When the Watchdogs Bark Too Much

Imagine a watchdog that barks at everything that moves: people, birds, vehicles. Not much use, right? The same can be said when Democracy’s “Watchdog” – the media – bark incessantly and without distinguishing between true, false or something in-between.

The latest brouhaha regarding Israeli PM Bennett’s remarks while in New York regarding Corona decision-making, is a good (i.e., bad) case in point. In brief, he remarked that in the final analysis, it is the political leadership that must make the final decisions regarding how to deal with the pandemic. Not only is this true practically, but even more so philosophically. We have democratic elections to select the people on top of the pyramid who will take all interest groups, professional advisers, and disparate areas of life into account. Anything else leads to myopic policy, or even worse: anarchy.

The Israeli media went into a feeding frenzy, as if Bennett had “attacked” Israel’s professional health officials – and from there the epidemiologists, hospital managers, and Ministry of Health officials took umbrage. For what? For the prime minister offering the most banal description of how democratic Israel really works? For “seemingly” undermining the health officials – when he did nothing of the sort?

One of the more serious and highly professional reporters on Israel’s public radio and TV (to remain anonymous to protect his professional standing) actually made an incredible statement (I roughly translate here from the Hebrew): “What Bennett said was true, but it didn’t sound good…”. Now the media are in the business of interpreting “intonation”?!?

Among the many absurdities in this tempest in a teapot is the fact that last year, when the previous government locked down the entire country, the media attacked it for not taking into consideration non-health elements: thousands of small businesses that went bankrupt; severe psychological stress of children and parents stuck together at home for lengthy periods of time; pedagogical harm as many kids couldn’t learn much through Zoom classes; and so on.

Clearly, health professionals have a duty to provide all the health information at their disposal. Just as clearly, the government has to listen to them carefully. But like everything else in life, “it’s complicated” – not only society in general (economy, education, etc.) but even health information is usually not completely clear cut until some time has passed and all the data has been collected, not to mention that Corona itself has mutated and changed its own patterns. Meanwhile, decisions of national import have to be made.

It is precisely here that the media fall down on the job – not on reporting the facts. On that, the Israeli media (print and electronic) are doing quite a good job overall. The problem lies in “insinuation, innuendo, and interpretation.” As a professor of communication, I am well aware that reporters are human too; there is no way that they can completely neutralize their own biases. However, the general approach (or to use a fancier, but more germane word, their weltanschauung) as journalists has been to criticize first, and report later. I call this the post-Watergate syndrome.

Yes, Watergate! It is now almost fifty years since that huge story broke. It had two effects. The short-term: the president of the United States was forced to resign in disgrace – justifiably so. The longer-term consequence, with which we still live to this day in most world democracies, is the incessant search first for “what’s wrong” and only secondarily “what’s (really) going on.” The watchdog of democracy is no longer just barking when appropriate; it is now biting everything in sight.

This is a problem for the media and for society at large. Trust in the media has been declining for decades – not coincidentally starting soon after Watergate. That’s bad enough. Far worse is that it has been accompanied by growing mistrust regarding the leaders and democracy in general. Not all of that is the media’s fault, although as Churchill once said: “democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.” But constant media bashing can’t be a positive thing when it slashes and mashes without distinction (pun intended).

Another recent Israeli news item is a case in point: the tragic traffic accident in the Golan that killed a mother and all her three children (the husband is in critical condition) – when a bus crashed into their car. The 76-year-old bus driver was immediately vilified in the press, having received 51 traffic “citations” in the past: “killer,” and “murderer” were merely some of the characterizations leveled at him. Moreover, the media started attacking the Transportation Ministry: “how did it allow such a bus driver to stay on the road?” Except that they forgot to mention that he has been a bus driver for fifty years, driving 8-10 hours a day, and that in Israel, minor infractions are registered as “violations.” Under those conditions, who wouldn’t have 51 traffic “reports”? Proportionality and nuance are also part of the journalists’ job requirement.

Israel’s traditional media seem to be in competition with social media as to who can be more “biting.” That’s a strategic mistake for the former, and for society at large. Being a responsible watchdog is what we want and need: howling when really necessary and called-for; but also holding back the bark until it’s clear whether the external sound is a “burglar” or merely natural, democratic and societal noise.

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