Pinchas Landau

The news as Circus Maximus

If it’s getting big play in the mainstream media (MSM), it’s probably not important. If it’s genuinely important, it’s probably not getting big play in the MSM.

That is the guiding principle I have learned to use as a yardstick for measuring what I see, hear and read in the MSM. It has proven to be pretty accurate and hence useful in the ever-harder job of sifting what matters from what doesn’t, in the face of two fearsome phenomena. One is the general swelling of the flood of material of all sorts that is instantly available. The other is the rapid and ongoing collapse in journalistic standards and the demise of intelligent, objective and balanced reporting of news.

Using the above guideline, I was able to largely avoid the circus surrounding the latest state comptroller’s report, this one focused on the cabinet’s handling of the “Protective Edge” campaign in and around the Gaza Strip in July – August 2014 — and on the issue of the Hamas-built tunnels into Israel. The fact that the MSM spent three whole days building up public awareness toward the moment of release of this report is really all you need to know about this event, because the substance of the report has been well-known more or less since the campaign ended — and the extra details included in the report add very little.

Indeed, state comptrollers’ reports are now regular components of the Israeli MSM circus. There are far more of them than there used to be and they each provide ideal opportunities to speculate about them for several days before, with endless interviews of babbling politicos and pundits, and then to chew them over for several days afterwards, with more of the same.

I find it sad — albeit not surprising in the media-driven environment in which governments function nowadays — that the state comptroller’s office has willingly become a part of carefully-organized media circuses. As for the actual content of these reports, I lost any respect I had for the institution of the state comptroller when, in September 2015, it issued a report on the “Housing Crisis.”

This was an opportunity to employ another yardstick in measuring the relevance and seriousness of any person or institution. If, on a topic in which you have expertise, he or it show themselves to be ignorant or worse, that probably reflects the level of their professionalism in other topics, in which you have no expertise by which to judge them.

In the housing report, there was fierce — and largely justified — criticism of government policy in the housing sector going back ten years. However, all of the facts were well-known and the only contribution the State Comptroller could make was by lending the weight of his office to that criticism. Yet, in analyzing the causes of the sharp rise in house prices, the report placed all the blame on supply shortfalls engendered by government policy blunders — dismissing the issue of mortgages and their contribution in a few lines.

If the State Comptroller’s Office thinks that record-low mortgage interest rates over several years, which went hand-in-hand with an explosion in mortgage lending and borrowing, are of marginal relevance to the “housing crisis” — which is primarily a mortgage crisis — then whatever it says on the whole topic is useless. Blaming previous and current governments gets headlines and plaudits, but will generate bad policy recommendations and thereby make things worse, not better.

From housing and mortgages, about which I know and understand, I can then move to military strategy and tactics, in which I have no expertise. However, I can come to those topics armed with several ‘weapons’. First, I have common sense, on a par with the average bloke. Second, I have been in this country a long time, through wars and campaigns etc., so that — like all adult Israelis — I have personal experience. Third, I listen to and read interviews with past and present military and intelligence people and am thus exposed to a range of views, which I assess using the aforementioned common sense and experience.

On the basis of these analytical tools, I long since rejected the entire media circus surrounding the tunnels. These are not major threats to the State of Israel, or to the IDF. They are surely dangerous threats to the people in the immediate vicinity of the Gaza Strip border, who are rightly very concerned about them. But that doesn’t mean that the tunnels should be a) the main focus of the security cabinet’s discussions during the campaign, or b) the basis for judging the success or otherwise of Tsuk Eitan, let alone c) a casus belli for a full-scale invasion of the Gaza Strip.

The fact that the media are obsessed with the tunnels does not make them supremely important. On the contrary, in line with the guiding principle delineated at the outset, it strongly suggests that the tunnels are not important per se, but are used by both media and politicians to achieve other goals.

The same is true, by the way, of the battles in Amona and elsewhere — stretching back to Yamit, in 1982. These are all media circuses in which the participants — the residents, the “idealistic” hooligan youngsters who crowd in for a fight, the police and, above all, the various government ministers and their political opponents — use and are used by the media.

Exactly the same spiels, in different costumes, are played out — going back to the 1950’s! — by Haredi youngsters and the rabbis who manipulate them, in their struggles against the police, army, government — whomever. This provides a stage for expressions of outrage by all sides, against all sides.

It makes for great entertainment, which is what the MSM have become and the social media always were. But it has little or nothing to do with what is really important to individuals and to the country.


About the Author
Pinchas Landau is an economic and financial analyst, serving as a consultant to major financial institutions in Israel and abroad on domestic and global developments.