Media ownership in Israel is highly concentrated. The country has only three nationally read newspapers, and these in turn also control virtually all the local papers. Broadcast news is nearly as highly concentrated. The high level of media concentration allows a small clique to control the national agenda to a very high degree.
The media can take an obscure protest movement and place it at the forefront of national consciousness, and it can completely ignore other protests and thereby deny them the air on which protest breathes: publicity. The prime example of the former is the Four Mothers Movement, started by four mothers of sons serving in Lebanon, after the death of 73 soldiers in a tragic crash of two IDF helicopters in 1997.
The massive attention given by the media to these formerly obscure residents of northern kibbutzim and towns enabled them to push the issue of withdrawal from Lebanon to the top of the national agenda. By the end of his brief tenure as prime minister, the only success that Ehud Barak could claim was that he had withdrawn the IDF from southern Lebanon.
To what degree the withdrawal constituted a success is debatable. Current Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon warned at the time that the withdrawal from Lebanon, in which IDF fatalities averaged approximately 24 per year, would embolden the Palestinians by convincing them that Israel is incapable of absorbing any level of casualties.
The Al Aksa Intifada, which has claimed nearly 800 Jewish lives in two and half years, broke out less than six months after the withdrawal from Lebanon. Throughout the current round of violence, Palestinian spokesmen have repeatedly cited Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon as the source of the Palestinian confidence that terror against Israel would pay dividends.
However one evaluates the withdrawal from Lebanon, no one doubts that the attention garnered by the Four Mothers provided much of the momentum for that withdrawal.
For the past week and a half, the Israeli media has been dominated by the protest of single-parents against the government’s dramatic cuts in grants to this group. Vicky Knafo, a twice-divorced mother of three, from the southern town of Mizpe Ramon walked to Jerusalem to protest the cuts, and Ilana Azoulay, who pushed her wheelchair-bound son all the way from Arad to Jerusalem, quickly became the symbols of the protest. Since arriving in Jerusalem, the two women have been living in protest tents, along with other single parents and their children, opposite the Finance Ministry.
Knafo has proven so powerful a symbol of the pain caused by cuts in government transfer payments that Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu felt he had no choice but to meet with her upon her arrival in Jerusalem.
There is no question that the protest of single-parent families is a perfectly legitimate news story, and that the gimmick of walking to Jerusalem shows a great deal of media savvy. It is crucial that the public appreciates what the budget cuts mean in human terms, and the endless media interviews with residents of the protest tent have certainly provided that understanding in spades. Both radio and TV have furnished protesters with a great deal of airtime to describe their plight, and the interviewers have inevitably been quick to express their sympathy.
Few tough questions have been asked about the nature of the protests. Jerusalem Post columnist Daniel Doron described last week the aid given to Vicki Knafo, by Shatil, a subsidiary of the New Israel Fund. The Shatil representative attached to Knafo described her purpose as fostering a "social revolution." On a visit to the protest tents, Doron found that at any given time, actual welfare recipients were greatly outnumbered by advisors and enablers from various groups pushing a "social agenda." Yet the media has tended to ignore the ways it has itself been manipulated by those pursuing a larger agenda.
The media focus on personal interest stories results in an extremely one-sided approach to the issue. While the public gained an awareness of the personal tragedies faced by the single-parents, the long and short-range consequences of restoring full benefits to all those affected by government cuts were of necessity less explored. The question of whether, in the long run, cutting government deficits might not give a push to the creation of jobs that will ultimately be of far greater benefit to welfare recipients was inevitably given short-shrift.
While the question of welfare dependency was discussed – the number of single-parents receiving government benefits has multiplied more than ten times since 1990 – it too took a distant second-place to the individual hardships of the protestors.
One could not help but suspect that the amount of attention given to the protestors derived, at least in part, from the traditional animus of much of the Israeli media for Finance Minister Bibi Netanyahu. The swelling protests over government austerity measures seemed to signal the end of Netanyahu’s hopes of one day regaining the Prime Minister’s residence. And clearly many in the media savored the way that Vicki Knafo made such a polished media performer as Bibi squirm.
The attention paid to the single-parents virtually guarantees that their protest will be followed by a host of others: pensioners, students, unemployed, and disabled. One wag suggested that the only way that Netanyahu can avoid having to confront an endless stream of such protests is to hire a large group of chareidim to protest the cuts in child allowances. Torn between its traditional antagonism towards Netanyahu and towards chareidim, the media would likely come down on Netanyahu’s side. And in the process, the whole protest movement against the deep cuts in social transfer payments would be discredited. Indeed Netanyahu’s closest ally in the Finance Ministry, Meir Sheetrit, warned last week that if the government gives in to single-parents it will soon be confronted with new demands from the chareidim.
NOT ONLY DOES THE MEDIA HAVE THE POWER TO BREATHE LIFE INTO AN ISSUE, it also has the power to kill an issue by denying coverage. In recent weeks, for instance, a series of large rallies in Jerusalem on behalf of Jonathan Pollard, involving thousands of participants, have rated little more than a sidebar in any paper.
Shinui leader Tommy Lapid has spent his entire public life in the media. Before entering politics, he served as director-general of the Israel Broadcast Authority, was a long-time columnist for Ma’ariv, and appeared as a regular panelist on Popolitika, Israel’s most popular public affairs program. In short, he knows everyone in the Israeli media and is friendly with most. Those relationships and widespread media sympathy for his anti-religious agenda has resulted in kid gloves treatment for both Shinui and Lapid.
For instance, in the recent scandal of double-voting by Knesset members on the government budget, the undisputed double-vote of Interior Minister Avraham Poraz – once from his own seat and once from that of a fellow MK – has received relatively slight attention compared to the double-voting of other MKs.
Tommy Lapid’s announcement two weeks ago that Shinui has received 123 million shekels from the Finance Ministry to dispense as it wishes provides a much more ominous example of the media turning a blind eye to those it favors.
The grant to Shinui harkened back to a long discredited system of "special allocations" to individual Knesset members, whereby Knesset members received money that they could distribute as they wished without criteria. At one time, much of the funding of Torah educational institutions came via the special allocations to individual chareidi Knesset members. That system made it easy for anti-religious forces to keep up a steady drumbeat of complaint against chareidi "extortion."
For years, chareidi MKs devoted their efforts to ending this system and getting allocations to chareidi institutions included in the regular budget. While they were successful in ending the system of "special allocations" through individual Knesset members, much of the budget of chareidi institutions still comes in the form of "supplemental budgets," which have to be renegotiated every year, and which inevitably give rise to charges of chareidi extortion.
Now here was Tommy Lapid, the embodiment of anti-chareidi sentiment and the champion of "good government" and the "rule of law," boasting of exploiting a discredited system that he had attacked so frequently in the past. For good measure, the allocation of funds directly to Shinui appears to be blatantly illegal. The law requires all coalition agreements relating to monetary allocations to be revealed to the Knesset prior to voting on the budget and that was not done.
Yet neither the blatant hypocrisy nor apparent illegality elicited comment from editorial or op-ed writers in any of the major papers in the two days after Lapid’s announcement.
Rather Lapid was hailed for saving Israeli theatre, the "batei Knesset of the secular," as he put it, by granting 45 million shekels from Shinui’s discretionary fund to theaters. Even the few commentators who sharply criticized Lapid for demanding such discretionary funds did not ask him the same type of questions that inevitably follow any announcement of funding for Torah institutions.
Anytime money is allocated to Torah institutions, Israel TV can be counted on to juxtapose that money to some hole in the roof in a kindergarten in Beersheba. Every unanswered public need is attributed to the funding received by the chareidim. But no one asked Lapid: How can you justify allocating 45 million shekels to subsidize theaters for rich people while children are going hungry and the hospitals are closing for lack of medicines? Those in the media identify with theaters, unlike yeshivos, and so the question never occurred to them.