18 January 12..
The New York Times’ public editor, the in-house supervisor, stirred up the media this week by questioning whether the press has a responsibility to ensure that the truth is printed. Arthur Brisbane raised the issue, musing about whether or not it is appropriate for an objective journalist to “take sides” by noting that someone lied. He also suggested that a reporter who points out a falsehood is actually a “truth vigilante.”
In an appended note, Jill Abramson, the paper’s executive editor, was forced to note that the question Brisbane was addressing was actually “whether the Times, in the text of news columns, should more aggressively rebut ‘facts’ that are offered by news-makers when those ‘facts’ are in question.” In other words, are newspapers or news broadcast really trustworthy? According to Abramson, “some voices crying out for ‘facts’ really only want to hear their own version of the facts.”
The conclusion, we suggest, is that even for such an elite news organ like The New York Times, objectivity is no longer perceived as an ethical obligation.
The NYT debate is likely to spill over to Israel, and some of our biased journalists will jump at the opportunity to “prove” that their behavior is now no longer considered as unethical or unprofessional.
Whereas the Times is a private newspaper, most electronic broadcasting outlets in Israel are regulated by law. Israel has a detailed code of ethics that clearly rejects the post-modernist and relativistic viewpoint expressed by Brisbane. The question in Israel is not one of principle but one of practice. Will Israel’s regulators and ombudsmen continue to act in their usual derelict manner as a new threat assumes major proportions?
The three major electronic broadcasters, the IBA, the Second Authority for TV and Radio (SATR) and Army Radio, which include three television networks and over 20 radio stations, are overseen by Elisha Shpiegelman (IBA), David Regev (SATR) who most recently replaced Giora Rozen, and Oded Levinson (Army Radio-Galatz). All three have backgrounds in journalism.
Levinson serves both as ombudsman and as an anchor for an economic program broadcast on Galatz, creating a conflict of interest. Rozen, for the past year, was working simultaneously as the executive director of an NGO and a part-time ombudsman of SATR, also creating a conflict of interest.
THE CENTRAL problem, though, is the ineffectiveness of these judges of media ethics. Their decisions are too often questionable. Even when they do find a complaint to be justified they either lack the means or the will to take action to right the wrongs. They are also, too often, notoriously slow in their responses.
Examples abound. Last week, Ohad Chemo of Channel 2 informed his audience that right-wing extremists had uploaded a photoshopped picture of a sleeping IDF officer with his head replaced by that of a dog. The outrage and disgust were palpable. But the picture was three years old and from a Facebook account portraying a Purim-themed album having nothing at all to do with “settlers.” Yonit Levy, the anchor, issued a “clarification,” not an apology. The ombudsman did not order an investigation of Mr. Chemo for poor journalism, nor has the authority publicly reprimanded him. Media accountability? No way!
On the night of the Fogel family massacre, Army Radio continued its regular programming, which included a light entertainment program. At the same time many people in Israel who do not listen to the news on Shabbat were being exposed to the tragic events for the first time. One might think that Galatz would show some sensitivity. A complaint made on March 13, the day after, was finally answered by Levinson, after repeated inquiries as to the delay, only three months later. To add fuel to the fire, Levinson’s answer justified the station’s decision, claiming that a poll made years previously showed that the public does not desire a change in programming.
Last year, a late-night Army Radio program for Tu Bishvat was full of references to “grass” and “consciousness-expanding aids.” Levinson rejected a complaint that the army radio station Galatz especially should not tolerate even the semblance of support for drug use. He claimed it was all “humorous,” but said the station was sorry if the joke was misunderstood.
When an ombudsman knows that a complaint is justified but for whatever reason does not want to admit it, the standard policy is to ignore the “inconvenient” parts. On November 11, Arieh Golan conducted a long interview with attorney Michael Sfard, the legal adviser of the post-Zionist Yesh Din organization. Sfard, in a lengthy monologue, explained that settler claims that their land does not belong to Palestinians are just “white noise.” Mr. Golan followed that up with an interview with Eitan Brosh, the Defense Ministry official responsible for uprooting settlements and outposts in Judea and Samaria. No representative of the settlers was given the opportunity to present his or her views, but a complaint about that fact was simply ignored.
Of course, not every complaint is accurate or justified. Viewers and listeners sometimes misunderstand what they observe and hear. But combining weak or even unwilling oversight and less-than-effective punishment with cross-ownership seriously erodes the quality of the news we consume. It is high time that the overseers do the job for which they are paid, media review, not media defense.
The authors are respectively the vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch, www.imw.org.il
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