The Journalistic Limitations of the iPhone

Consumers of media need creators of news, not collectors, parasites and recyclers; they need hunters rather than gatherers.

The scene: the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court. The first five rows are crowded with the close associates of the man on trial, MK Avigdor Lieberman, his aides, and reporters. In the front row sits one of Lieberman’s two spokesmen; behind, a reporter from one of the news websites.

Lieberman stands and testifies, the reporter reports, and the spokesman reads the accumulating reports on her site. Suddenly, his eye catches a phrase that makes him angry. He turns around, whispers something, trying to be persuasive. She agrees and sends a slight correction to the site, all within minutes, while Lieberman continues to testify, oblivious to what is happening in the spectators’ benches. When he chooses to illustrate his point − that even the best can make a mistake sometimes − by mentioning the soccer player Leo Messi, the example is not only reported in real time, it is also linked to videos showing Messi’s worst flubs, all before Lieberman has sat back down.

That is one aspect of the new journalism that should rightly be called iPhone-ism: immediacy, the development of the story as it unfolds, the interrelationship between the media report and the event being reported.

At the end of World War II, more than two days were needed to fly the newsreel of the Japanese surrender to Gen. Douglas MacArthur at Tokyo Bay to movie theaters in California. That was as fast as could be. Only 50 years ago, Telstar satellites began broadcasting events from one end of the world to the other as they were happening. And now, the smartphone allows a journalist to speak to a source, type the report to the editor at the same time and on the same phone, and to see − on that same phone − the report go up on the site and let the source know about it. Everything during one conversation. But if it’s so simple to be an “iPhoneist,” what is the added value of the journalist?

An unsupervised tattletale is just a rumor mill. In order to confirm raw information, get another source to talk, obtain a response, inoculate the story against a libel suit or criminal offense ‏(against censorship, for example‏), an editorial network is needed, with regulations, accumulated experience and legal counsel.

Consumers of media need creators of news, not collectors, parasites and recyclers; they need hunters rather than gatherers. Not all the news is within reach of one’s outstretched hand, waiting to be sent onward. Some news never comes into the world unless birthed by active journalism.

Examples from recent weeks include the anonymous prisoners incarcerated in Israel, and Jacob Frenkel and the Hong Kong duty-free affair. The prisoners story was uncovered only thanks to insistent demands, to a judge, to lift the gag order on the circumstances of the death of alleged Mossad agent Ben Zygier.

In April, a newspaper and two TV channels were busy working on it; in May, the TV channels lost interest. A representative of the State Prosecutor’s Office celebrated the partial indifference. “They are not here,” she told the judge. “It is the right of Haaretz to fight to the end and demand the revelation, but by the very absence of the other media here, it may be assumed that public interest no longer exists to publish further details of this affair.” The judge was not impressed. Her ruling reflected the victory of the position of Haaretz’s attorney, Tal Lieblich, who said: “The argument of the television channels’ absence should not have been presented.”

Without a newspaper assisted by a law firm, the material − from which the existence of a second security prisoner hidden away in jail was fished out − would not have been turned over, through gritted teeth ‏(an action that was later regretted‏). And the anonymous prisoner would have remained behind the walls of ambiguity.

The Turkel Committee on senior civil service appointments deemed worthy of scrutiny the journalistic query as to whether Frenkel had reported his Hong Kong imbroglio to the committee. If it had not, the Frenkel affair would not have surfaced; Frenkel’s appointment would have been approved without his having to face questions about his behavior in the airport, and in committee meetings in Jerusalem.

That is not to disparage the iPhone coverage of an event and reporting on it. If only there have been one at the doorway of the Hong Kong airport store when the security man intercepted Frenkel. Let it be known: one may phone a reporter at any hour of the day or night, no matter the time difference.