[iDC] From Anat Balint
Anat Balint - Ha'aretz
anatb at haaretz.co.il
Sun Jun 15 23:44:24 UTC 2008
I'm new to the group, so let me introduce myself briefly.
My name is Anat Balint, I'm a PhD student in Media and communications at Goldsmiths, university of London. Just finished my first year and my thesis is around reality TV.
I'm Israeli and before I came to London I was the media correspondent of Ha'aretz daily newspaper (see: www.haaretz.com for the English online version). Before that I was writing about media for the media magazine "The 7th Eye", published by the Israel Democracy Institute (a think tank). In the past I also worked as a content editor on Israeli channel 2 (mainly culture programmes) and I also have some experience in radio journalism. So, one can certainly say I'm into media...
My academic background is a bit different though: I did me MA in Social Psychology (Tel-Aviv university). My thesis was about forgiveness between groups (the Jewish-Arab case in Israel, what else could it be?).
Currently I'm interested in commercialization of media content especially in the age of convergence and cross-platform content.
I attach in this message my fare-well article that was written when I left my work as the media correspondent of Ha'aretz. It was published in July 2006 and addresses the issue of the declining status of journalists and its effect on the freedom of the press. While some of the stories I mention are Israeli (and explained in footnotes), I think the bigger picture is global and may come as relevant to journalists in many other countries.
Would be happy to hear from you.
The Crisis of the Press
No One to Turn to
By Anat Balint
If ‘content is king’, as advertising executives like to put it, then the makers of content—journalists—are practically slaves, writes Anat Balint in her parting words (at least for the time being) from the profession
My tenure at Ha'aretz began with a feverish exchange of faxes. If truth be told, the brunt of this activity was conducted on my part. At the time, I was under the impression that a work contract is open to negotiations between employer and employee. With this in mind, I scoured over the contract that was given to me with utmost seriousness. I considered the significance of every last clause and passed on my comments to my future employers. My trusted secret adviser was a well-known and respected commentator on economic affairs, who is the only one in his field today that holds a socialist world view.
The comments I had did not necessarily touch upon salary matters, but were primarily connected to my standing as a journalist vis à vis my employers: Can they really demand that I work around the clock? (Yes). Does the newspaper retain all the rights to my articles and can it make whatever additional use of them that it sees fit? (Yes). Am I guaranteed legal protection in the case of a law suit? Not according to the contract. I would have to rely on an age-old tradition of the publisher backing his writers. Management explained to me that this ‘sacred trust’ was breached only once and that I shouldn’t lose any sleep over it. When my future bosses realized that I was adamant about pursuing this course, they made a small gesture: they were willing to increase the vacation time during my first year by two whole days! In the end, few of my requests were accepted and the principal clauses remained intact.
The concluding talk with the paper’s general director in the run-up to the contract signing was decidedly pleasant. I suspect that he was somewhat bemused by the spectacle that had unfolded before his eyes over the course of two weeks. He explained to me why the paper could not agree to most of my requests and added that “It’s just a standard contract”. Perhaps he realized that I was slightly demoralized by the way things had turned out, as he really appeared to go out of his way to be nice to me. Towards the end of our meeting, he flashed a small smile and told me in a conciliatory tone: “Don’t worry, feistiness is a good trait in a reporter. We value that here”. To me, it was obvious that we had shared an ironic moment: After making it clear to the journalist just where she stood with respect to the employer, she was unleashed to channel her energies against the rest of the world. The director, so it seemed, was not conscious of this at all. Nevertheless, at that early stage, I was unable to appreciate just how great the irony was or to what extent the pecking order that was unveiled to me in that room was indicative of the state of affairs in the field that I was about to cover.
I served as Ha'aretz’s media correspondent for the past four years (2002-2006), a stormy yet captivating period in my career. Incidents that attested to the profession’s tumultuous state surfaced nearly every day. As I look back on this period, it has become abundantly clear that throughout this time I did not have the opportunity to report on so much as one positive development in the world of journalism, especially any that concerned the status of journalists. One exception to this rule was the establishment of Channel 10’s news company, which I followed closely. For a short while, this process created the sense that there is true competition between Israel’s media outlets over the talent, moxie, and professionalism of reporters. Channel 10 supplied new jobs, advanced young reporters to centre stage, and provided a dignified platform for veterans (even rejuvenating the careers of some of the profession’s elder statesmen). However, that's the only exception to the over all grim picture. Besides the emergence of the new channel, what comes to mind as I look back on these years are the sad and worrisome stories that I submitted – huge scandals as well as short footnotes that document the continuous decline in the status of journalists and the journalism profession on the whole. When all is said and done, the significance of this trend is the unremitting and horrifying erosion of the media’s ability to produce brave and meaningful journalism. Therefore, these troubling developments should concern not only those who earn their livelihood from the field of journalism.
As part of my coverage of the Israeli media, I kept track of the dismissal of quite a few journalists, primarily from the written press. On account of the worldwide crisis that has hit the printed press, all the papers have let go of staff and implemented downsizing programmes over the past few years. These incidents were not covered in an orderly fashion by reporters, myself included. Moreover, these steps were executed in a gradual, practically surreptitious manner. Consequently, they were not ingrained in the public consciousness as a full-fledged phenomenon. Young journalists were sent packing, as were quite a few of their elder colleagues, some of whom had already turned fifty. And all this played itself out in a nonchalant fashion. The veterans suddenly found themselves banished from the place they considered home, and many of them lack any real vocational alternative. The younger reporters often had a tough time finding a new place of work as well. Many were pushed to the margins of the media world or left the field altogether. None of these journalists publicly protested their dismissal, nor did anyone come to their aid.
I mostly delved into those dismissals that were tinged with the foul air of scandal. The background was usually political or economic pressures that were brought to bear on media outlets, or a capricious and inept management style on the part of the head of a media organization. At times, management was so feckless that I got wind of the dismissal before the fired reporter did. This is a humiliating situation. In all these instances, I was shocked by the loneliness of the dismissed journalists. No one stood on their side, nor did they have a formal address to turn to for help. What’s more, the Israeli law does not contain so much as a sub-clause that affords journalists with some sort of protection. Strange as it may seem, the dismissal is perceived by the professional environment, and inevitably by the sacked employees themselves, as a ‘personal conflict’, ‘personal failure’, or a mere ‘lack of chemistry’. From my perspective, I saw things completely differently. The dismissed employee was but another in a long line of journalists who lost their job without any prior warning. It happened to them for the same reason it happened to others: it was all too easy. Management simply had to call them into the office and inform them that they were going home.
I also tracked the disintegration of those few bodies that are entrusted with safeguarding the freedom of the press in Israel. During my tenure, the Israel Press Council, which was never a significant factor in all that concerns protecting journalists, was embroiled in countless petty feuds and completely collapsed. Even today (as of July 2006), after its supposed reestablishment, the Council is not really functioning. Its members, for example, have not managed to reach consensus on the appointment of a new president for what is now nearly three years. In fact, the Council’s primary concern has long been to serve as the watchdog of the newspaper owners’ interests, under the façade of ‘freedom of the press’.
Alternatively, the journalists unions, which appeared to be revitalized by the reestablishment of the National Federation of Israel Journalists, have long been controlled by functionaries from Israel’s public broadcasting service. The massive convulsions that are sweeping through the media world, particularly newspapers and television, have yet to reach their ears. These ‘apparatchiks’ are mired in ugly personal vendettas against the likes of Channel 33 – a small, under-budgeted public television channel, with a modest viewership, which is dedicated to educational and cultural topics. Several days after the dismissal of Nir Becher, the editor of Yedioth Ahronot's weekend magazine (Seven Days), I spoke with the chairperson of the National Federation, Arye Shaked—a long-time journalist and manager at Israel's public radio station —on some other matter. Towards the end of our conversation, I asked Shaked whether the union has taken a stance on the Becher incident, or if it intends on doing so. He mulled it over for a minute before responding: “Oh that. We thought of raising it at our meeting, but it rained and the meeting was cancelled”. On more than one occasion, I sought a reaction from the relevant bodies that could conceivably speak out or take serious action on issues that concern the freedom of the press, but I came to the realization that, in effect, there is no one to turn to.
Naturally, I do not mean to detract from the importance of the on-going struggle over the public broadcasting service’s continued existence, of which the journalists union is one of the factors involved. I am well aware of the vital role of public broadcasting and therefore devoutly covered the developments at the Broadcasting Authority. Practically every day, I felt as if I was documenting the gradual implosion of a massive edifice. This development has major implications on both journalism and the making of quality television, but the latter is beyond the scope of the present article. To follow then is a recap of what has transpired over the past few years at the news departments of the public television and radio: the departure of prominent reporters both during and after the reign of Yosef Barel; only a few young journalists managed to overcome the organization’s illogical thicket of hiring policies and land jobs at the Authority; mediocre and weak managers were appointed through bids that were tainted by politics; the budget was cut; and the ratings continued to drop.
The public broadcasting service is the only journalism body in Israel that is not under private control. Therefore, it is the lone organization that could potentially provide a platform for the voice of the weak and offer critical and independent coverage of the activities of business magnates. However, the Authority has steadily weakened of its own accord. In an era of robust privatization, in which tycoons impact the lives of citizens no less than the government, this process is indeed cause for alarm. It is enough to recall the dismissal of Channel 1’s reporter Orli Vilnai-Federbush, whose critical coverage of the Finance Ministry’s policies was brutally terminated by Yosef Barel (“Who are you to tell the greats of the nation, Shitreet and Netanyahu, what to do?” he lashed out at her) in order to understand why the public broadcasting service’s reporters are currently hard pressed to provide brave and influential coverage.
This depiction of the Broadcasting Authority is somewhat misleading. For someone who is not familiar with the Israeli media scene, it may seem as if the public broadcasting service is besieged by pressure, politicization, and corruption, while reporters at commercial outlets have unlimited freedom and room for manoeuvre. In truth, the Authority’s journalists enjoy a freedom that is off limits to the private sector: the press leak. Given the nature of employment in the public service, their jobs are secure and they also enjoy the backing of a strong union. Consequently, they have no compunctions about leaking information on the politics of their work place - from banal gossip to huge scandals - to their colleagues in the commercial press.
In contrast, private-sector journalists are susceptible to arm-twisting. On more than one occasion, I was tipped off about incidents in which pressure had been exerted on writers at one of the big papers. However, I was repeatedly frustrated by the inability to translate the information into a story. When I contacted the journalist in question, I often encountered a frightened colleague who begged me to put the story to rest. Since there is almost no way of publishing that sort of information without confirming it with the journalist, these stories almost never made it to print. Politicians attempting to bring about the ousting of a highly-respected investigative journalist; investigative reports on business magnates and politicians that were stuck in the editorial pipeline for weeks on end; a candidate for prime minister with strong connections to the upper echelons of the press who was basically allowed to revise stories that revolved around him; a female minister that merited preferential treatment due to similar connections – all this and more remain as incomplete documents in the inner recesses of my computer.
In December 2005 it momentarily appeared as if the issue of freedom of the press and the status of journalists had finally found its way to the public discourse. The investigative documentary about Israir on the programme Uvdah (Fact) ostensibly had all the right ingredients for this sort of discussion. In retrospect this whole affair caused more harm than good to the public discourse on the freedom of the press, for it confirmed the stereotypical image that many people have on the ways that the press is silenced. According to the prevalent view, an extremely powerful mogul discreetly contacts a colleague and within minutes an order lands on the editor’s desk to bury a story. As a result, the story never sees the light of day. Those who followed the Israir case experienced the coveted catharsis. The investigation, which was initially put on ice, was broadcast two weeks later. The ‘good guys’ won, the public merited the information that was nearly concealed, and order was duly restored. In essence, the Israir case was extraordinary given the high drama involved and, more importantly, the fact that it was displayed in such a transparent manner before the public, which ultimately led to its ‘happy’ ending. However, this is not how things usually work.
Following the decision of Rafi Ginat, Yedioth Ahronoth’s editor-in-chief, to fire Nir Becher, the aggrieved issued a slew of depositions to the court, which provide an appreciably more accurate picture of the inner workings of the media. Becher’s detailed testimony exposed the stifling measures that are wielded against reporters and editors who dare target economic and political power bases.
The response to the affidavits that was released on the paper’s behalf stated, among other things, that Becher admitted in the meeting with the editor-in-chief that there wasn’t so much as one investigative article that the paper’s management ruled out. This is apparently true and it is for this very reason that Becher’s revelation offers an accurate depiction of the crisis that journalists are mired in. You don’t have to shelve investigations and censure stories in order to undermine a reporter’s ability to engage in hard-hitting journalism. There are other—slippery and stealth—ways to go about this. The litany of onerous pressures that were brought to bear on Becher, according to his affidavits, over the course of many long months is only one way to neutralize incisive reporting.
For instance, it is worth asking why the investigative reporter Guy Leshem, who earned the Sokolow Prize (the Israeli version of the Pulitzer) for his work at Yedioth Ahronoth (to include investigations that led to the conviction of Omri Sharon, a member of parliament and the son of former prime minister Arik Sharon), was not allowed to resume his job after taking an unpaid leave of absence, despite his desire to return. Leshem’s professional success did not lead to promotions or financial rewards from his supervisors, nor did the other papers circle overhead with tempting offers. Today he is working as a freelance writer at TheMarker (Haaretz’s business section) and as a researcher for Uvdah.
Then there is the story of David Ratner, my colleague at Ha'aretz. I contacted him in order to write a brief item on his receiving an honourable mention within the framework of the Pratt Prizes for Reporting on Environmental Issues (for the stories he contributed to a series on the condition of Israel’s streams). The interview was conducted several days after he had left the paper to become the speaker at Rambam Medical Centre (a large hospital in Haifa). We spoke about his decision to leave the journalism profession, despite his love and passion for it. “Do you want to know what the breaking point was?” he asked. “I was standing in the middle of Na’aman Brook, immersed in mud over my knees, when I got a call from the editorial desk. They insisted that I leave everything and go cover some story about a psychosis-related suicide. The burden was unbearable and the effort became thankless because the fact that everyone knew that you could bring wonderful stories didn’t change a thing. They would still rush you off on any stupid matter that could have easily been pulled off of the wire services.” Boundless exploitation of reporters is indeed one way to detract from the quality of their work or to simply break their spirit altogether.
As a rule, it seems that winning an award for excellence in journalism is a bad omen in Israel nowadays. Soon after receiving the international Naples Prize for his story on the uprooting of Palestinian-owned olive trees by settlers, Meron Rappaport, a journalist and editor at Yedioth Ahronoth, was fired. The reason for his dismissal: Rappaport failed to abide by his editor’s instructions and penned a headline that wasn’t ‘soft’ enough on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Dismissals at the wave of a hand; low wages; a lack of professional backing; unreasonable workloads; insufficient compensation or slow promotion; and the appointment of weak editors are all present-day realities in the daily routine of practically every media organization in Israel. Some of the more distinguished journalists in the written press have fled, or were jettisoned from, their jobs and have wandered on to television (the commercial variety, of course), in the hopes of finding better reward for their talents and efforts. In an environment that is completely alien to journalism culture, they have found a couple of forlorn islands of reporting surrounded by a sea of entertainment and reality shows. “They are all crying to me about how much they miss the written press,” one of the publishers told me. “So let them make journalism,” I countered, but my comment didn’t warrant a reply.
The Becher incident was compelling because it clearly divulged the trap that journalists are caught in. Becher sued Yedioth Ahronoth for one million shekels (roughly £150,000), but there is considerable doubt as to whether he has a legal case. There is presently no law on the books that recognizes the uniqueness of the journalistic endeavour or prevents management from encroaching on its reporters’ freedom. But the appropriate place for holding a discussion on the freedom of the press is in the public sphere, not the courts. What’s more, the discussion should have been initiated long before he was fired, but so long as Becher held on to his post, none of what went on within his newspaper was brought to the public’s attention (and the same could be said for his predecessors). It was only after his employers started to suspect that aspects of their managerial conduct would be published that he lost his job. This incident further underscored the fact that journalists are utterly defenceless when they find themselves in a struggle against their publishers over their professional values. They are even kept from doing what they do best: telling their story. Over the course of my years as Haaretz’s media correspondent, I learnt that the chances of journalists or editors daring to take a stand over a conflict with management depends on their personal courage, the amount of animosity pent up inside them, and, not least, the extent to which they are reliant on their place of work for their livelihood.
The enfeeblement of journalists is not just an Israeli story. It is happening all over the world, against the backdrop of the rise of the internet and the vast changes that the media world is going through. Given the potential ramifications of this development, the time has come to initiate a discourse on the future of the profession. But in Israel, so it seems, the process runs deeper than in most countries and its impact is more severe. The watershed event in Israel took place well before the birth of the blog or portal, with the shift to personal contracts at the paper Chadashot (News) in 1984. This delivered a death blow to reporter solidarity, as it signalled the end of the necessary, delicate balance between the owners of the media outlets and their employees.
Today, the majority of journalists are ignorant of the processes that they themselves are undergoing, and the declining status of journalists has yet to merit the serious discourse it deserves. It is every man for himself; every journalist is pitted against his or her employer on an individual basis. The more conscious reporters bicker about their predicament behind closed doors, while others have been deluded into self-content by the aura of glamour and acclaim that still surrounds the profession. On more than one occasion, I have been dumbstruck by the merry intermingling of journalists with senior managers and tycoons at press conferences and cocktail parties. The identical wine glasses in all the attendees’ hands apparently cause the reporters to believe that they really belong to the same class.
Ironic as it may be, the ones that are seriously pondering the future of the media are advertising executives, marketing people, and businesspersons. At conferences in lushly carpeted halls, before sumptuous lunches that provide another opportunity for networking, these same ad execs run state-of-the-art presentations. Inasmuch as I have managed to grasp their professional parlance, the speakers always end their sessions with the same bottom line, which they are apparently quite fond of: “Content is king”. I would be hard pressed to come up a word that is as lacking in content as ‘content’; but if content is indeed king, then its current makers—journalists—are practically slaves.
* * *
At this year’s Sokolow Prize ceremony, Prof. Zohar Shavit, the chairperson of the award’s Written Press Prize Committee, chose to broach the topic of journalists' status. “You can’t expect the journalists to solve the professional crisis of journalism on their own,” she said. “The journalists cannot protect themselves any more than a textile worker whose rights are abused.”
I disagree with the second part of Shavit’s observation. Journalists are not on a par with the oppressed textile worker. After all, scrutinizing reality, as well as outlining processes and interpreting them, is precisely what journalists do. They are not exempt from engaging in these tasks when the topic pertains to their own situation. At the very least, they are obligated to talk and write. And as far as I am concerned, they should be doing much more. Organizations should be set up to defend the freedom of the press; to provide legal support to all members of the profession; and to lobby for appropriate legislation. Freedom must come from within. From the look of things in recent years, no one else is going to do the job for them.
Published in the Israeli media magazine "The 7th Eye", 01.07.06
a.. For the Israel Democracy Institute website, the publisher of "The 7th Eye": (English): http://www.idi.org.il/sites/english/Pages/homepage.aspx
a.. For "The 7th Eye" website (Hebrew): http://www.the7eye.org.il/Pages/home.aspx
a.. For the original version of this article (Hebrew): http://www.the7eye.org.il/articles/Pages/article6312.aspx?RetUrl=/WRITTERS/Pages/anat_balint.aspx
 Channel 10 is Israel's second commercial channel, which debuted in January 2002.
 Established by and comprised of publishers, editors, journalists and public representatives, the Israel Press Council is a voluntary body that is dedicated to safeguarding the freedom of the press and upholding the profession’s ethical standards.
 Yedioth Ahronoth is Israel's largest daily newspaper. Becher claimed that he was fired because he insisted on publishing investigative articles on senior politicians and business magnates, despite the strong objections of Rafi Ginat, the paper's editor-in-chief at the time. According to Yedioth, he was dismissed for leaking information concerning these internal conflicts to the undersigned.
 Yosef Barel was the controversial director-general of the Israeli public broadcasting service from 2001 to 2005. He was dismissed in an unprecedented manner by the government due to malfeasance and corruption.
 Israel’s main public channel.
 Meir Shitreet is a long-standing member of the Knesset. At the time, he was serving as a ‘minister in the Finance Ministry’ (something along the lines of a minister without portfolio). Benjamin Netanyahu, the ex-prime minister, was serving as finance minister at the time.
 Uvdah is an investigative television magazine on Channel 2 (Israel’s leading commercial television station), which resembles 60 Minutes.
 Israir is an Israeli airline which, at the time, was seeking a permanent license for operating the Tel-Aviv-New-York route, within the framework of the government's decision to adopt an "open skies" policy and encourage competition in a market that was hitherto dominated by El-Al, the former national carrier. In July 2005 an Israir airplane with 250 passengers nearly crashed while taking off from JFK Airport. Uvda’s investigative report focused on this close call and the subsequent attempts by the company’s senior management to cover up the incident, lest the Israeli Ministry of Transportation reconsider the awarding of the license. Israir’s owners, Nochi Dankner, who are among Israel's most powerful business magnates, put pressure on Uvda’s broadcaster (Keshet) to refrain from running the piece, and Keshet’s owner, Muzi Wertheim, another business magnate, consented to their demand. However, the story about the intention to bury the documentary report was leaked to the printed press and a public outcry ensued. As a result, the broadcaster was compelled to air the report, albeit two weeks after originally planned.
 Chadashot was established in 1984 as a daily tabloid. The newspaper’s founder, Amos Schocken (the publisher of Ha'aretz), sought to compete with the other tabloids—especially Yedioth Ahronoth—on their own turf. Chadashot was a fresh, experimental publication, which introduced new journalism to the Israeli press. However, the newspaper was closed in December 1993 due to financial reasons.
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