Mad as Hell

To a large extent the cost-of-living demonstrations eerily recall the celebrated 1976 movie 'Network.'

The unhealthy symbiosis between the tent city social protest and the media was captured in two vignettes: The first was a poster highlighted by Ynet bracketing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Hosni Mubarak and Bashar Assad, the second a call by demonstration leaders for publicly televised negotiations between themselves and the prime minister. First the media gleefully provide demonstrators with an amplification system for odious comparisons, and then the demonstrators reciprocate by offering the media a surefire ratings bonanza. These vignettes attested to both the blatant double standard displayed by the coverage toward leaders from the right and a total blurring between factual reporting and docudrama. It is hard to decide which of the two is more corrosive to fostering an informed public and rational discourse.

I hold no brief for Netanyahu, who contributed to the housing crisis by freezing construction in Judea and Samaria last year. However, since our journalists are capable of producing evidence of right-wing incitement from the most obscure sources, one could expect them to exhibit similar alarm when the incitement against an incumbent prime minister emanates from the left. Instead, Dan Shilon, in Maariv, took up the cry by calling the tent city in Tel Aviv Netanyahu’s “Tahrir Square.”

Now the left fantasizes about Netanyahu being brought to justice a la Mubarak or Assad, although everyone can easily surmise the fate that awaits these Arab worthies if the Egyptian and Syrian demonstrators are to have their way. Mubarak has already been whisked from a hospital bed to an iron cage; under the best circumstances, he will finish his days in prison. The same Israeli liberals who fawned over the rais while he was still powerful are now congratulating local demonstrators for seeking to impose the same fate on Netanyahu. Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini thankfully salvaged the left’s honor by stating plainly that Israel is neither Syria nor Egypt.

One can disagree with Netanyahu’s policies, but in what way has he qualified to be in the unique company of the reviled Arab leaders? Has he plundered the state’s assets and distributed billions to his family and cronies? Has he employed a mukhabarat or elite army units to suppress the demonstrators, who are after all being treated far more gently than those who employed similar tactics to block the expulsion of Jews from Gaza?

Yes, we know that the left is innately nonviolent and therefore demonstrations led and financed by the left to overthrow the government are ipso facto incitement-free. Given the organizers’ claim that the nationwide demonstrations transcend political boundaries, they should have taken precautionary measures against incitement lest a naturally savage right-wing participant get the wrong idea.

To a large extent the demonstrations eerily recall the celebrated 1976 movie “Network.” In it, Peter Finch plays the declining news anchorman Howard Beale, who, in what was meant to be a farewell appearance, resuscitates his career by exhorting the American public to throw open their windows and scream, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

Faye Dunaway plays network programming director Diana Christensen, who cuts a deal with the terrorist Ecumenical Liberation Army to star in the “Mao Tse Tung Hour” docudrama, in which the group will perform atrocities on air. Christensen temporarily hitches her wagon to the Beale meteor, which increasingly dispenses with news and assumes the role of pure entertainment, as the studio audience of the newly minted “Howard Beale Show” takes up the “We’re as mad as hell” chant.

Both the Beale and Christensen characters have resurfaced in the current protest, with the demonstrators channeling Beale’s inchoate anger, and certain elements in the media echoing Christensen’s willingness to sensationalize the demonstrations for ratings.

As Edmund Burke taught us, although political systems can address specific demands and process them into policy, they have a much harder time responding to people who are mad as hell. The media have enjoyed and fanned the heady intoxication with the amorphous anti-system, and of course anti-Netanyahu, anger as long as it avoided specifics. That’s when the hard choices begin, even on ostensibly consensus issues.

The protesters want cheaper housing, which means both increasing the supply of housing and making cheaper housing in the periphery more accessible to work centers via mass transit. Both measures are likely to meet with opposition by environmentalists. In a perfect world, environmental concerns and cheap housing would not conflict, but in reality they do, and trade-offs must be made. But such nuanced issues confuse the viewer, and cannot compete with the telegenic spectacle of unfocused anger.

For the media, the tents on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard have been a ratings bonanza in the dog days of summer, neatly filling the slot between the now-forgotten flotilla that flopped and September’s Palestine Statehood Festival at Turtle Bay. It is not certain whether the media and some of the “embedded reporters” are covering or promoting the story simply to boost ratings or whether they are also trying to advance a political agenda. Thus we have been regaled with headlines such as “The mother of all demonstrations” ‏(whatever happened to the fabled 400,000 after Sabra and Chatila, or the “orange” protesters at Kfar Maimon?‏). In other words, they were telling us be part of the blockbuster event, and since every series has to build to a season finale, the suggestion that Netanyahu in person sit down to a televised encounter with the demonstrators made excellent sense.

One of the lessons drawn from the News of the World hacking scandal is that excessive intimacy between politicians and the media, and manus manum lavat ‏(one hand washing the other‏) relations, corrupt both sides. This lesson applies equally to media relations with politicians, tycoons − and even tent-city protesters.

Dr. Amiel Ungar, a political scientist, is a regular contributor to Haaretz English Edition.