On Monday night I attended the yearly gathering of Israel’s Media Watch (IMW), an organization whose primeval website declares that they do “systematic research and surveillance of media and exposition of political and cultural media bias.” The event was held at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, a room that was made for 60 but held maybe 25. Of the guests, almost all were in their 60s. One gentleman came in with a walker. And yet, the fact that the room wasn't even half-full and that the audience was retired didn’t seem to bother anyone. Because it was a night for self-congratulation—a celebration of the IMW for its successes—no matter who showed up.
IMW is 18 years old, and it’s chaired by a man named Eli Pollak, a professor and specialist of molecular dynamics at the Weizmann Institute whose long list of extra-curriculars includes the positions of founder and chairman of Knesset Watch, board member of Professors for a Strong Israel, and contributing expert to the Ariel Center for Policy Research. It was at the latter where, in 1998, he co-wrote a paper with settler blogger, power-house activist, and vice-chairman of IMW Yisrael Medad, called “Israeli Media: Reporting News or Setting the Agenda?” It’s a piece of work that seems to have carried him through his career. The trouble is, Pollak himself clearly has an agenda. Reading through his weekly Jerusalem Post columns, also co-written with Medad, to say that there is unsubtle intent to push the media rightward would be a gross understatement.
Pollak and Medad have bemoaned the “left-wing domination of the media” for years. They have argued for better internal hasbara, making the claim that Israel could excel in journalism if only it were to spotlight cultural stars like 28-year-old pianist Boris Giltberg instead of focusing on uber-famous Daniel Barenboim—a man who, after many years of refusing, famously broke the unofficial ban on playing Wagner in Israel. More recently, they attacked Israel's center-right Yedioth Aharonot and its well-known columnist Nahum Barnea for not defending Netanyahu when he agreed to a prisoner release. The column included the encouraging line: “One would hope that the Israeli public…treats Yediot just as it treated Haaretz—with disdain and reduced readership.” Even more telling: they’ve been on the inside of a battle to get the blatantly racist, Caroline Glick-run satire show Latma (“slap in the face” in Arabic) on Israeli public television. This is a show that breeds Islamophobia, paints its Obama character in black, and is hasbara-intensive all at once. Pollak and Medad call it a “groundbreaking Zionist initiative.”
My favorite column was about the recently released E.U. guidelines stipulating that E.U. money no longer be available to settler institutions beyond the Green Line. In Pollack and Medad’s words: “The E.U.’s decree to discriminate between two types of Israelis…is a clear case of a governmental system taking upon itself to restrict the development of a minority group.” (In case you didn’t catch that, the minority group being discriminated against here is the settlers.) Because the Israeli media did not loudly and unanimously declare the E.U. decision a “human rights” issue, the media in Israel must be deemed both “not liberal” and “biased” to the point that “[it does] not even make an effort to try and deal with issues from all sides.” By this logic, settlers are a minority group in Israel whose “human rights” include the right to gifts of money from the European Union. Because of their minority status, the denial of that right is deemed “racist.” I think we can all agree that these guys have a bone to pick.
And yet, despite resorting to crude logic in order to advance a far-right agenda, IMW manages to be operational and successful. The fact that Pollak has multiple outlets in which to opine, attack journalists, and decry the lack of “ethics in the media” gives him power. In 1999, when the organization was newly minted, they picked a fight with Tomy Lapid (Yair Lapid’s father) who had accused IMW of “distorting reality,” “falsifying,” “McCarthyism,” “pseudo-scientific research” and intimated that the IMW’s activity would cause the hanging of journalists. Last year they petitioned the Supreme Court in an attempt to shut down Channel 10 when it was in financial trouble and the government was considering bailing it out (it eventually did). Their scrutiny of the Israel Broadcasting Association (IBA) has always been meticulous, and while their criticism is not terribly sharp, it is certainly sharply felt. All this despite the fact that, as far as I could gather from the IMW booklet-slash-party-favor I received last night, IMW has a paid staff of two or three and an unpaid staff of two young national servicewomen. It is fairly impressive.
It may be that part of their success comes from their willingness to consider the long haul. At the event one of the awardees spoke of their goals in terms of “decades and generations.” And they’re well connected: Moshe Kahlon, the man who as former Likud Minister of Media dramatically reduced cell phone costs in Israel, was their guest of honor, and addressed the senior staff by name. Perhaps more telling is the fact that despite the event's meager lay attendance, two Israeli media outlets covered the event: the public radio station “Kol Israel” and semi-public television’s Channel 2. It would seem that for all of its ostensible lack of vim and vigor, Israel Media Watch is a very effective organization. And last night, they were happy to applaud their continued “uphill struggle for a Zionist, ethical and quality Israeli media,” or in American terms: "fair and balanced."