We screwed up. All of us. Me too. The Israeli media failed in this war. No one will appoint an investigating committee to judge us – we are the ones who reserve the right to judge others – but it doesn’t change the fact that we have screwed up. It may be the only failure that isn’t being discussed in the media but that doesn’t mean it did not occur.
Screw up number one
We were irresponsible. Immediately after the katyusha attack on Kfar Giladi in which 12 reserve paratroopers were killed, one of the Channel Two TV News Directors called the newsroom.
“Are you out of your minds,” he yelled, “You are reporting that there are transport trucks carrying ammunition in the area. What do you think, Hizbullah don’t speak Hebrew?”
“What do you want from me,” replied the person on the other end of the line. “The competitors are reporting it as well.”
In addition, the warnings of an impending catastrophe should a missile hit the petrochemical plants in Haifa Bay were tantamount to an invitation to mass murder. And then there’s the reporter doing his standup under a street sign: “For obvious reasons I cannot say where the katyusha landed…”
Screw up number two
We failed to restrain ourselves. Freedom of expression is tested during times of anger and conflict and enables all opinions and outraged expressions of dissent that we may not want to hear. But even for this there have to be limits.
To quote US Supreme Court Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who said that ‘Even the most fervent defense of freedom of expression will not protect the individual who yells fire in a theatre and causes panic.’
Even in an enlightened democracy the media have to check themselves to make sure they are not contributing to an unnecessary mass hysteria. We know there is a fire, give ‘em a couple of minutes to put it out.
Screw up number three
We failed the test of humility. Freedom of expression wasn’t set into law just to convince soldiers that they are going to spill their blood for nothing, only because the generals don’t understand what every rookie military correspondent already knows. “The prime minister failed to understand the plans presented to him by the IDF.” This according to a well-respected commentator.
Since the prime minister maintains that he understood the plan and the IDF says he understood, the only way the commentator could have reached that conclusion is by telepathy. Journalists always explain that people are mad at them because they tell the truth, which is often unpleasant or uncomfortable to hear. However, they fail in situations where there is more than one truth.
Screw up number four
We failed the test of sympathy. “You know what is being said around here,” I am told in a late night conversation with a combat soldier who had lost two of his comrades that day in the fighting. “We aren’t shooting in the right direction. We need to turn our artillery around and shoot at the television cameras and the offices of the newspapers.”
Every Israeli media person heard this conversation in different forms over the last few weeks. Even if it's clear that the media are not supposed to be in charge of military morale, the fact that Israeli soldiers feel that way during battle is a sad fact that merits some consideration.
Screw up number five
We failed the test of fairness. When the headline of every newspaper shouts ‘Dismissed’ even though the Chief of Northern Command was still in his post, it manufactures a reality instead of reporting it. (Kaplinski has gone back to military headquarters and General Udi Adam remained chief of northern command.)
When the military reporter says the chief of staff comes from the air force and has never seen a platoon at ground level, he knows – or is supposed to know – that Dan Halutz may not know how to manage a stock portfolio, but he also served as Head of Operations and Deputy chief of staff and so has seen more than a few platoons on the move.
When the government opposition publicly announces that ‘this is no time for criticism’, but quietly, through the media leaks gossip and criticisms of the battlefront and the home front, someone should be blushing. Seems to me that in this war, the veteran Major Rumor has been promoted to Lt. Colonel ‘According to’.
Screw up number six
We failed the test of consistency. If over the last six years, you did not warn that something has to be done about Hizbullah, you have no right to now say that 'something should have been done with Hizbullah six years ago’.
If for three years you insisted on a land offensive, you cannot now complain with a fallen face about the losses of that offensive.
If for years you have been writing that the defense budget has to be cut in favor of the welfare budget, what is so surprising that there are not enough ceramic vests for the soldiers?
If you heralded the fact that ’finally Israel has a civilian government’ don’t start moaning that there aren’t enough generals.
Screw up number seven
We failed the blabbermouth test. We immediately decided ‘failure’, ‘screw-up’ and ‘irresponsibility’. We asked for a commission of inquiry in the first week, we demanded dismissals in the second week, we suggested bringing down the government even before the third week was out.
There were so many hours of broadcasting that we stopped monitoring ourselves and etched phrases into our consciousness that no one really understands.
“Israel’s deterrence capabilities have been severely handicapped,” we told the whole world. This without bothering to remember that deterrence is a psychological situation for which there are no standards of measurement and no one can really know what those capabilities are.
After the Six-Day War, for example, the Israeli deterrence was at its highest and we got attacked on Yom Kippur anyway. After Yom Kippur every one knew that Israel’s deterrence had been damaged but no one attacked.
We confused opinions with fact, constructive criticism with lashing out. Every so often we remembered that ‘it’s too soon to debate’ and then immediately the debate would begin. Why should anyone believe us when we don’t believe ourselves?
Screw up number eight
We failed the test of trust. We zig zagged between unexplainable waves of patriotism and unrelenting criticism. On the third day of the fighting we reported that ‘Israel destroyed some 50 percent of the enemy.’
We were quick to believe the number of dead from the Israeli air strike in the village of Kana. We admitted our failure in explaining Israel’s position abroad just before the UN Security Council condemned the Hizbullah attacks without its usual equal condemnation of some Israeli action or another for the sake of ‘balance’. (First time in the UN’s history that a vote was unbalanced – in Israel’s favor.)
One of the networks broadcast two photos from Lebanon after it was proved that they had been doctored. We had already informed everyone that a ceasefire wouldn’t last long.
A family from Kiryat Shmona who was staying in the neighborhood community center stopped me on last Tuesday in order to say they are not going home. They heard in the media that any minute now the fighting will resume on Israel’s northern border and want to know how we know this. That’s just it; we don’t know.
The Israeli media are very important to me. I’ve been part of them and they a part of me all my adult life. The reasons the media failed are not their fault. Contrary to what is generally believed, the media do not lack a love of country.
We all have children in the army, or friends doing reserve duty, or relatives from the north who are living with us right now. But this is the first war conducted in a multichannel world, Internet, impulsive, competitive and inconsistent. It wasn’t only the combat soldiers who lacked equipment, so did the media. We were led into making mistakes, some of them innocent, others out of arrogance.
“We should have imposed a self censorship,” a senior television official said to me. I think he is wrong. Censorship is always a bad thing. What we needed to do – and still need to do – is to acknowledge the fact that rules change during a war.
Even in the most vibrant democracy in the world, freedom isn’t just a privilege it is also a responsibility. We have to realize that if the rules change for the entire country, then they change for us journalists as well.
Now when the smoke settles, we need to demand from ourselves what we demand from others – to acknowledge that something is definitely wrong and to try and fix it. Or as Prime Minister Olmert said in his Knesset speech last week: “Mistakes were made that require investigation. We will not hide them nor brush them under the carpet.”