Media Comment: A warning to media consumers

The story of the mostly teen-age boys’ soccer team trapped with their coach in a cave in Thailand and their rescue was riveting. It had all the elements of drama, heroism, danger and the human spirit. And the media devoted hundreds of hours to reporting it. Even Israeli media sent special correspondents to the site. Experts on scuba diving, spelunking, stress psychology and medicine informed us of what could be.

During that same time, floods in Japan caused 200 deaths. There were terrorist attacks on security forces along the Tunisia-Algeria border where at least six people were murdered. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, 10 people were burned to death in ethnic attacks. At least nine were killed in an Al-Shabaab car bomb attack in Somalia, and in Tultepec, Mexico, at least 24 people were killed in fireworks explosions. Editorial choices had to be made, obviously, as to what we media consumers received and what was relegated to secondary attention, if at all.

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An academic study published last month by Lia-Paschalia Spyridou of Cyprus’s University of Technology in Journalism, defines the functions of professional journalism as “agenda setting, gatekeeping and framing.” The ultimate power of the media is editorial discretion. This is what gets stories published or broadcast as well as how they are served up to the media consumer.

Many news outlets seek to paint their product as possessing a reputation for “dispassionate, high-minded journalism.” For too many, however, that is a hollow aggrandizement. Editorial discretion became famous in the 1987 US Federal Communications Commission decision that suggested while it would no longer uphold the “fairness doctrine,” it would expect that news broadcasting provides for a reasonable discussion of views. Editorial discretion is the instrument whereby editors not only evaluate sources, balance claims and seek to produce accurate and verifiable information, but it permits the selection of the story according to the above-mentioned agenda setting, gatekeeping and framing privileges which an editor possesses.

SOMEONE WELL-POSITIONED within the media milieu has provided testimony that something can go very wrong with the end product. John Cleese, of Monty Python fame, appeared on July 8 at London’s Royal Geographic Society, and according to The Guardian’s Mark Lawson who was present, had this to say about journalism bias, “American and Australian journalists interviewed him because they loved his work; British interviewers arrived intent on negativity and personal intrusion.” In referring to Shane Allen, head of the ’s comedy output, he added, “His real title is ‘Head of Social Engineering.’” In the end, it really isn’t funny that our news, our political, social, economic and cultural commentary, as well as our military overview, and the types of panel discussions we are shown can be – and have been – so biased.

Returning to Spyridou’s study, she saw “evidence showing that journalism has entered a second, more vigorous developmental stage at which journalists are pushed to negotiate their gatekeeping power and take advantage of the sociotechnical capital available” via social media platforms.

That, we would suggest, means that the bon mot of several years ago that social media involvement would permit a more democratic, representative and supervised media where the media consumer could almost approach a level playing field with the journalists and editors has been disproved. What has happened is that media people have managed to exploit those same platforms to preserve, to a significant extent, their fiefdom. Spyridou herself is optimistic about the “possibilities and opportunities for civic empowerment within participatory journalism”.

Where, and with what, does that leave us here in Israel? IfNotNow has been in the news lately. Haaretz, of course, has lent sympathetic coverage, but it is very helpful if a reporter is basically a semi-member of the group. It would appear that part of the Times of Israel coverage is provided by Steven Davidson. On June 22, he covered the “engagement” of Birthright participants at JFK Airport in New York by members of IfNotNow. Other stories of his have focused on the theme of progressive Jewish millennials. He penned an “American Jew in Palestine” blog in 2014. After visiting Hebron, he wrote, “There was only one thought that reverberated in my mind: Lebensraum. This was how it would have looked like if the Nazis had succeeded, I thought… as a Jew, I began to cry.” It appeared in Duke University’s Towerview September 9, 2014 issue as well.

As a media consumer of Times of Israel, do we now cry?

LET’S TAKE the treatment of a story on an El Al flight out of New York that was delayed, supposedly by ultra-Orthodox men who refused to sit next to a female.

A Facebook post that went viral indicated that the June 21 flight was delayed by over an hour due to the intransigence of four haredi men. One Khen Rotem posted that El Al was “dealing with matters of practical theology and personal faith versus the rights of the individual and civil order.” The mainstream press duly reported this version, obviously without confirming the truth.

Another passenger, Katriel Shem-Tov, emailed Sivan Rahav-Meir, an Israeli journalist, claiming the incident lasted but five minutes. The Times of Israel blog where she published her story in English included El Al’s response, which was that “The details that were reported about the incident were not accurate, to put it mildly. In actual fact, the delay was totally unconnected to the incident… Taking care of the two passengers who refused to sit in their allocated places occurred after the plane had already left the gate and only took a few moments.”

Could it be that the mindset of the overwhelming secular media refused to consider the remote possibility that the haredim were not guilty of the long delay? Are their professional standards so low? On July 12, Turkey arrested Adnan Oktar and perhaps as many as 200 of his followers. While an exotic personality, he has many links to Israelis. He has been charged with spying for Israel among more than 20 additional crimes. Back on March 29, Assaf Ronel of Haaretz published a profile of the group which was headlined as if it was a throwback to the magazine HaOlam HaZeh: “Orgies, Blackmail and antisemitism: Inside the Islamic Cult Whose Leader Is Embraced by Israeli Figures.” Haaretz, which is not known for any conservative sexuality line, was obviously upset with Oktar.

There was an intriguing aspect to the story. At the bottom, we could read that Ronel was “a guest of the Turkish state English-language television channel TRT World.”

The state television of the Erdogan regime? Many consider that regime antisemitic. It has supported Hamas and promoted flotillas to break the Gaza “blockade.” It is trying to buy property in Jerusalem’s Old City and fomenting violence on the Temple Mount. Is Haaretz a mouthpiece for Erdogan’s Turkey? A last example is Haaretz’s July 6 political cartoon commenting on the Israel-Poland declaration. It posed the Polish president and Israel’s prime minister holding hands over the rail tracks leading to Birkenau-Auschwitz with the caption “The beginning of a wonderful relationship.”

The relationship between the media and its consumers is perhaps reaching the end of a “wonderful relationship.”

The writers are members of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imediaw.org.il).