We're All Guilty

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In this article from The Seventh Eye, published on December 31, 2002, Uzi Benziman, editor of the journal, asserts that for twenty years, the press has focused on the personalities of candidates rather than their doctrines and predicts that the 2003 elections in Israel will suffer the same fate. In his estimation, the media is asleep and letting the PR teams of the candidates set the agenda. Benziman predicts that after the election, the media will "wake up and kick itself," as it did after previous elections. 

After Binyamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister in 1996, the press woke up and asked itself: Where were we? Why didn't we pay attention to Netanyahu the candidate, to his past, to his worldview? In a desperate attempt to fill in the gaps, journalists belatedly produced investigative reports on the new leader of the Likud—a hasty effort that was not always successful; reporters were sometimes ready to swallow in retrospect the unreliable versions that they published about the man (which sullied his name), if only they could make their disgraceful unprofessionalism forgotten.

The press has fallen asleep during the current election campaign as well. For the most part, it is not aware of its failure; only a few journalists acknowledge this and give it expression (in this journal, among other places). The lion's share of journalists and commentators have accepted the ground rules according to which the election campaign is being run, and they can't, or don't think it proper to query them. In the routine of coverage, the press focuses on the external, production side of the contest, not on its contents. Elections that are supposedly going to determine the leadership of the state at its most crucial crossroads in fifty years are concerned with the personal competition between the leaders of the two large parties; the ways in which their party lists for the Knesset are chosen (an important issue in and of itself); and on the tricks that the party headquarters come up with to embarrass their rivals and win points.

By submitting to the dictates of the politicians' image advisors, the press fulfills one of its two main functions: faithfully reflecting what is going on. The content intended by the campaign publicists is what shows up in the print and electronic media. However, this does not satisfy good journalism; good journalism has an additional function, no less important: to critique, to offer alternatives, to stir up thinking, to challenge the accepted. Good journalism pretends to not only reflect but to shape public opinion.

The January 2003 elections will apparently be remembered as an important mark in the political history of Israel, in which the press relinquished its intellectual mission. It did not compel, or even try to compel, the party heads to make the contest about their political, social, and economic plans. It did not press them to cast off slogans and empty headlines and in their place present a detailed platform of how, in their opinion, to deal with the country's problems. It simply caved in and let the politicians' PR teams set the agenda.

That's how it's been in all the election campaigns over the last twenty years: they have concentrated on the personalities of the candidates and not on their doctrine. However, in this election, Israeli citizens are supposed to determine the fate, the future of the territories, especially since this election is being held according to a system that is supposed to grant renewed weight to party positions and less emphasis on the personalities of the party leaders. The press is not helping this come about. It is accepting the priorities that the politicians and their advisors are setting, and it is not pointing out the weaknesses of these priorities. One can assume that the press will wake up late and kick itself. 

Uzi Benziman is the editor of The Seventh Eye journal.