“You see?” TV viewer Benjamin Netanyahu could have been saying, rubbing his hands gleefully while watching Geula Even sob while announcing the death of “Mabat.” “You see? This is how it looks when we have control.”
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“A donkey’s burial,” as Israel Prize-winning newsman Yaakov Ahimeir called it, the final chord in a melancholy song, and it proceeded just like all the rest of the disarray surrounding the new public broadcasting corporation from the moment its patron grew weary of it. Startling and screechy, unnecessary and brutish, this finale buried 49 consecutive years (not counting work stoppages) of the news broadcast: Yes, it had to go, because in recent years its only real achievement was staying on the air. But it didn’t have to be this way. Surely it could have been accomplished with a little less brutality.
But brutality serves the government, of course. It’s also a permanent warning signal to anyone who survived so far and moved to the new public broadcaster. Go do outstanding, relevant journalism when at any given moment you’ll find the government breathing down your neck. Or just spitting at you.
I remember watching the first “Mabat” broadcast in the neighbors’ living room, coming out of that faux-wood Formica box. At our house, my parents had yet to decide if television would corrupt the souls of the youth or not. I was 10 years old. No one thought that I, or other kids my age, had a “right” to watch television. But from that very first night, the streets of our Ashdod neighborhood emptied out as soon as those silly, primitive ding-dong sounds of the clock were heard, and a bluish light emanated from the houses that did have television, which were still a minority. An entire nation connected to a dictated agenda presented by that “sheineh yingeleh,” as my infatuated grandmother called Haim Yavin.
The broadcast’s early years left much to be desired, but we didn’t know that it could be any different, nor did we know that all the prime ministers detested the program while also seeking airtime for themselves. We just thought that the scowling visages of Golda and Rabin and Begin and Shamir were due to the weight of the responsibility and troubles they bore. We didn’t know that one had to learn how to appear on camera in a convincing manner. In his book “The Selling of the Likud,” Alex Ansky described how the clueless Likud leaders were taught that they had to get viewers to like them, and how much Begin (and all his predecessors) hated this.
We’ll never know to what extent political corruption took hold there in those early days. The pressures were always there, but sometimes they were more apparent than usual. You had Benjamin Netanyahu, during his run for the Likud leadership in 1993, toss out on “Mabat” the story of the “hot video,” which to this day has not been corroborated at all. It was possible for a politician to cook up a deal with a news editor (Rafik Halabi) for a journalist (the late Uri Cohen Aharonov) to be handed a page of pre-written questions to ask the interviewee, because that’s what was agreed to, without the journalist knowing of it. At the time, too few knew that this was the case. “Fake news” hadn’t been invented yet.
In 1993, the program’s monolithic status came to an end and the terminal stage began. It was slow and it wasn’t pretty. Channel 2 launched a news broadcast, but it didn’t become the darling of the consensus until the Rabin murder, when it played up the blood, paying (a million shekels, reportedly) for some blurry video of Rabin’s last moments, including the assassination itself.
What once would have stirred controversy became routine television, and has remained so ever since. We expect our news programs to be the hidden camera that will reveal everything from a politician’s sleaziness to abuse of the elderly. Channel 1 never got the hang of working this way, with the kind of fast pace and hunger and innovation that characterized Channel 2 in its first years (before it assumed a cloying formality) and that is still found on Channel 10.
The Rabin murder and Haim Yavin’s retirement plunged “Mabat” into single-digit ratings and general lack of interest from the public. The changes and gimmicks and new faces that were introduced didn’t help. Had Channel 2 not decided to show the tears of Geula Even, who is slated to launch the new broadcast corporation’s news program next week already, the great majority of Israeli television viewers wouldn’t even be aware that this was the end, that it’s all over. Long after the proper time, and in such an ugly way. But one viewer at 6 Balfour Street in Jerusalem was probably chuckling with satisfaction and lighting a cigar.