In covering political events as well as those of national importance, the media engages, perforce, in a mutual feeding/digesting phenomenon. At the heart of the political news arena is public relations people pushing their stories while the media search for “commodifiable soundbites”. While we usually are concerned with issues such as were all media sources being employed in producing the news about the Gilad Schalit campaign, was the public being provided with the full picture and what was neglected, there was a surprise when it was all over?
Almost unprecedentedly, as soon as solider Gilad crossed over from Hamas captivity, multiple media outlets - establishment as well as independent - indulged in an introspection fanfare that has been rare in Israel.
Nir Wolf of Israel Hayom focused on the assistance of the PR firm that Noam Schalit employed and whose main contribution was turning the soldier into "everyone's son" and in doing so, engaged in image castration. Rationality was purposely ignored. Channel One TV’s Ayala Chason admitted that the terminology such as 'the son of all of us' or 'the child' and not 'the soldier' pointed to a media bias “to elicit juicier emotions”. What resulted was a symbol that was no longer the brave warrior defending the homeland but a tender child (which he may be) that needed our comfort and concern.
The media willingly subverted not only the reality of the situation but perverted the consciousness of the price to be paid and the future that awaits us all. Martin Sherman described the press actions as “puerile, perverse and perfidious” and Caroline Glick insists that the “media are the strongest force in Israeli society” because they are “ideologically uniform” and act as a pack. It was another full mobilization.
The media surrendered to emotion was the theme of Raviv Drucker’s analysis. He added that, in doing so, the nation was “damaged”. After the fact, he informs us that “the media went bankrupt…behaved emotionally, crazily and irrationally…It was psychosis.”
Involved in the PR effort, Tammy Shinkman defined her “codes of communication” as “the empowerment of emotions”. Her strategy was to succeed in forging an empathy with the fear that anyone’s “child could leave and never return…You get a response when you reveal a personal side.” As Glick phrased it: by choosing sides, the media ensured no substantive public debate. The media was not only acting undemocratically but, combined with what she calls the “complicity” of the security services, we had a press putsch. The personal undermined the public’s values.
There was, however, one very prominent incident which caused even Israel’s ‘lay-down-and-run-all-over-me’ media to get upset against the media; the Egyptian media, that is. The short interview conducted by newswoman Shahira Amin for Egyptian TV released a torrent of criticism from the Israeli media. This is rather puzzling, given the behavior of Israeli media in many other instances where an object of interest is near trampled, literally as well as figuratively, badgered, hounded and otherwise pilloried with no concern or respect. While the ten minute interview was ethically outrageous and painful, despite claims that they were “a new low point in the media’s need for instant gratification regardless of the cost”, another low point was the pit-bull reactions to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s media presence.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was satirically mocked for his appearing in the photographs when Noam, Gilad’s father, first greeted his son. Taken by the Government Press Office, they were, undeniably, publicity shots. But Netanyahu’s political foes went berserk. Haaretz’s Yoram Melzer employed a near-expletive. For Yedioth Ahronoth’s Ariana Melamed it was a “media circus” which was, to her taste, “nauseating and completely staged.” Guy Pines of Channel 10 TV was upset that Netanyahu used the pronoun “I” 37 times in his count. The Photoshop computer program was used to create pictures of Netanyahu at the 1979 White House Peace Treaty signing, comparing him to the Forest Gump film character.
What should not be ignored were the media maneuvers of Hamas. In October 2009, they released a 'proof of life' video – for which 20 female prisoners were set free, - showing him relatively healthy and coherent. A second Hamas clip from April 2010, portrayed in devastating fashion, his father Noam wandering aimlessly down the years and getting visibly older and depicted an Israeli soldier who was abducted by the terrorist group in Gaza nearly four years ago, being returned to his father in Israel in a coffin.
Oddly, given the media hype about that video, the fact that Schalit was to be released without any further up-to-date film proof of his state of health and even life was indicative that the media had taken a decision to reduce as much as possible any matter that could interfere with the story line: Gilad is coming home.
At Pajama’s Media, Jonathan Speyer, in acknowledging that “Israel’s response does not typify that of Western democracies”, suggests that as a Western democracy, Israel “is forced by circumstance to require from its citizens a…willingness to sacrifice [more] than any comparable society. The result is a curious and possibly dysfunctional version of communal concern”.
The force of circumstance that is applied, of course, is done so by the media. It amplifies opinions held by a minority, thrusts to the fore its own editorial bias and skews the reality by omission, by unfair and unbalanced presentation. Instead of identifying with the threats of terror, war and hostility, the media adopted the imagery spoon-fed it: save the child.
Moreover, the media guided the public’s interest in one direction. Benny Katz of the Semitic Action movement pointed out that “Not once did the media legitimize the option of an Entebbe-style rescue or the execution of Hamas prisoners until Gilad is free… it was all about Israel submitting to Hamas demands”. According to Dror Eydar in Israel Hayom, the media had been engaged in the aestheticization of politics until a “shackled mutednes that was imposed on the public debate was lifted” and “suddenly, the media started to do its job…only after the details of the deal were ironed out”.
In the end, the question of the media's involvement devolves to whether it was acting professionally, which was doubtful, and does the media feel any communal or national responsibility?
Uzi Benjamin is sure, as he wrote in The Seventh Eye, that with the power-press-public axis as it is, there is no chance of the media acting different in the future.
That is very bad news.