Journalists in Israel and throughout the western world are suffering from a problem of their own making. Having abandoned any pretense of objectivity, they’ve lost their credibility — which is all they have to sell — becoming pretty much irrelevant.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu comes under attack every Monday and Thursday from the political opposition and the media. The 21st anniversary of Rabin’s assassination being marked? Time to trot out the old lies about Netanyahu inciting the crowds at Kikar Tzion (pay no attention to those recordings of his telling the crowds that Rabin was a political rival, not a traitor).
Headlines regularly accuse him of corruption, of ruining Israel’s relationship with the United States, of mishandling the war in Gaza by not preparing adequately for Hamas’s tunnels, of trying to take control of the media by closing down a bankrupt, mismanaged public broadcasting authority.
The charges aren’t taken seriously, because they come from a media that is correctly perceived as being anti-Bibi. He and his wife have been mercilessly ridiculed by the leftist media, despite his impressive successes with the economy, security and diplomacy in his 10 years at the helm of the country.
At election time, the media lines up solidly behind the left-wing candidate, effectively serving as his or her PR agency. Pundits predicted a tight race last year, with Zionist Camp leader Yitzchak Herzog actually pulling ahead of Netanyahu in the race for prime minister (in a transparent attempt to get the undecided to cast their vote for “the winner”). The results? Netanyahu’s Likud got 30 seats to Herzog’s 24.
It comes as no surprise, then, that a recent poll by Yifat Media Research finds that 53 percent of the public believes there is significant bias in media news coverage.
Shachar Gur, head of Yifat Media, said that “both the media and the public see the politicization of the media as the main threat in the communications industry but from different directions — the media is concerned with political interference in the media and the public is concerned by the political bias of the media itself.”
The problem is that when the media loses its credibility, it can’t fulfill its important role in a democracy — namely, to serve as a watchdog to protect the public from officials who abuse their power.
Take, for example, the latest accusations against Netanyahu. A report by one of Israel’s most respected investigative reporters, Ilana Dayan, presents evidence that his wife has too much say in political appointments, he doesn’t prepare properly for meetings with the U.S. president, and he finds ways to get rid of talented people who pose a challenge to his continued leadership.
Dayan backs up her charges with interviews with former aides. One of them, a former national security adviser, clearly has a bone to pick with Netanyahu. His hatred of his former boss is visceral and he is heard criticizing him from every forum. But two others she speaks to are very credible.
Still, those voices have to be viewed in the context of Netanyahu’s many years at what is arguably the most high-pressure job in the world.
Netanyahu made a mistake in taking the investigative report so seriously and lashing out at the journalist in a lengthy response as an extreme leftist who was hopelessly biased, since his supporters would have dismissed it as they dismiss all the criticism leveled at him.
And that is the greatest danger. That Netanyahu will feel that he has immunity from criticism since whatever the media says about him will be ignored as biased by most of the electorate. He has worked hard on behalf of the country, but he makes mistakes. When one talented politician after another jumps ship (Gideon Saar and Moshe Kachlon come to mind), that is obviously to the detriment of the country.
Dayan’s report and the prime minister’s response have since been forgotten, dwarfed by the stunning election news from the United States. Interestingly, that election has raised the very same issues of media bias and attempts to make the news instead of cover it.
Will the media in Israel and the United States learn the lesson? Will they understand that they will only regain their credibility, and power, if they present the news objectively and allow the readers to reach their own conclusions?
It isn’t likely. As Will Rahn, a political correspondent and managing director, politics, for CBS News Digital, wrote: “You’d think that Trump’s victory — the one we all discounted too far in advance — would lead to a certain newfound humility in the political press. But of course that’s not how it works. To us, speaking broadly, our diagnosis was still basically correct. The demons were just stronger than we realized.”
The refusal of the media to do a cheshbon hanefesh ultimately poses a threat to democracies everywhere.