Democracy and media manipulation
Surprisingly, a recent panel on Israel Radio at Haifa University did not draw the media attention it deserved.
At that panel, Hanan Naveh, the chief editor on the Israel Broadcasting Authority’s news desk at the time of the withdrawal from Lebanon, boasted that “three broadcasters – Carmela Menashe, Shelly Yacimovich, and I – pushed the withdrawal from Lebanon in every way possible … [W]e took it upon ourselves as a mission – possibly not stated – to get the IDF out of Lebanon.”
He explained that three of the news editors had sons in Lebanon and were determined to bring them home.
Even in retrospect, Naveh was totally unapologetic. “I’m not apologizing … It came from the guts because of the boys in Lebanon … I’m very proud that we had a part in getting our sons out of Lebanon,” he said.
Similar confessions of media mobilization on behalf of a particular political agenda, and a similar lack of embarrassment when the the preferred policies come a cropper, are an Israeli commonplace. Veteran IBA News anchor Haim Yavin once bragged, for instance, “Without the Israeli press, the intifada would not have led to Oslo.”
Free speech and a free press are fundamental to democracy. They help guarantee a well-informed citizenry upon which democracy depends by ensuring that crucial facts are not hidden from the public and that there is a robust debate on the issues facing the country.
BUT FOSTERING public debate and transparency is not how most Israeli journalists view their role. Rather, they see their task as making sure that the public reaches the proper conclusions. That is particularly true of those in public broadcasting, which holds a near monopoly over the air waves – a power of which the broadcasters are acutely aware.
Those caught in morning traffic jams are “captive – they are ours,” according to Naveh. At the same Haifa conference, Army Radio’s Razi Barkai noted the power of the morning radio to set the national news agenda for the rest of the day.
That monopoly power over the air waves is frequently abused, even to the point of outright fraud. In one IBA telecast, more than a minute was edited out of a speech by prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu to make it appear he was waving and smiling in response to chants of “Death to the Arabs” by some Betar Jerusalem fans. Long after the Shamgar Commission investigating the Rabin assassination determined that the infamous Eyal swearing-in ceremony was a hoax staged by agent provocateur Avishai Raviv and the IBA film crew, the IBA continued to air the clip as an example of the right-wing incitement prior to the Rabin assassination. And the producer of the clip remained on the IBA payroll.
THE QUALITY of national decision-making has been profoundly affected for the worse by our mobilized press. Last summer’s war and the devastating impact of Hizbullah’s missiles caught the Israeli public largely by surprise because the press had hidden the dangers of the withdrawal from Lebanon from public view. Having led the charge for withdrawal, the press then deliberately played down Hizbullah’s missile build-up in southern Lebanon.
The national debate over the Gaza withdrawal was similarly impoverished, as the press took to heart Channel 2’s Amnon Abromovitch’s advice to protect prime minister Ariel Sharon like a precious “etrog.” Sharon was never forced to lay out the strategic assumptions behind withdrawal, and was allowed to portray all opponents of withdrawal as solely motivated by a Greater Israel theology. As a consequence, serious security concerns were largely ignored. When Shin Bet head Avi Dichter warned, for instance, that the trickle of arms into Gaza would become a mighty river after withdrawal, his testimony was relegated to the back pages.
IMMEDIATELY after Naveh’s confession, Justice (ret.) Dalia Dorner, the president of the Israel Press Council, urged journalists to continue to show courage in exercising their power to “determine the daily agenda.”
She, in effect, held Naveh up as a role-model. Her only caveat was that journalists should not create a “hostile public opinion,” which might adversely affect freedom of speech. In other words, continue to lead the people, but don’t be so obvious about it that you get caught.
Dorner completely missed the ways that the exercise of monopoly power by a handful of editors and broadcasters is inimical to the core justification for free speech and a free press – i.e., free and open debate. She assumed that the editors of the morning news shows should utilize “their ability to influence public opinion” and encouraged them to continue doing so.
THAT IS hardly surprising. Israeli Supreme Court justices share with the media elites a certain arrogant assurance of their own wisdom and their mandate to impose the fruits of that wisdom on their fellow citizens.
Both have a problem grasping the basic premise of representative democracy – in the words of Judge Richard Posner, one of America’s most respected legal academics and appellate judges, the idea that the determination of public policy should be made “by governmental figures who stand for election at relatively short intervals and are thus accountable to the citizenry.”
Just as the journalists view their monopoly position as a mandate to tell the public what to think, so do the justices view their positions as granting them the right to determine all public norms. They even claim the right to pass down their monopoly power to hand-picked successors.
That attitude endangers Israeli democracy without even the redeeming virtue of having led to wiser public policy.
Appeared in the Jerusalem Post.