Journalists who cover both American and Israeli life are feeling professionally whiplashed these days. They are confronted by a new leader in Washington attacking the mainstream press almost daily and a prime minister in Jerusalem who, we learn, held secret discussions with a media mogul to upend how Israeli journalists do their job.
For all the talk about the imminent demise of newspapers in the age of “free” access, world leaders like Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu seem obsessed with combating and/or controlling the press.
If we journalists have so little clout, why are these heads of state so preoccupied with what we have to say?
The truth is, despite serious financial problems exacerbated by a “why pay for news?” culture and the growing phenomenon of “fake news,” traditional journalism still has a vital role to play in democratic societies — especially at a time when some basic freedoms, like freedom of the press, appear vulnerable.
At his first press conference in six months, facing shocking reports that he and his team have been in collusion with Russian president Vladimir Putin, Trump determined that the best defense is an aggressive offense. From the outset he chose to vilify the press and avoid reporters’ tough questions. He conflated serious media outlets like CNN with the irresponsible BuzzFeed website rather than explain why he finds Putin, who is wreaking havoc in Syria and in much of the world, more trustworthy than the heads of the FBI, CIA and National Security.
Any hope that Trump would rise to the occasion as he is about to assume the power and dignity of the Oval Office was dashed as he stayed in campaign mode, bullying reporters, using crude language, praising himself and still mocking Hillary Clinton and other political rivals. It seems clear that as president, Trump will continue to portray the press as dishonest, biased and worse, playing to the prejudices of about half the country and chipping away at the reputation of the Fourth Estate, whose role now becomes even more important, and difficult.
Trump’s unprecedented approach creates new challenges for journalists. For example, when he circumvents the normative methods of presidential communication, sending out 140-character tweets instead of interacting with reporters, does one cover his every tweet as news, letting him set the agenda of each day’s news cycle, or ignore them in an effort to diminish their influence? When the leader of the free world puts forth misinformation, do you call him a liar? When his explainer-in-chief Kellyanne Conway insists that Trump should not be taken at his word but rather at the intentions of his heart, do you laugh or cry? As one journalist responded in frustration, “Are we now supposed to be cardiologists?”
For Jewish media, there are new equations in the face of two leaders who seek to intimidate the press and whose bromance could tempt reporters to pull their punches. For example, do we describe Jews who call for abandoning the two-state solution as radicals or true Zionists? Do we note that moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is foolhardy or justified? Or both? And does having a Jewishly observant family and openly supporting Netanyahu give Trump a pass on a wide swath of disturbing domestic and foreign policy positions as well as his strain of bigotry and bias?
The Trump press conference reminded me of my own upsetting experience in Jerusalem last month, witnessing Prime Minister Netanyahu’s encounter with our group of 50 diaspora Jewish journalists. Throughout the session the Israeli leader was belligerent to a respectful audience, interrupting questions, and posing and answering ones he preferred. He was dismissive in tone, though not nearly as rude or boastful as Trump, his new protector.
Israeli reporters and officials who witnessed the session later noted that Netanyahu had been testier than usual, no doubt because he was under intense scrutiny from the press amid rumors of a pending investigation of criminal wrongdoing. Two weeks later the attorney general’s office launched a criminal investigation on several fronts. The most startling one was based on taped conversations between the prime minister and Arnon Mozes, the wealthy publisher of Yediot Achronot, Israel’s most popular newspaper until American businessman Sheldon Adelson began publishing Yisrael Hayom, a strongly pro-Netanyahu daily, in 2007, and distributing it for free.
Part of the discussion between Netanyahu and Mozes focused on an apparent bribe, with an offer from Mozes that Yediot would soften its tone toward the prime minister and help keep him in power — even hire a couple of reporters Netanyahu could choose. And the prime minister said he would back legislation that would weaken Yisrael Hayom and make Yediot No. 1 again.
In addition to the serious legal issues here, one sees the willingness of a media mogul to sacrifice his newspaper’s integrity to curry favor with the prime minister. And of course there is Netanyahu’s readiness to undermine Adelson, his most influential supporter, for the prospect of more favorable coverage from Yediot. Sadly, but not surprisingly, the prime minister is now blaming the press — not the attorney general or his actions — for his public embarrassment.
The revealing conversations help explain why many Israelis fear that their government is veering away from open democracy, and why the Israel Democracy Index classified the press in 2016 as only “partly free.” As Yedidya Stern, vice president of research at the Israel Democracy Institute, notes in an Opinion piece this week, “this is the price Israel pays for the strengthening control over the Israeli media by those who have mass wealth.” (See page 20.) The fact that the prime minister has insisted on also serving as minister of communications “is not helpful,” he added. (Netanyahu is also minister of foreign affairs and has appointed no deputy minister.)
I can only imagine how betrayed the editors and reporters at Yediot, a reputable newspaper, feel over the revelations that the paper’s owner was ready to sacrifice institutional credibility for legislative help from the prime minister. And it’s no wonder that mainstream American journalists are feeling frustrated and unfairly maligned by Donald Trump and his supporters, blamed for disseminating “fake news,” when in fact it’s the new president who consistently tells whoppers and gets away with it.
After witnessing how the longstanding standards of political behavior were successfully attacked and cast aside by Trump in his campaign, we’ve come to realize that traditional norms are “out,” across the board, extending from social interaction to the workings of the White House. So it’s time for journalists to re-think the way they operate as well. Reporters at the Trump press conference last week should have backed Jim Acosta, their CNN colleague, when he was rebuffed from asking a question and called “fake news” by Trump; they should have refused to continue questioning the president-elect until he responded to Acosta, or even walked out.
A president who thrives on headlines and media attention might think twice about shutting down journalists so openly and unfairly if he knew they would boycott future press conferences.
In these unsettling times, when authoritarianism is in the air here and in Israel and the very definition of “facts” is up for individual interpretation, the role of the responsible journalist is that much more vital. Conditions change, new leaders appear on the scene and the technology and modes of communication are continuously upgraded. But the basic goal of the journalist remains to tell the truth as best we know it and empower the informed.
Here’s hoping that still applies.