Discourse on Disengagement: Sensationalism in the Mainstream Press
In this article, originally published in The Seventh Eye in 2004, Tamar Guttman explains that in its coverage of the disengagement plan, Israel's media was usually preoccupied with the petty, marginal, and sensationalist aspects of the initiative, and failed to examine the important issues raised by the withdrawal from Gaza or to ask difficult questions.
The headline in the issue of Haaretz published on the eve of Simchat Torah included a sensational quote from Dov Weisglass, senior advisor to the prime minister. Weisglass revealed that "We initiated the disengagement plan in order to freeze the political process for an indefinite period," so as to "prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state and prevent discussion of the refugees and Jerusalem." According to Weisglass, the reasons for initiating the plan were "the broad support for the Geneva initiative and the increasing phenomenon of refusal [to serve in the IDF]." The main achievement of the plan was that "I agreed with the Americans that we wouldn't touch many of the settlements."
Weisglass's comments aroused considerable furor, although he said nothing new. Commentators and left-wing figures have made the same comments countless times in the op-ed and commentary sections of several newspapers. Ariel Sharon himself expressed the same position, albeit in a more restrained and subtle manner, in the holiday interviews he gave in the media between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. What seems to be new, therefore, is Weisglass's decision to send a clear and unequivocal message to right-wing Likud members and the settlers. It is ironic that he chose Haaretz for this purpose. The paper's editors published the comments prominently on the news pages, as was only proper. As a result, what had until then been just one of various theories regarding Sharon's motives became the official version, and Haaretz correspondent Ari Shavit chalked up another impressive journalistic success.
With this exception, however, there is little room for enthusiasm regarding the way Israel's mainstream media has addressed the subject of the disengagement plan. A review of the coverage over the past few weeks in the main newspapers Haaretz, Yedioth Ahronoth, and Maariv; in the newscasts on Channels One, Two, and Ten; and in the current affairs radio programs on Galei Tzahal and Reshet Bet shows that the media has usually been preoccupied with the petty, marginal, and sensationalist aspects of the initiative, systematically failing to examine the important issues it raises or to ask the difficult questions.
Questionable priorities and editing decisions led to a focus on three main issues regarding the disengagement plan in the media during September and October: incitement (or "extremist statements"); the level of financial compensation for evacuated settlers; and apocalyptic forecasts (i.e., dark prophecies of civil war and/or increased Palestinian terror from the Gaza Strip). At a certain stage, these were embellished by the debate over the idea of holding a referendum, on the question of soldiers refusing orders, and preparations in the various parties ahead of the votes in the government and the Knesset. At the same time, much more important and substantive issues were pushed into the inside pages and to the op-ed and commentary columns. Worse still, coverage of issues on the agenda was dominated by a sensationalist and demagogic tone, replete with inaccuracies and distortions.
The media devoted its greatest efforts to locating and publicizing extremist comments by right-wing figures. Every telephone death threat against the prime minister or against Yonatan Basi, head of the disengagement authority, won prominent headlines. Every comment by an eccentric figure immediately became the grounds for investigation by the police, the attorney-general, and the state prosecutor's office. Thus, for example, Nadia Mattar featured prominently in the headlines after comparing Basi to the leaders of the Judenrat under Nazi rule, and MK Eitan Kabel (Labor) was quoted in-depth after he called for a criminal investigation to be launched against a broadcaster on Channel Seven who compared Sharon to Hitler.
In their passionate quest for yet another "shocking" statement and "appalling" quote, the journalists exaggerate and misrepresent reality. Last month, for example, Channel Two revealed footage of extreme right-winger Yosef Dayan threatening to hold a Pulsa DeNura ceremony against Sharon, describing Dayan as "the rabbi of the Psagot settlement." It soon emerged that Dayan is not, in fact, a rabbi and is a problematic and controversial figure even among the settlers themselves. The day after this item appeared on Channel Two, Haaretz published a statement by residents of Psagot and the local rabbi, Shalom Yosef-Witzen, emphasizing that "Dayan, who does not claim to be a rabbi, let alone the rabbi of Psagot, does not represent the residents of Psagot, does not speak on behalf of Psagot, and is not a member of Psagot." This did not prevent Haaretz from again referring to Dayan as a rabbi the very next day. Channel Two news also ignored the correction and continued to screen Dayan's threats at every possible opportunity.
"Dayan was a thug from Kiryat Arba, a former member of the Kach movement, who moved to Psagot," says journalist Uri Auerbach. "Because he has a beard and wears a kippa, they immediately turn him into a rabbi. I don't think that the journalists act maliciously but rather out of laziness and ignorance. The result is a process of alienation of the subject of the coverage, which transforms the religious public into a bizarre cult that observes strange halakhic rulings of violent ceremonial significance."
This is not the only case when extreme right-wing individuals have been erroneously and misleadingly identified with the settlers as a whole. In August, Channel Two carried a report on a training camp run by the Kach movement for children in Gush Katif in preparation for the evacuation. The report included pictures of a number of people wearing kippot and running along the beach, jumping over fences, and hiding behind bushes. On September 10, Ben Caspit wrote in Maariv that "the entire event was staged... it was all timed and directed to create good footage (with the knowledge of the media, according to security sources), while residents of the Gush themselves disassociate themselves from the whole story... The local settlers did everything possible to prevent the Kach activists from entering the settlements." Sagi Bashan, the Channel Two reporter who broadcast the story, does not deny that this was a "semi-staged" event, as he put it. The sequence of events, according to Bashan, offers a useful lesson in the way the media works. "I knew that Channel Ten had filmed something along these lines the day before," he recalls. "I asked my sources in the Gush, and they told me that Itamar Ben-Gvir was going around there with a group of children, playing with them and calling it a summer camp. I contacted members of Kach, and they sent me a videocassette they had recorded. In the report, I expressed reservations and noted that the phenomenon was not of significant proportions—that it was just a small group of children who had spent a few days at the site." Uri Auerbach is not surprised. "Journalists cannot resist the temptation," he argues. "Someone tells them that there's a summer camp, so they immediately run off and film three wispy-haired children for a ninety-second item on the evening news. Anyone who knows the settlers could tell you that the residents of Gush Katif and Kach have about as much in common as an evening of Hassidic folksongs at a local branch of Meretz."
In both the above examples, the race for a sensational scoop resulted in sloppy journalistic work at the expense of accurate and reliable reporting. Worse still, the slipshod coverage of marginal events and eccentric individuals diverted attention from truly important stories. Ehud Oshri in Haaretz made this point well: "Nadia Matter called Yonatan Basi the 'Judenrat?' That's really serious. The police are instructed to open an investigation. An anonymous rabbi said, 'Pulsa DeNura'? Most grave. The attorney-general is asked to intervene. Some people in Gush Katif said that Sharon sees terror as an opportunity to move forward with the disengagement plan? That's a sick comment. It's true that all kinds of things that are several times worse than this are going on in the Territories, but we can stomach that as long as everyone talks politely."
The acts of abuse carried out by violent settlers against their Palestinian neighbors, for example, are only rarely discussed by the media. No journalist was urgently dispatched to collect reactions from Members of Knesset or legal experts after a judge at the magistrate's court in Kfar Sava released to home detention Yehoshua Elitzur, a settler who shot Suhil Jabara from the village of Salem at the end of September in circumstances that are being investigated by the police. Editors prefer to reserve such dramatic responses for the next time the attorney-general decides, once again, not to initiate proceedings against some rabbi who called Sharon a "dictator."
Media coverage of the disengagement plan's financial aspects was equally biased and histrionic, particularly on the subject of compensation for evacuated settlers. The media, and particularly Yedioth Ahronoth, have frequently and prominently quoted details on the front news pages relating to the high sums of compensation to be paid. During the month of September, Yedioth Ahronoth reported no less than seven times on the amount of compensation (between $200,000–$500,000 per family), the downpayments ($90,000), as well as the payment of rent, grants, loans, and reimbursement of expenses. In case all this was not enough to make the average Israeli reader turn green with envy as they try to make ends meet until payday, Yedioth Ahronoth's supplement "24 Hours" offered a report entitled "A House by the Sea or a Villa in Nature," accompanied by photographs of villas in such towns as Modi'in, Ashdod, and Gadera, which evacuated settlers from Gush Katif will be able to purchase with the compensation they receive.
Through such reports, Yedioth Ahronoth is employing a grossly demagogic technique designed to play on the frustrations of its readers, who face a constant struggle for economic survival. The settlers are depicted as a bunch of opportunistic gold-diggers ready to sell their principles for a hefty sum. "The evacuated settlers will get compensation—we will all pay" shouted a headline on page seven of the newspaper on September 12: "Five billion sheqels will be taken from the education, health, and welfare budgets at the expense of Israeli citizens and taxpayers," reports the body of the article. And it goes on: "Half the Gush can't wait to get out of here," stated unnamed settlers from Gush Katif on September 14, adding: "The minute they smell the check they'll be off." Avishai Nativ from Rafiah Yam volunteers details: "If they tell me to come and take the downpayment, I'm there. It's all a matter of bargaining, everything is up for negotiation. I estimate that the compensation coming to me could be over a million dollars." In another article, Levi Yitzhak, the real estate pricing expert, confesses: "In Yamit, they gave everyone half a million dollars—those were the days."
The other media were not far behind Yedioth Ahronoth. Channel Two news also favors in-depth interviews with settlers who state that they are wiling to leave their homes for suitable financial remuneration. Maariv reported that "dozens of settlers" are preparing for the evacuation and attempting to increase the level of compensation by turning to law firms to manage the negotiations with the government on their behalf. Another report in Maariv carried the headline: "Settlers Complain at the Level of Compensation: We're Being Robbed."
These comments are not meant to imply that the behavior of settlers facing evacuation does not include some cynical and materialistic aspects. It is also perfectly proper for the media to express the sense of anger and jealousy felt by ordinary citizens given the level of compensation that is being proposed to the evacuated settlers. Nonetheless, it is important to examine the facts: according to the disengagement authority, as of the beginning of October, only one hundred of the 1,700 families facing evacuation had responded and expressed initial interest in voluntary resettlement in return for the downpayment. This fact was almost completely ignored by the media. Haaretz quoted Basi on the subject but immediately continued, "According to Basi... the requests came both from the residents of settlements that might have been expected to make contact and also from ideological settlements."
Moreover, the incessant media attention to the cost of vacating the settlements is in sharp contrast to the complete failure of most journalists to examine the cost of maintaining and developing the settlements. Mossi Raz, a member of Peace Now and a former Member of Knesset, comments, "The Knesset Finance Committee occasionally transfers sums of hundreds of millions of sheqels to the settlements in order to establish infrastructures or expand construction...When I was a member of the Committee I tried time and again to get the media interested in these figures, to no avail. On the other hand, similar amounts that were transferred to the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) immediately made headlines." Raz has been following the media reports regarding the level of compensation and feels that the coverage is one-dimensional and superficial. "The level of financial compensation is a complex subject with considerable ramifications for the future," he notes. "In my opinion, the media should provide a forum for serious public discussion of this matter. I contacted several journalists on my own initiative and tried to interest them in the broader issues, but there was no response. In the final analysis, this debate will only take place after the compensation has already been paid, and by then it will be too late."
As in the case of the period of tension preceding the last Gulf War, once again the media is fanning the flames of tension and nervous anticipation among the general public through catastrophic and pessimistic forecasts. As everyone knows, fear sells. Faced with the desire to secure high ratings, the media have painted the first stages of the disengagement plan in ominous and threatening colors. Emotive expressions such as "civil war," "preparations for rebellion," "refusing orders," and "intensified terror" are featured prominently at every opportunity in large headlines on the lead pages: "Storm erupts after settlers threaten civil war;" "Settlers warn: Civil war within weeks;" "Sources close to PM warn: 'Comments by settlers leaders are preparation for rebellion;'" "Settlers to IDF: Clash is inevitable;" "At meeting with Minister of Internal Security Gideon Ezra, settler leaders threaten: 'If there aren't elections, there will be terrible chaos;" "Commanders realize that clashes are probably close: 'The ground is burning and the settlers feel that their backs are against the wall;" "Yesha Council: Government is encouraging Jewish terror" (all these headlines are from Maariv); "People about to explode, warns Avner Shimoni, head of Hof Azza council, at meeting with Gideon Ezra;" "Security forces fear violent riots in the settlements ahead of evacuation;" (Yedioth Ahronoth); "In preparation for disengagement plan and evacuation of settlements in Gaza Strip, Palestinian security organizations recently try to secure weapons and ammunition;" (Haaretz) "Palestinian violence to escalate in wake of disengagement plan;" "Experts believe violence and attempted terror attacks will rise as date of withdrawal from Gaza nears" (Channel One news).
Calmer messages, such as the opinion of various public figures and security sources that most of the settlers will not use violence in opposing evacuation, are relegated to the inner pages or the end of newscasts. Contingency plans of the security forces, who by virtue of their function must prepare for the possibility that the worst-case scenarios will materialize, are presented in newspaper headlines as unequivocal future events: "Prisons for settlers: Prison service prepares for mass arrests of right-wingers during clashes over withdrawal; existing prisons to be expanded;" "IDF plans to house soldiers in homes of evacuated settlers to prevent right-wing activists taking control;" "IDF to recruit thousands of reserve soldiers ahead of evacuation" (Yedioth Ahronoth); "Reserve soldiers to be drafted to Border Guard prior to evacuation... following police claims of lack of personnel to implement evacuation;" "Special unit to be established for forced evacuation of settlers" (Maariv).
This sensationalist and scandal-oriented tone, which also characterizes reports on other aspects of the disengagement plan in the mainstream media, drowns out any issue that demands in-depth, complex, and deeper attention. Serious and responsible public discourse may be found on the op-ed and commentary pages of the newspaper supplements and in the current affairs programs on Reshet Bet and Galei Tzahal. Here, reporters and spokespeople grapple with difficult and significant problems: Can the disengagement be a substitute for political dialogue and peace accords? Is the step Sharon is taking democratic? What are Sharon's motives for the initiative? What are the legal and ethical limits of incitement? Why has the Left gone silent regarding the disengagement plan? (Very few writers in the mainstream press present far-left views such as those that believe that Sharon does not intend to implement the disengagement plan). What will happen if terror increases after the disengagement? Is the evacuation of settlers tantamount to transfer? How successful has the Yesha Council's campaign against disengagement been? To what extent is refusal to obey army orders legitimate? What is the significance of the use of the term "disengagement" as opposed, for example, to "withdrawing" or "vacating." Regrettably, the news agenda of the media leaves little room to examine such questions.
On one issue, however, there is wall-to-wall consensus in the media. No one even bothers to examine the future of the Palestinians after the disengagement. What will happen to residents of Gaza after the plan is implemented? Will they have food and employment? Will they have access to medical services? The total apathy to the feeling of confusion, despair, and impotence among Gaza residents ahead of the implementation of the disengagement plan is shared not only by the media but also by its consumers.
Tamar Guttman is a PhD student in the Faculty of Sociology and Anthropology at Tel Aviv University.