The Death Throes of Journalism

A state that found a way to save banks and kibbutzim and moshavim must now find a way to save the press. What is at stake is not any particular media outlet or journalist, but the future of our free society.

Once there was a profession known as journalism. Its practitioners never enjoyed great prestige. They were always viewed as snoops who disturbed the rest of the wealthy and cast a shadow over the joy of those in power. They were seen as noisy sensation-seekers who tended to foment strife. But free societies understood that to maintain themselves, they needed members of this subversive profession.

Even though they never treated journalists as they did judges or members of parliament, free societies understood that they, too, were essential agents of the democratic process. The freedom of newspaper writers and radio and television broadcasters had to be preserved, because they were entrusted with the free flow of information and ideas. Every sensible person understood that freedom of the press is annoying, but also necessary to prevent tyranny. Every person in power understood that the journalist fills a role that a liberal society must to some degree treat as holy.

Two main forces enabled journalists to do satisfactory work: private media and public broadcasting. The private media were capable of sustaining journalists because they themselves were sustained by payments collected from consumers and advertisers. Public broadcasting enabled the journalist to function because it created a certain buffer between those in government and those covering and criticizing the government, even though the latter were funded by the government. The free market in the first case and enlightened government in the second created a reasonable economic environment for suitable and professional journalistic work.

But in the 21st century, both forces collapsed. Because the business model of the private media collapsed (due to the Internet, a decline in advertising, and changes in reading and viewing habits ), capitalism can no longer finance journalism worthy of the name. Because unenlightened politics have once again gained control of the country, the buffer that existed between the government and those who cover and criticize it is disappearing. The economic environment that allowed a free press to exist in the past is dying.

The result of these two processes is simple: Journalists with self-respect, professional ethics and civic integrity are disappearing. Journalists with a spine are becoming an extinct breed. Granted, many people still work for organizations that are called media organizations, and there are still words in the papers and pictures on the television and scraps of information on the Internet news sites. But most media organs are weak or castrated, or have sold out. Most of their employees are battered workers.

You can't make a living in journalism; there is no job security and no future. Professional pride has been destroyed. Under these conditions, the chances of maintaining decency and quality over time are slim. The chances that journalism of stature will still exist here in another decade are almost nonexistent. The journalist who has walked among us for so many years will not walk among us in the future. He is already dying.

It's not hard to imagine what would happen if a newsroom received word that judges or members of parliament were dying out. It's clear to everyone that without an independent justice system and without a freely elected parliament, there is no democracy. But the gradual, humiliating death of the journalist is still viewed with equanimity here. The degeneration of most media outlets is seen as an almost natural process. The government is happy, the tycoons are content and the public is apathetic. A free society is being disconnected from the oxygen tank that kept it alive without understanding the implications of this disconnection.

It's clear that this week, we must make a supreme effort to save Channel 10 television. But the problem of Channel 10 is just the tip of the iceberg. Every media outlet in Israel today is in danger of destruction. All the independent, quality journalists are liable to disappear.

Only vigorous, sweeping action can save the Israeli media. Only elected officials with values and tycoons with values can prevent the death of journalism with values. A state that found a way to save banks and kibbutzim and moshavim must now find a way to save the press. What is at stake is not any particular media outlet or journalist, but the future of our free society.