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Israel's Faction of Fact-checkers Misses the Point

Carolina Landsmann
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Israeli PM Netanyahu being filmed live on Instagram, last year.
Israeli PM Netanyahu being filmed live on Instagram, last year.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Carolina Landsmann

The profound contempt showered on Channel 12 news anchor Yonit Levi by the “Just not Bibi” camp following her interview with Benjamin Netanyahu is motivated only by political, rather than professional judgment.

The contempt stems from the expectation that a journalist, “one of ours” – not one from right-wing outlets like Channel 20 or Israel Hayom – should have ensnared Netanyahu in her professional web, instead of falling for his charm.

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The interview was also a trigger for some in the audience, evoking the Benny Gantz trauma, and the shame they felt when the one they voted for to defeat Netanyahu surrendered and subjugated himself to him. Levi is now the “Just not Bibi” camp’s scapegoat, and all of its frustration with its own political impotence is directed at her.

As far as these people are concerned, Levi had been sent to wage a political battle. It was not an interview. They see the duel as one between the truth and falsehood. And falsehood won. Levi let falsehood beat the truth. And what is the truth? The facts.

This perspective has a few problems. First, this expectation of Levi to represent the truth – that is, them – in the face of Netanyahu’s lies, shows that they think of Channel 12 as their political home channel (where right-wingers Amit Segal and Boaz Bismuth are merely visitors).

Netanyahu says it bluntly: “Channel 12 has become the left’s propaganda arm.”

But doesn’t the expectation that Levi defeat Netanyahu, and not, heaven forbid, giggle with him as though he were one of ours, prove what Netanyahu says a little?

Second, if the truth equals the facts, then the bottom line of what journalism is required to do is fact-checking. Indeed that’s what the media hastened to do. Channel 12’s “truth meter” found four erroneous statements made by Netayahu; Haaretz found eight lies; TheMarker’s fact-check found 21 lies and “countless spins.”

Perceiving the truth as facts assumes that searching for truth is a technical matter. So some suggest using technology. Haaretz reader Yitzhak Kaufman, for example, sent a letter to the editor saying “fact checking loses its effectiveness when it comes several hours after the statements." He suggests using “advanced online search tools and data banks.”

If we continue with this line of thought we may conclude that a computer could be the ultimate interviewer, and be tempted to believe that a perfect interview is one in which the politicians are asked questions while the computer cross-checks their answers with the “facts,” and beeps every time a discrepancy is found.

Yonit Levi interviews Netanyahu for Channel 12 News, this week.

This of course is an illusion. Apart from dates and hours and very specific indices, such an interview will not provide a true picture of the goings-on or of the interviewee. It would be suitable perhaps for a short amusing daily show, but that’s no substitute for a real conversation. A real conversation isn’t the sum of all the facts raised in its course.

In fact, it seems that this kind of erroneous thought is exactly what caused Levi’s failure from the outset of the interview. She set out determined to “catch” Netanyahu on facts and ended up quibbling with him on dates and trivialities and missing the opportunity to have a real conversation with him. Even for just five minutes, but a genuine conversation. Asking him what interests her, confronting him over what bothers her. Listening to his answers instead of using the time he replies to prepare for the next question. Lowering the earphones and even pushing away the papers in front of her, and talking, instead of reading questions. Levi should have asked, what’s your story, Bibi – not what are your facts.

The problem is – and this is the real tragedy of Levi’s and of the camp that sent her to the fact-battle – that in order to have a conversation, not just to harass, you need to have a story. If so Yonit and friends, what’s your story?

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