Suicidal Publicity

If the heads of the three branches of government are convinced that the state comptroller is not serious, and if the media people think likewise, this view will also seep into the public.

How will we reach the public without the media, asks State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss in the interview he gave Gideon Alon this past weekend in Haaretz Magazine, adding that there is no other way available. "I received full backing in the Knesset and there was support from the associations and organizations that deal with the quality of government." He says that "the government, as a body that is subject to investigation, relates differently to the State Comptroller's Office.

"I say in the bluntest possible way: All the remarks about 'chasing headlines' or looking for scoops are stuff and nonsense ... Of course, we appear in the papers. That's how it is," asserts Lindenstrauss. "Those who do things appear in the papers."

It befits us to be kind to the state comptroller and tell him something that cronies and sycophants will never say. A great many people in the public, including the writer of these lines, do not believe him and are not buying the claim that he appears in the newspapers all the time for relevant reasons and for the benefit of the war on corruption. A great many people think that he is simply a publicity-chaser who enjoys seeing his name in print. This, even when it is at the expense of the reputations of people against whom an investigation has only just begun and who may not have done anything wrong.

Writing this piece is shooting myself in the foot. It feels wrong to a journalist to criticize a senior official for cooperating with the media. And, indeed, Lindenstrauss is worthy of admiration for having, unlike previous comptrollers, instituted openness and cooperation with the press. It is indeed appropriate that he speak with media people about investigations that have been completed, explain to them, brief them and even respond to charges against him. However, he does not know the limits. It is most inappropriate that he is interviewed endlessly, most inappropriate that reports of investigations are published again and again during the course of the investigation and most inappropriate that the comptroller comes across as someone who does not weigh his words.

His two predecessors have implicitly criticized Lindenstrauss during the past year. Eliezer Goldberg has said, "The state comptroller should not look for scoops." Miriam Ben-Porat has said, "The state comptroller should speak once a year, in his reports, and be a person of deeds, not words." In contrast to Lindenstrauss, Ben-Porat knew how to use the media. The media adored her blunt statements, but they came sparingly, and the media waited for them impatiently.

Interviews in the media are a matter of supply and demand. Ben-Porat spoke little and the value of her every sentence soared heavenward. Lindenstrauss is chipping away at the value of his words, and they are wearing thin. If he does not restrain himself, the media people will soon be bored with him, they will relate to him as a indefatigable chatterer and they will stop taking him and his war on corruption seriously. In many respects this has already happened.

In the relationship between the comptroller and the subjects of his investigation there are rules of the game, which say that the comptroller speaks through the report, i.e. only after he has completed his work and formulated his position. The publication of investigations that are in progress is a violation of the rules of the game. There is nothing more important to a state comptroller than the certainty of his fairness. It is this certainty that makes his report a document on which no doubt his cast. Without it, anyone can cast aspersions on the comptroller.

Lindenstrauss should be disturbed by the fact that the civil service commissioner allowed himself to attack him quite harshly, and the attorney general and the prime minister did not back him up. He should be disturbed by the conflict that erupted between him and the designated future president of the Supreme Court, Justice Dorit Beinisch, during the period of the elections. People were afraid of Ben-Porat, but they admired her. People are afraid of Lindenstrauss, but the level of their admiration is nothing to write home about.

The state comptroller is proud of the public support he is getting. But the public is fickle. If the heads of the three branches of government are convinced that the state comptroller is not serious, and if the media people think likewise, this view will also seep into the public. To succeed in his post the comptroller must reduce his presence in the media by 90 percent (and he will still appear quite a lot). This is the test that Lindenstrauss is facing. Will he save himself from himself, or will he continue to publicize himself to death?