner? Over the past few years, it has been customary to think that the answer can be boiled down to "because of the ratings." Alongside the ratings, or perhaps instead of them, Dor points to "ideology" in all its splendor. Yedioth, he tells us, positions itself to the left of center, politically speaking, while Ma'ariv situates itself to the right of center. ("Ideology? Is he talking about us?" the journalists at the news desks of Ma'ariv and Yedioth chuckle to themselves).

Says Dor: "All forms of mass media conduct themselves in accordance with a fundamental ideological `commandment' ... They refrain from filing any reports that could hint that, in addition to being dragged into this operation by Palestinian terror, Israel is, throughout this operation, maintaining its own independent agenda and is perhaps even carrying out certain actions that are deliberately unjustified or immoral."

In Dor's view, only slight nuances can be discerned on the united front presented by the journalists he studied. In order to graphically represent these nuances, he offers them to us in personified fashion: Thus, Ma'ariv is a "saber-rattler," Yedioth Ahronoth "has lost all hope," and Ha'aretz is "utterly confused."

According to Dor, Ma'ariv is a "morally engaged" newspaper that has recruited its forces to serve the nation. Its headlines are gung-ho and its commentaries are dripping with self-righteousness. From Ma'ariv's perspective, the Palestinians simply do not exist. Yedioth does not allow Ma'ariv's headlines to dominate "the street." After all, it was Yedioth that invented the rules of the game in the first place. However, its headlines, despite the large red letters, lack Ma'ariv's power and fervor. Yedioth does not broadcast what Dor describes as "Ma'ariv's enraged war enthusiasm." For instance, Yedioth's "Stronger, faster, sharper" is a far cry from the celebratory charm of Ma'ariv's biblically inspired headline [recalling God's freeing of the Israelite slaves from Egypt]: "With a strong hand and an outstretched arm."

As Dor sees things, Yedioth Ahronoth is more skeptical than Ma'ariv, but does hide its more daring reports among the pages of its supplements. The commentaries in Yedioth are sometimes highly critical and piercingly incisive but, like the commentaries of columnist Nahum Barnea, are "buried" in the articles of its regular columnists.

In Dor's opinion, Ha'aretz is now trying to be "less leftist and more patriotic," and this shift in position has led it to broadcast a message that is "primarily confusion." In the columns appearing in Ha'aretz, he writes, skeptical and critical statements are made about the military operation but, nonetheless, the newspaper also expresses cautious support for it. Although Ha'aretz publishes comprehensive, in-depth reports on the situation of the Palestinians, it places them at arm's length, relegating them to the back pages - just as Yedioth Ahronoth does. Dor considers the change that has taken place at Ha'aretz to be the expression of the "dramatic shift in awareness that was undergone by the `confused leftist camp' at the start of the intifada."

Despite the importance he attaches to the precise place assigned to the reports, he ignores, in my opinion, the three newspapers' commitment to the genre to which they belong. Ma'ariv and Yedioth belong to the category of "yellow journalism." They are tabloids that have actually invented the restrained tabloid version best suited to the mood of their respective readerships. Their news sections, which fit the definition of "yellow journalism," are stridently patriotic and tend to somewhat overshadow illuminating commentaries and sober-minded reporting.

It is difficult to accept the conclusion that the skeptical distinctions made by a columnist like Nahum Barnea in Yedioth Ahronoth are actually "buried" deep inside the newspaper's back pages. In fact, I believe that even those readers who enjoy the nationalistic flavor of Yedioth's headlines will not readily pass up the opportunity of reading Barnea's column. Even Ha'aretz readers, in my estimation, pay greater attention to the content and message of the newspaper's articles than to the specific page where they have been placed.

`National solidarity'

In the world of television, on the other hand, the place assigned to a given report is less important, although, in this medium as well, correspondent reports "from the field" on the situation of the Palestinians are pushed to the "back pages" of the newscast, not far from the weather report. The "line" adopted by the editors of TV news programs is decisive and aggressive, and the programs they present broadcast, in Dor's view, a "formal, restrained, almost festive patriotism ... they create a sense of national solidarity and nurture broad support for the IDF and its soldiers."

The evening news programs of Israel Television's Channel One and Channel Two rely fully and exclusively on sources inside Israel's defense establishment. Unlike Yedioth Ahronoth, the newscasts contain no journalistic exposes; unlike Ha'aretz, they offer very few reports on the situation of the Palestinians. Israeli television provides the top brass with an exclusive platform that is not disrupted by any expressions of journalistic skepticism. Quite the contrary: The military commentators and the experts on Arab affairs spend all their time sweeping difficult questions off this platform and "never attempt to penetrate the cloak of official rhetoric" and verify whether things really look the way they sound.

Dor does not discuss here the issue of IDF terminology. "Creative" phrases were floated at the Defense Ministry's Kirya (headquarters) in Tel Aviv, and the military correspondents instantly absorbed and swallowed them without a second thought. I am referring here to phrases ranging from the tried-and-true "closure" to the popular "targeted elimination" (i.e., assassination) and the almost-poetic "shaving-off" (of vegetation that provides cover for Palestinian terrorists).

Neither of Israel Television's two channels is perturbed by the fact that it is not permitted to report from the scene of an event. The two channels want the kind of journalism that you find in America - that is, post-9/11 America. Channel One, writes Dor, differs in one respect from its rival and sometimes supplies "reporting that is more balanced and more critical" than what is offered by Channel Two, which, in Dor's eyes, gives the impression that it "has, to a large extent, lost its instinct for criticism."

Dor positions Yedioth Ahronoth, Ma'ariv and Channel Two on one side of the consensus and positions the state-controlled channel, Channel One, which is the exclusive province of Israel Broadcasting Authority director-general Yosef Barel ("Who am I to tell the prime minister what to do?"), together with Ha'aretz, on the other end of the "consensus measuring rod." None of these media players, of course, would dare to deviate even one millimeter from that measuring rod.

"Behind Defensive Shield," which is thin and lacks an index, is an important book. In a clear, exhaustive manner, Dor has published a study that has examined texts, but this is not a research report that has examined whether those texts faithfully reflect reality. The many examples he offers reinforce the basic premise that Israel's newspapers and television channels do not meet their obligation toward their readers and viewers.

Explaining the failure

Do we have a conspiracy on our hands? Dor asks and suggests a possible psychological explanation: "What we have here is the natural behavior ... of a tired, frustrated collective awareness that constantly finds itself on the defensive, an awareness that divests itself, almost automatically, of those reality components that contain a potential cargo of guilt."

Thus, Dor offers a dash of psychology and a dash of ideology to serve as the explanation for the failure of the Israeli press. I suggest that we should add certain characteristics that Israeli society has steadfastly nurtured for decades: sloppiness, indolence, and a basic lack of professionalism. The Israeli press is not the mirror of Israeli society, but is rather an integral part of that society. What sets journalists, like plumbers and physicians, apart from people with other occupations is a specific set of professional skills. Without such skills, journalists, like all other groups lacking unique professional qualifications, become just one more grouping in the local community of shoddy non-professionals.

A report that is truly newsworthy is neither "buried" among the pages of the supplement nor "pushed inside" into the newspaper's back pages because of any decision made by a Supreme Council of Journalistic Elders. The atmosphere of the editorial rooms of newspapers is usually that of total, absent-minded anarchy. A newsworthy report might be assigned such a nonprominent position - not because of ideology but rather because of narrow-mindedness, jealousy, fatigue, power struggles or simply forgetfulness. The supplement's editor, for example, may have decided that the newsworthy item contained in one of the articles should not appear before the weekend (in any case, the supplement editor and the news desk chief have not been on speaking terms for years). Instead, the supplement editor will decide, "I am going to keep this item under wraps for a while."

Then, lo and behold, a terrorist attack suddenly grabs the entire front page and this important, interesting item is pushed aside and buried under tons of print in the back pages of the supplement, remaining half-hidden in shadow until Daniel Dor comes along and wonders why that item has been given such little prominence.

According to the definition offered by Israeli media experts Dan Caspi and Yehiel Limor, the various forms of mass media serve as mediators: They stand at the mid-point between a state's regime and its public. Any excessive deviation in the direction of one of these two poles could undermine their functioning. Prior to the 1980s, Israel's media positioned itself too close to the regime: It drank tea with the regime at exclusive conferences, was provided by the regime with important information and agreed, in return, not to publicize that information. The entry of financiers pulverized the ideological press and weakened the overly close ties it had with the regime (the financiers brought along with them other ills, two of which were crime and crude populism).

For a relatively short period of time, Israel had a press that could truly be described as free. Free, at least, from the limitations stemming from a connection with the regime.

According to "Behind Defensive Shield," the connections between the regime and the media are being rebuilt. This time around, however, the regime is keeping vital information to itself and is flooding the media with information that is actually disinformation, if not misinformation. This is not the tale of a brutal rape; it is, instead, a love story. The regime passes merchandise on to the media, which places the merchandise in fancy wrappers and then sells it to the consumers. For their part, the consumers are not blind to the fact that the connections between their mediator and the regime are steadily tightening. However, the consumers prefer to walk around with a blindfold over their eyes.

Media consumers are actually delighted to forgo the basic instinct that the media experts attribute to them: the desire to "be there," to be "part of the event," to "belong." These desires are appropriate for Olympic competitions and for state funerals, but not for problematic wars.

Is it really so good, so comfortable, to be behind a defensive shield? Granted, the shield does conceal what is precisely going on "over there," but it cannot remove responsibility from the shoulders of both those who refuse to be seen and those who refuse to see.