Thursday, November 24, 2011

Harel - Media shares blame for Israel's crippled democracy

Israel Harel
24 November '11

Precedent has shown that when the public loses its faith in the press and the legal system, democracy is at risk.

The proposed amendment to Israel's libel law wouldn't be very effective. But dubbing it the "silencing law," as the media have been doing, is a distortion. This distortion, like other distortions the media are often - too often - responsible for, is what generated the bill in the first place, just as it has generated the public's lack of faith in the media.

For example, Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch cooks up a deal with Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman to choose certain Supreme Court justices, yet while the media burns Neeman at the stake, Beinisch comes out lily-white.

Because of such ongoing behavior by both the Supreme Court and the media, the status of both has reached a low point. According to a recent poll by Maagar Mochot, headed by Prof. Yitzhak Katz, only 14 percent of the public believes that the Supreme Court represents all parts of the populace, while 75 percent believes it leans leftward.

In August, a survey by Prof. Camil Fuchs asked the following question: "In general, what do you thing about the Israeli media - TV, radio and newspapers?" Only 15 percent said they were balanced, only 20% said they were fair and only 27% said they were reliable. A poll by the Israel Democracy Institute in 2009 found that only 34% of the public has faith in the media.

When the presenters of the major newsmagazines on the radio make predictions with a uniform political voice; when the headlines and stories on the news pages are tendentious ("The publication of news items shall be fair and not misleading," says the Israel Press Council's ethics code. "A newspaper and a journalist shall distinguish in the publication between news items and opinion." ); when the press carries out a targeted assassination simply because someone's political views differ from the "correct" opinion-makers, faith in the press is undermined, and faith in democracy is eroded.

By definition, only the media can determine how the public will regard them. "The others," whom the media are accusing of trying to silence them, have no means of communication that can harm the media's status and influence the negative poll results they get. The quality of coverage, accuracy and fairness determine the level of confidence. The media, therefore, are themselves responsible for the low regard in which they are held.

Indeed, there are journalists that have sold their personal and professional consciences to the tycoons, but they are not the reason for the public's low regard. The public is disgusted with the choir that sings with one voice, a la Pravda and the people's republics, and the propaganda that has taken over news reporting.

The public could forgive journalists in the Soviet media, who were compelled to toe the line on pain of death. But it will not accept the Sovietization of Israel's free press.

When journalists gathered this week to denounce the "silencing law," they indeed expressed contrition, but mostly by beating the breasts of others. They, the ones who caused the public to lose confidence in their fairness and reliability, never called a general meeting to discuss the depths to which their profession has sunk, and its ramifications for their personal honor and the future of a free press.

When some 85 percent of the public believes that the media are not balanced and 80 percent believes they aren't fair, journalists with a conscience should be looking inward. But no such thing has happened, nor will it, apparently.

Meanwhile, precedent has shown that when the public loses its faith in the press and the legal system, democracy is at risk. This is the contribution of these two bodies, particularly over the last few weeks, to the fortification of Israeli democracy.

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