In 1787 Thomas Jefferson wrote that if he had to choose between “a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” One would expect that a president-elect would have some respect for the teaching of a founding father of his nation. Not so.
In his campaign, Donald Trump singled out the media as enemies, called them corrupt and crooked, accused them of rigging the elections for Clinton, mocked a journalist with disability, and threatened to sue journalists and newspapers. In Israel, things seem to have been different than in America, but only in form, and not in essence.
From his early days in Israeli politics, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu developed a deep hostility towards traditional media outlets. In 1999, he believed that they were behind his defeat to Ehud Barak, so when he returned to power in 2009 he was armed with the “Israel HaYom” (Israel Today) free daily paper, which is funded by Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Edelson, one of Trump’s biggest supporters.
Pundits call this paper Bibiton (Bibi’s mouthpiece) and indeed, it seems that Netanyahu gave Jefferson’s statement a twist: “a government that has its own newspaper”.
But this was not enough. Last week, Ilana Dayan, whose weekly Uvda (Fact) program is the Israeli version of CBS’ “60 Minutes”, ran a story on Sarah Netanyahu’s alleged interference in sensitive state affairs. Instead of rebutting the facts, her husband responded with Nixonian paranoia. However, while Richard Nixon used to unleash VP Spiro Agnew at the journalists, Benjamin Netanyahu viciously attacked Dayan himself.
How different it was when I served as the spokesman of the second Rabin government (1992-95).
In 1977, in his first term as prime minister, Dan Margalit, then correspondent of Haaretz in Washington, broke the news that when Rabin had served as Israel’s ambassador in the United States (1968-73), his wife kept dollars in a bank account in Washington, without reporting to the Israeli tax authorities. Rabin assumed responsibility for this and resigned. It took him 15 years to come back.
In 1994 I flew with Rabin to Aqaba, Jordan, for a televised interview with King Hussein. Now guess who the moderator was: none other than the same Dan Margalit. Flying back to Jerusalem, Rabin sat in the helicopter next to the reporter who had caused him to lose his first premiership, and chatted with him amicably.
“They have a job to do,” Rabin once explained to us his relationship with the journalists, “and so do I.” Leaders’ prejudice and paranoia aside, the media has itself to blame for a good part of the scorn it has earned.
Already in 1993, Howard Kurtz, media critic of the Washington Post, warned in his book “Media Circus”: “For too long we have published newspapers aimed at other journalists — talking to ourselves, really, and to the insiders we gossip with — and paying scant attention to readers.”
At no time other than Election Day was the distance of the press from reality more blatant. In 1996 we went to sleep reassured by all the commentators that Shimon Peres was going to win the elections. We woke up in the morning with Netanyahu as our prime minister. And in 2016 scores of smug mavens on television studios outsmarted each other in analyzing Hillary Clinton’s forthcoming victory.
Aaron Goldman, on the other hand, predicted Trump’s victory. His firm, 4C Insights, which had already forecast the real Brexit result, looked at social media before the elections and found out that views of Trump were 58 percent positive while views of Clinton were 48 percent positive. “Trump came in big on social and he rode it all the way through to the White House,” he told the Wall Street Journal (Nov. 10). Why couldn’t most journalists notice that?
Kyle Pope, editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, called upon journalists not to be intimidated by Trump’s attack on the media: “We need to embrace, even relish, our legacy as malcontents and troublemakers, people who are willing to say the thing that makes everyone else uncomfortable.”
That is true, but not enough. In order for journalists to really fulfill their mission as watchdogs of democracy, they have to regain the trust of their audiences. And they should better hurry, because it seems that while Jefferson preferred newspapers without government, Trump and Netanyahu seem to prefer the other alternative.