With Fear, With Prejudice

| Written By:

The press is traditionally known as the guardian of democracy. In this article, however, Uzi Benziman, Editor of The Seventh Eye journal, surveys trends in the Israeli media and asserts that Israeli journalism in 2012 is an ideological, agenda-driven journalism rife with intentional bias. The article was originally published in Hebrew in The Seventh Eye on January 2, 2012 and has been translated for the IDI website.

There once was an Israeli weekly called Haolam Hazeh whose motto was "Without fear, without prejudice." To emphasize this credo, its editors, Uri Avnery and Shalom Cohen, added the image of a roaring lion to the paper's logo. There was no mistaking the message they sought to transmit: Their intrepid publication will devour whatever it encounters, without discrimination.

When Haolam Hazeh was published in the early 1950s, its motto and logo challenged the Israeli press, which was largely a partisan press, symbiotically linked to the ruling establishment. At the time, the press perceived its role as that of a loyal servant, adapting its coverage to the ruling establishment's needs. Avnery and Cohen offered a different kind of press, one that was—at least declaratively—skeptical, biting, defiant, and egalitarian. This was the exact opposite of the partial press that then held sway.

The partisan press considered it an honor to represent the doctrines of those it served and was not ashamed to compromise journalistic principles in favor of the sectorial or ideological interests of its ideological roots. Even the ostensibly unaffiliated commercial press, which continued to develop over the years, manifested fierce and often open loyalty to personalities or ideas associated with the ruling establishment. Bias was built into press coverage (with some exceptions) and was considered wholly legitimate.

New winds were blowing throughout the world at the time, and they lapped up on the shores of the young State of Israel, exposing its press to professional norms that upheld unbiased, objective reporting. As these norms were adopted, the party press faded into oblivion, its place taken by a hungry, active media that enthusiastically adopted the professional styles that developed in the West, especially in the United States. Haolam Hazeh itself was the embodiment of a modern press that draws inspiration from what is happening in the world, and its style had a great influence on the development of the Hebrew press in Israel.

But trends come and go, and in the 1970's principles of objectivity and unbiased reporting next faced the emergence of New Journalism, an opinionated press, and a mix of news and opinion. These phenomena were accompanied by erudite justifications of the legitimacy of such reporting styles and of the motivations that compel the media to adopt them (competition, ratings, etc.).

Then came the Internet era, which tore down traditional journalistic values and reassembled them on a new platform. The boundaries between professional journalism and the regular activities of ordinary people were eliminated: any person may function simultaneously as a citizen, innocently going about his or her business, and as a reporter, equipped with a portable device that enables the transmission of words, sounds, and images; every person has access to media to transmit such content. These conditions eliminate the expectations of maintaining the professional and ethical rules of the game that were accepted in the old world of journalism.

These developments constitute at least part of the background to the wild behavior of the Israeli media in the past year. In a world with no criteria and no mandatory rules—anything goes:  The media may band together and join the hysterical campaign to free Gilad Shalit at any price, or place themselves at the disposal of the social protest. Israel Hayom may behave like the last of the partisan papers of Israel's early days. The Marker may campaign against centralization of the economy in every issue, in news articles and opinion columns alike, while Globes, in turn, conducts a counter-campaign. Maariv may wage a fierce battle against Yoav Galant when he is being considered for the position of IDF Chief of Staff and or wage a similar campaign against the Defense Minister. Leftist reporters may view Israeli realities solely through the prism of the conflict with the Palestinians (as they perceive it), while their right-wing counterparts may paint the world that they present to their readers in entirely different colors.

In an age of ethical chaos, the media—including television and radio broadcasters—may unabashedly declare their support of an idea or person. Freedom of expression has sprouted wings, providing refuge for all kinds of journalistic behavior that was once considered reprehensible.

It is true that journalists and media have taken stands on public issues in the past and have used their professional skills to convince others of the justice of their ways. These precedents, however, are but a faint echo of the manner in which the media conduct themselves today. The power, scope, and sweeping mobilization that characterize the contemporary media's support of ideas and people is not merely a reincarnation of a known phenomenon from the past; rather, it indicates a new and aberrant creature in the world of journalism.

Israeli journalism in early 2012 is an ideological, agenda-driven journalism. Intentional bias is imprinted in its behavior, and it has no pretensions of behaving differently. The press has no qualms about asserting that this is its nature, as evidenced by its performance, which cries out from the printed and broadcast media alike. Overcome by the biased journalistic style currently in fashion, the Israeli media have forgotten that freedom from prejudice is a basic principle of ethical conduct that seeks justice.

The media's current behavior is self-defeating, as when the press allows itself to conduct itself in a biased manner, it immediately subverts its ability to gain the public trust. And without trust, all journalistic efforts become a farce, mere amusement. Moreover, bias paves the way for corruption that is not necessarily motivated by ideology.

Ancient artists depicted the goddess of justice as blindfolded, thus expressing the ideal that justice should be impartial. Journalism is a profession that demands fairness and honesty. At times, it also entails passing judgment. Consequently, the ethics of journalism include a substantial series of guidelines requiring journalists to display honesty, loyalty to the truth, and even objectivity.

For both ideological and practical reasons, Israel's media are now involved in a frenzy of biased behavior, while totally oblivious of the inscription "With fear, with prejudice" looming overhead. 

Uzi Benziman is the Editor of The Seventh Eye.

This article was first published in Hebrew in The Seventh Eye journal on January 7, 2012. The original can be read here.

Visit the Seventh Eye website (Hebrew)