When a free press shackles reasonable debate

When a free press shackles reasonable debate

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

Israel’s media operate technologically in the 21st century, but their content sometimes resembles a weekly local paper in pre-television, small-town America.

Israelis have always craved news. Visitors will remember how its public buses would go silent when the clock struck the hour and passengers strained to hear the news reports over tinny speakers.

Their appetite for news is still strong, but too often the diet includes a lot of junk food. Frequently, even in the more serious, non-tabloid forums, gossip and social scandals are given as much play as security issues. Too often, the search for a scoop or pointed opinion overwhelms veracity. Similarly, politicians’ use or misuse of the media for leaks and half-truths is sometimes outrageous.

Nowhere has this been more evident than in the discussion about the threat posed by Iran. Government sources, opposition leaders, academics of all stripes, and policy wonks have all weighed in on the debate. Sources are paraded about with little regard for their credibility. Government officials have platforms by dint of their offices; opposition leaders exploit their parliamentary standing; and military officers and intelligent officials appeal to their experience and prestige. It sometimes seems they all feel a compulsion to publically address every Iranian move. They want the limelight and the media wants exclusives.

The media then arouses and moves the public from one position to another, sometimes within hours or even minutes. Media and politicians alike are engaged in a constant game of “gotcha.”

While Israel is a free and open democracy, it often behaves like a dysfunctional family. In real life, if a family member has a personal crisis, it is not a matter to be discussed even among members of the extended family. Similarly, nuances and subtleties of every immediate security matter ought not to be subjected to public debate. A problem which begins with the political system is exacerbated by a surplus of current and especially former military and intelligence officers, all of whom still consider themselves experts. Media outlets are constantly looking for another opinion from another general or scholar who is also only too ready to throw his or her brilliant insight into the mix.

Religious confrontations do not present direct existential threats, but how the government responds to these issues can decide a politician’s or a party’s fate. Here, too, it has become more and more common for newspaper reportage to resemble editorial writing.

At a global or regional level, there is a danger when too much information reaches the public’s ears. When the Israelis and the Palestinians begin to negotiate in or through the media, the negotiations usually prove to be unproductive. When negotiations go public, the negotiators are forced to fall back on internal or partisan posturing.

Last week, Ha’aretz reported that former Ambassador Dennis Ross, the strongest advocate Israel had in the White House who resigned in November, still had a secure telephone line to the president in his new office at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. As Jeffrey Goldberg reported in his blog, the White House quickly denied what had been a dubious story to begin with. Ross, an unpaid adviser to the State Department, left the administration on the best of terms. However, it was inexplicable why a source or a reporter would concoct a story that could be damaging to all parties concerned.

This week, the spinmeisters will try to make hay out of the meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. It will be a test whether the two chief foreign policy makers will be able to avoid a confrontation. It may well be an even bigger challenge to see if the Israeli press can restrain itself and stay within the context and framework of their meetings and actually permit the two to meet without creating a contretemps.

Sadly, perhaps, this is too much to ask. The meeting is the first between the two in almost two years, and ripe for leaks, rumors, and innuendo. On the other hand, maybe it will be the opportunity for Lieberman to demonstrate that he can play politics more seriously than many Israelis believe. If not, it could be another media field day.

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