Having just attended the Jerusalem Press Club’s two day conference entitled “Freedom of the Press in the Digital Era,” it was quite a shock to see on the front page of my newspaper that the historic Israeli “Mabat” news program has aired its last program after its inception in 1968. The proposed creation of a new broadcast authority for the State of Israel is an unknown quantity. What is known is that a substantial portion of the staff of the previous Israel Broadcast Authority will no longer have their lifetime professions.
There is considerable anger about the national abandonment of its media in many segments of Israeli society. Avigdor Lieberman fairly demands that the two million Russian Israeli citizens should receive as much programming in their native tongue from the State as the Israeli Arabs receive. The two populations are almost identical in number. The English speaking population numbers 270,00 potential voters in the Knesset elections. With an average of 2.4 children per Jewish household, it is reasonable to estimate that more than one half million English speakers in the State of Israel are being totally ignored with the cancellation of the meager IBA English news which was minimally produced until current cancellation, and which always aired in the worst possible time slots. Still it kept a substantial portion of Israeli society aware of the issues of the day: terrorist attacks, war updates, government activity and international relations. The absurdity of ignoring the most important language in the free world as a primary national form of communication is beyond comprehension. The English Israeli television news was picked up by media around the world and was Israel’s only way to communicate its issues from its own perspective. It was additionally the only way to reach diplomats and tourists to the State of Israel in a timely fashion. When I came to Israel during the Gulf war, I waited for the IBA news to know what was really happening in the conflict. Should a resident of Israel be forced to turn on an American or French Station – or Al Jazerra – to be kept appraised of an ongoing national crisis? I remember being in Sun Valley Idaho when the space shuttle with the Israeli astronaut exploded. I was watching the IBA coverage from Idaho as it was streamed into their local station . That option will no longer exist. The English speaking world will now need to depend on voices other than Israeli for up to the moment news from the epicenter of the Middle East. Blamed for every ill, and yet now silenced by government decision, Israeli media has taken a severe blow. Their Hebrew newscasts will never reach the rest of the world. No one will go to the expense or effort to translate even a brilliant presentation. Once again Israeli ignorance of even the simplest “hasbarah” asset, stuns the Olim (immigrants) from English speaking nations.
Israeli journalists are furious with the Prime Minister as he no longer gives Press conferences to the general Israeli Press, nor does he allow them to interview him. It is similar to the relationship which President Trump has with the US Media. Both heads of state prefer to use Twitter and to orchestrate their statements in environments where the journalists will not challenge them. They may have a spokesman explain their decisions, but are not prepared to face the hard questions in person. This is unhealthy in a vibrant democracy. Good leadership needs to stand up proud defending its decisions, even to those who wish to replace them with their own political players.
The measure of a democracy is the freedom that the Press has to inquire, investigate and analyze their leaders. Both the US and Israeli media have become the foes of their leadership. Both have played a part in their own rejection through their uneasonable bias and slanted reporting. No leader, not even the ones we admire, have the right to rule without scrutiny from the public. Still, they are also entitled to a balanced and insightful Press- not simply one intent on bringing down a governing party.
At the Jerusalem Press Club “Freedom of the Press Conference 2017,” we heard from a Russian Journalist who teaches the art of investigation. She and her associates are hounded by their secret service and deemed enemies of the State. Mr. Putin who was once the head of their KGB, now brings those same tactics with him as leader of Russa. Putin is terrified of those who scrutinize his actions, and goes to great lengths to stop their investigations and the training of journalists in this regard. Democracies have a mandate to question and demand honesty in their leaders. Dictators such as Putin prove that rule by fear is unacceptable.
On the flip side of the coin is the undeniable reality that many journalists have lost their moral compass. Their ethical responsibility to look for truth, not just from those that support a specific agenda, has been sidelined. Perhaps it was never taught at all in journalism schools. Unfortunately, with the current ability to publish online, many writers jump on board with no professional training. News outlets are suffering revenue shortfalls as a result of advertising funds re-routed to Facebook, Twitter and the like. Hence the legitimate media outlets have less staff, and are overburdened. This results in minimal fact checking before publishing. Often due to financial or time restraints, ethical standards have been ignored by publishers and internet sites in an effort to produce news in minutes or seconds. Sound bites proliferate rather than reporting in a time consuming and responsible manner. Even- handed journalism barely exists in the major media outlets around the world. It is a lost art. Print media is on the downturn and yet citizens still need reliable, trustworthy sources of information. If the Internet is to replace most of the paper press and radio news, it needs to be as ethical and responsible as possible. This requires editors who will demand quality investigations before claims are published and promulgated, lives ruined, and trust- totally eroded.
The term “Fake News” has become a household word. In the digital era almost anyone can create a lie and send it out onto the laptops and phones of unsuspecting victims. Articles can be put onto the super highway which are intended to confuse and defame . Photo journalism can be “photo-shopped” to create a visual fraud. Hence the responsibility of major media organizations is greater than ever to win back our respect and our future patronage. Whether their product remains on a piece of paper or goes to an Internet platform, is irrelevant. It has been proven that quality journalism will be picked up by media outlets around the globe and will be disseminated.
Distrusting all news sources is a terrible state of affairs. If a source has an agenda and admits their bias, it is better than pretending to be even-handed, while actually slanting their news coverage to suit their purposes. Readers and listeners are becoming skeptical, wary, and full of angst. Citizens need to have confidence and it is the responsibility of government (i.e. public) and private media to re-establish this trust.
Most governments are at odds with their Press corps today. Those in power fear the damage done to them by those who are only interested in their demise, and not in balanced reporting. There is still a need for editors to demand an even-handed approach in reporting the news. There still exists “truth” and it can be found with extra effort.
A healthy society requires a healthy Press. It is the government’s responsibility to see that it does not impede this effort, lest it be seen as duplicitous. Democracy is fragile. Allowing absolute power to change the expectations and rights of a free society forebodes the destruction of all that we hold dear.