Despite a reputation for being leftist and maybe because of it, the Israeli media is grossly derelict in its duty to hold power to account. Its acquiescence bears a huge share of the responsibility for Benjamin Netanyahu’s ability to get away with apparent corruption and retain popularity.
It is (decreasingly) true that most journalists don’t personally support him, but despite Likud protestations this doesn’t show. Like almost everywhere in the world, journalists belong to the relatively educated classes. And like almost everywhere there is correlation between that and the liberal instinct. It’s not absolute, so examples to the contrary mean nothing.
This used to be fine. In America, news anchors like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite were beloved and trusted once. People wanted their broadcasters to be from the “elites” whatever their politics. They aspired themselves to be elite. There was no social media echochamber, Russian hackers or disinformation campaigns to make them crazy.
Today the media is under assault as part of a concerted attack on the liberal democracy established by the World War II victors to limit the powers of the state. The Great Global Populism appeals to nationalism and egoism and mocks notions of humanism and universal justice as weak, even disloyal.
There is an inverse correlation between education level and vulnerability to this trick, which is why most journalists reject it. But there are certainly plenty of clever people in the movement and they’re ruthless. In Israel Netanyahu is Exhibit A, and his fire must be fought with fire. Among senior Israeli politicians, only Ehud Barak and perhaps Yair Lapid seem to understand it.
As they delegitimize the media the populists offer in its place alternative sources of “information” which are propaganda (we know which these are) – or direct agitprop via Twitter.
How does mainstream media respond? Serious organizations like the Associated Press, which I worked for, try to take no position save shining a light on the truth. But newspapers like the New York Times run editorials which attack the president, and their op-ed pages feature some conservatives but lean heavily liberal. It is telling that in 2016 only a handful of US papers endorsed the Republican candidate – a stunning departure from the past.
Generally news pages try to not give the populists reason to claim they are biased – but really, the disdain is barely disguised. There is a debate about whether this is wise. But it is probably just. In the future I suspect it will be seen as a small saving grace.
And what’s happening in Israel?
This is the landscape:
- The government is systematically destroying the chances to separate Israel from millions of Palestinians, undermining Zionism. It controls and oppresses these multitudes and denies them the vote, so for a half century it’s not been much of a democracy.
- The government allows a huge and growing segment, the Haredim, to deny their children education that makes them employable in a modern economy. Meanwhile it subsidizes this sector at levels far exceeding that of standard education such that there is a crisis-level shortage of teachers who will work for the minimum wage on offer there.
- The government tries to alienate the one-fifth of the citizens who are Arabs. This borders on insane, as if begging them to turn fifth column.
- The prime minister’s indictments on bribery and breach of trust (pending a hearing) are just the tip of an iceberg. Epic personal wastefulness and outrageous behavior by his family are part of the expensive package. And the cherry on top is ceaseless agitation against democratic institutions and foremost the media, despite its slavishness and perhaps because of it: his kind senses weakness and attacks, as he is doing these days against Channel 12.
- Despite government claims to the contrary the economy is limp, growing over the past decade at a slower rate than the average of the OECD. Most people are effectively poor in what is the second least egalitarian of developed nations (after the US). A fortune is spent subsidizing the Haredim and the settlers; people are brainwashed into not expecting more.
Does the media focus on any of this? Does it pepper the government with tough questions? When has Netanyahu last been reminded that a decade ago he hounded Ehud Olmert from office arguing that a premier cannot serve under police investigation? That he now evidently expects to continue “serving” after a possible conviction contends for the greatest hypocrisy in Israeli history. In a rare interview, with Channel 12’s Keren Marziano before the April election, he dismissed the idea of immunity — then pursued it as soon as he won. Is the media doing anything to remind the public of this lie?
Netanyahu argues that the hearing will finally enable him to present his case to investigators – another gross distortion. Has the media exposed it? Of course not.
When has he been criticized for not holding news conferences, for refusing to debate opponents, or for Likud’s lack of an election platform?
On the rare occasions that he consents to be interviewed – by selected journalists – he is treated with disgraceful deference, as if he were a monarch. Hesitant formulations, indirect questions, timid body language typify his quisling interlocutors.
Benny Gantz, by comparison, is awarded no deference whatsoever.
What kind of “leftist media” would do this?
There are reasons for it. In our overheated environment the media is scared to offend and instead of informing it aims to reassure. With the Internet having devastated its business model it bends over backwards even at risk of normalizing what its individual players know to be abnormal.
Defenders will note that there are pockets of critical thinking especially in the written press, beyond Haaretz. These have been a consolation to Israeli liberals, and a point of democratic pride for the country. But they are diminishing, they feature aging veterans mostly, and they are clearly on the defensive. The broadcast world, more important to public opinion, is dominated by acquiescence or weakness.
Along the way the Israeli media adopts right wing tropes by default. There is nothing wrong, for example, with “uprooting Jews from their homes.” If anything, the question should concern “uprooting people.” And yes, governments do this all the time, through eminent domain, just to build a road. Certainly it’s OK when national survival is at stake. Who in the media would make a point of this point (other than in opinion articles in Haaretz)?
Against this background, right-wing journalists are increasingly shoehorned onto the screen, for balance. They’re sharp as a knife and spoiling for a fight. Channel 12’s Amit Segal is their symbol, but he is not the only one.
Segal is currently on a lecture tour explaining Netanyahu to audiences. It doesn’t look great but I don’t think it’s necessarily bad. The bigger problem is that Segal is a clear partisan who is also the main political reporter on the country’s most watched news program.
In past interviews Segal has said that he feels many colleagues do not consider his right-wing views “legitimate.” I’m sure most of them would rush to deny it. Not me.
I think he has a point, though it’s not about legitimacy. In a world where political correctness and identity politics have poisoned the left, where Donald Trump profiteers off the presidency, where half the people are conspiracy nuts, where one percent out-own all the rest, where Islamic State can gain the support of legions – in such a world to worry about legitimacy seems quaint.
The issue is related but different: Segal’s colleagues doubtless consider his views sad. It is dispiriting that people who are intelligent, who can command the screen, and whose work is supposedly dedicated to truth and facts, can support the disgraceful status quo. It boggles the mind that they can think it is not just the least bad option for now – but actually OK. It’s dismal that they can think this without any shame.
It is a challenge to journalism, when things are fundamentally not OK. Neutrality is essential for credibility of reporting; analysis is important but must be distinguished from opinion; it’s all a very fine balance. But on a human level, neutrality before infamy is problematic. Actual support for infamy seems wrong, and it indeed makes me sad. Let the trolls say what they will.