Opinion |

For Populists Like Trump, Netanyahu and Berlusconi, TV Garbage Is Golden

New research on the direct link between the dumbing down of TV and support for populist candidates in Italy is applicable to Israel and the U.S. as well

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

A trip down memory lane in the Tel Aviv University website devoted to “Historical Jewish Press” can be painful, especially for journalists. The July 6 1979 edition of the daily Maariv, for example, contains a hefty 167 pages, replete with large display ads, reams of classifieds and entertainment notices, interspersed between sheets of detailed and lengthy dissections of current events. After years of ad-guzzling commercial television, Facebook and Google, today’s Maariv, like most Israeli newspapers, is but a hull of its former self.

The weekly television guide in those days of one-channel Israel was short and arguably sweet. It included educational programs for a younger audience, which were broadcast exclusively throughout the day, In the evening hours, known today as “prime time”, the main fare of the state-owned Channel 1 included nature programs, high-end British drama series, sophisticated French movies, original programs dealing with current events and the flagship evening newscast.

Former Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi, right, sings with showman Mariano Apicella during a party in Sardinia. The video was shown by Italian Mediaset television's Canale 5 on Monday, September 22, 2003.Credit: AP

It was elitist and monopolistic and, for critics, tedious in a Bolshevik kind of way, but in comparison with the current era, in which Israeli prime time is inundated and dominated by programs such as “Survivor VIP”, “The Voice” and “Master Chef”, the old and much-maligned Channel 1 seems like Oxford University.

But the yearning for weightier content or the lament over the constant dumbing down of TV fare aren’t simple nostalgia. A new study published by the prestigious American Economic Review and cited by The Atlantic this week proves that television broadcasts heavy on light entertainment and reality shows have a direct influence on voting preferences, increasing support for populist parties and candidates.

The research, carried out in Italy, provides scientific proof of a direct link between viewership of Silvio Berlusconi’s entertainment TV network Mediaset and support for him and his Forza Italia party in successive Italian elections. Moreover, with the disintegration over a decade ago of Forza Italia, Mediaset TV addicts switched their support to the Five Stars Movement, an Italian party far removed from Berlusconi’s ideology that nonetheless emulates his short, catchy and populist slogans. Shallow television, the research finds, doesn’t nudge voters to the right necessarily but to charismatic leaders and political parties that successfully frame their positions in succinct slogans that don’t require examination, criticism or an ability to discern fact from fiction.

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The research found that the two age groups most susceptible to Mediaset’s formula of simplistic escapism, which often include more than a wink or nod to soft-core pornography, were the older and the younger.

Italians over 55 who watched Mediaset regularly were mainly influenced by the network’s news broadcasts, which were heavily tilted in Berlusconi’s favor. The findings confirmed parallel research in the U.S. that mapped the influence of Fox News on its addicts.

The more distressing finding, with consequences that extend above and beyond politics, concerns Mediaset’s influence over younger Italian viewers. According to the study, those who consistently watched Mediaset throughout childhood and adolescence were found to have inferior cognitive skills in comparison to their peers. Exposure to entertainment television made them  “cognitively and culturally shallower, and ultimately more vulnerable to populist rhetoric,” the report states.

The Israeli analogy (as well as the American) is inescapable. Benjamin Netanyahu was first elected prime minister three years after Channel 1’s monopoly ended and the privately owned commercial Channel 2 was formed. Netanyahu’s dominance of the Israeli political scene over the past decade, including four straight electoral victories and the possibility - or rather probability - of a fifth on September 17 has unfolded in tandem with the complete takeover by entertainment/reality shows of prime time TV and the hearts and minds of many Israelis. Netanyahu, like Berlusconi and Donald Trump, is a master of short, catchy and truth-be-damned slogans.

A “hostile media”? Hardly. That’s just one of Netanyahu’s staple, fact-defying catchphrases. In reality, the media, and especially television, is Netanyahu’s best friend. Without it, he may have been gone from the political scene long ago. Garbage, as far as he’s concerned, is golden.