Does the apparent politicization of journalism pose a threat to democracy?
Recent revelations in Israel evidence an apparent intersection between government and media that raises concerns over the fragile state of the fundamental democratic principle of press freedom.
In response to a Supreme Court order, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was forced to reveal last week that he held more than 100 calls between 2012 and 2015 with Sheldon Adelson, a major backer and owner of the free Israel Hayom daily, the most widely circulated tabloid in the country. The premier also spoke more than 200 times during that timeframe with then-Israel Hayom editor Amos Regev, culminating with up to five conversations per day in the lead-up to the March 2015 elections.
The court acted in response to a Freedom of Information Law petition by Israeli journalist Raviv Drucker (notably, a Netanyahu foe), citing the “public interest” for its decision.
This comes on the backdrop of an ongoing criminal investigation into Netanyahu known as Case 2000, in which the premier is suspected of having attempted to arrange more favorable coverage from the rival Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper in exchange for curbing the distribution of Israel Hayom. In taped phone calls with Yedioth publisher Amnon Moses, Netanyahu expressed a willingness to back legislation to this effect, whereas, for his part, Mozes noted that “30, 50, 70 percent of the advertising pages” in Israel Hayom are government-bought.
Taken together, this suggests an inordinate amount of political interference in the ostensibly independent mainstream media, which could potentially even lead to Netanyahu being criminally indicted.
Amid the controversy, former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak weighed in, slamming Netanyahu’s alleged illicit activities before claiming he had only phoned newspaper editors a half dozen times during his tenure (1999-2001). While commendable, Barak failed to note that during his premiership the media was almost universally approving of his efforts to forge a comprehensive peace deal with then-Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat, which nevertheless failed spectacularly at Camp David in 2000, resulting in the bloody Second Intifada—the period of unbridled violence typified by bus bombings and suicide killers.
Would Barak have made a few more personal calls if his core policies were being denounced on a daily basis in papers around the country, thereby not only placing additional pressure on him personally but also effectively limiting his range of action in the face of what would certainly have been a less receptive electorate?
According to Yisrael Medad, a member of Israel’s Media Watch, a politically right-wing organization, who co-writes a biweekly column for the Jerusalem Post, the answer is probably yes. “The Israeli media comprises not only the guy in front of the camera or writing the article,” he explained to The Media Line, “but also consists of managing directors, editors, producers, and even the secretaries, who, to a large extent, are left-leaning with many of the leading figures residing on the far-left.”
In the result, Medad understands Netanyahu’s disdain for aspects of the press but does not condone his actions. Instead, he believes the premier “made an unfair mistake by using the blanket term ‘media,’ as people presume you are talking about the whole enterprise. Had he attacked sections of it or directed specific criticisms that would have been better.”
Despite these reservations, Medad argues that a “political-media establishment” has existed in Israel since the country’s infancy, when the Left dominated politically for a generation. “There used to be official party organs like Hasofer, Davar, Herut and Haboker and there are still people in power who grew up in an era when wanting certain stories printed in certain ways was the norm.
“This is the situation, like it or not.”
As per how to rectify the problem, Medad suggested to The Media Line that the government standardize a “code of journalism ethics with formal punishments for violations,” as well as institute “a course in every high school to educate a media-consuming public about what can be done [journalistically] and what cannot.”
In fact, such longstanding professional standards and limitations are too often ignored or disregarded altogether—both in Israel and abroad and both on the Right and Left—a situation which, in turn, can lead to the outright distortion of facts or, more discretely (some might say stealthily), the purposeful omission of contextual information necessary for the public to correctly interpret them.
In the result, the role the media is meant to play in a democracy is a hot-button issue; more specifically, the discussion centers around whether it continues to satisfy its intended function as the historic “gatekeeper” of free societies or whether it has become, in general, so partisan that it simply acts as a mouthpiece for or against those in power, depending on their political orientation.
And, perhaps most importantly, if the latter is true, who, then, holds the ultimate authority in a democracy, officials elected by the public or the shapers of the opinions of that same public in their own image?
In its latest report, Freedom House named Israel as the only “free” country in the Middle East (with an overall rating of 80/100.), but it came with a caveat; namely, the watchdog group downgraded the country’s press freedom ranking to “partly free.” This said, Israel is certainly not Turkey, for example, which has the highest number of journalists imprisoned in the world. Nor is it the Palestinian Authority, where security forces on Monday detained prominent rights activist Issa Amro for posting a call on Facebook for President Mahmoud Abbas’ resignation. Ayman Qawasmi, a journalist, was arrested a day earlier after writing that the Palestinian leader should step down for failing to protect his people. Recently, Tariq Abu Zaid was imprisoned, reportedly under a new controversial Electronic Crimes Law enacted by Abbas.
But it is a slippery slope, as no self-aggrandizing democracy should be proud of ranking 91st out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2017 World Press Freedom Index, immediately ahead of such luminaries as Nicaragua, Mozambique, Liberia and Kenya.
According to Alexandra El Khazen, the head of the Middle East Desk at RSF, the Israeli media is “increasingly subject to political pressure from the government which is having a negative impact on the way people do their work.” In this respect, she highlighted to The Media Line the growing incidence of libel and defamation suits being brought by officials against journalists.
Nevertheless, El Khazen concluded, “compared to other countries in the region Israel maintains a relatively pluralistic media environment.”
Across the pond, however, U.S. President Donald Trump has essentially declared war on it, a crusade that has single-handedly pushed the term “fake news” into the collective global consciousness.
Like Netanyahu, Trump accuses the media—”an enemy of the American people”—of bias against him and has taken to Twitter, thereby circumventing traditional means of disseminating information, to spread messages like the following (Aug. 25) directly to his supporters: “General John Kelly is doing a fantastic job as Chief of Staff. There is tremendous spirit and talent in the W.H. Don’t believe the Fake News.”
As per #FraudNewsCNN (as described by POTUS in a tweet), an analysis by the network found that the U.S. president sent approximately 800 messages by Twitter in his first six months in office, more than 8o of which consisted of what were considered attacks on the media, whereas less than 70 focused on jobs and fewer than 30 on military matters.
When the leader of the free world seemingly is more preoccupied with fighting the press than the Islamic State there is a serious problem. And not surprisingly there appears to be, with the greatest democracy on earth ranking only 41st on RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index.
Though Trump continues to refer to journalists as “liars” and “sick people,” there are, as is generally the case, two sides to the story. It is hard to argue that the media has given Trump a fraction of the benefit of the doubt that was afforded to his predecessor Barack Obama, whose every deed was widely hailed as the work of a brilliant tactician, whereas Trump has been portrayed almost uniformly negatively (sometimes for good reason) since announcing his candidacy.
Additionally, to every action there is a reaction and if the mainstream media is believed to promote a left-wing agenda, then people on the Right will become increasingly polarized, a process already underway and which largely accounts for the emergence of so-called alt-right “news” outlets such as Breitbart, which has been accused of propagating racist views.
Israel Hayom was also conceived in the first place to counter perceived left-wing bias in the Israeli press.
The line, then, between trusted news source and propaganda risks blurring entirely unless the purpose of journalism itself is restated over and over again until it becomes standard practice; namely, to report the facts, plain and simple. And while editorial lines have always existed, when any outlet becomes primarily a vehicle for achieving a political end, then it crosses into the realm of activism.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this, so long as the border between objectivity and subjectivity is clearly delineated and understood by the public. It is this boundary, however, that many agree continues to be violated with impunity by “activist journalists” writing “hit pieces” citing one “anonymous official” about presidents and premiers in what increasingly looks like a concerted attempt to transfer the reins of power away from the people and into the hands of the “knowing.”
Any such resulting system is generally referred to as a dictatorship.