Some leaders wrestle with news media better than other leaders

September 6, 2017
President Donald Trump, left, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, on May 22. Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90

When President Donald Trump landed at Ben Gurion International Airport in May, a sensitive microphone on the tarmac picked up the conversation between Sarah Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister’s wife, and American first lady Melania Trump. “You know, in Israel, all the people like us,” the prime minister’s wife told the first lady. “The media hate us but the people love us. Like you.” To which the first lady responded, “We have a lot in common.”

There was no need for a sensitive microphone to record the thoughts of their respective husbands on the media, because Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu say it loud and clear in public rallies. On Aug. 22, President Trump incited a crowd in Phoenix against those “dishonest people,” as he pointed to the news media representatives  covering the event. And on Aug. 30, Netanyahu used a Likud gathering for Rosh Hashanah to vilify the “dishonesty” of the “arrogant” media, which he claimed saw all of its efforts as kosher in scheming to topple him from power, disregarding the will of the people.

Such acrimonious relationships between people in power and the press are not new. A very famous — or notorious — case was that of Vice President Spiro Agnew, with his immortal address to the California Republican state convention on Sept. 11, 1970: “In the United States today, we have more than our share of the nattering nabobs of negativism.” Agnew wasn’t known for his high language. His usual talk was more like, “Some newspapers are fit only to line the bottom of bird cages.” So, I wondered where he got this kind of lofty phrase, only to discover, much to my dismay, that it was written for him by White House speechwriter William Safire, who later became a New York Times columnist and the author of “On Language.” Oy vey, “those who laid you waste depart from you.”

At the time, Agnew’s ranting against the media could have been dismissed. Indeed, in 1972, when Gallup started polling Americans’ trust and confidence in the mass media “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly,” trust in the media was at its highest point ever — 72 percent. Today, only 32 percent say they have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust (September 2016). In Israel, according to the 2016 Democracy index of the Israel Democracy Institute, Israelis’ trust in the media dropped to 26 percent today from 48 percent in 2004.

While that decline can be explained by the divisiveness of politics, Gallup doesn’t exonerate the media: “With the explosion of the mass media in recent years, especially the prevalence of blogs, vlogs and social media, perhaps Americans decry lower standards for journalism. When opinion-driven writing becomes something like the norm, Americans may be wary of placing trust on the work of media institutions that have less rigorous reporting criteria than in the past.”

Although the media indeed have to check themselves, attacks from the leaders only keep deepening the mistrust of citizens in both countries regarding one of the main pillars of democracy. Thomas Jefferson is often quoted as saying that “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Although, as president, he became embittered of the press, “Jefferson also knew that our democracy could only flourish with a free press that would keep an eye on people in power and help protect our freedoms,” Ken Paulson, president of the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center, told The Washington Post (Feb. 18). Compare that to President Trump tweeting about his wrestling “CNN” to the ground.

As for Netanyahu, he could have borrowed a page from Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founding father of Beitar, forerunner of Likud. Jabotinsky was a talented journalist, who in 1932 wrote: “What a great thing is the newspaper; no profession is more sublime than that of a journalist.” Netanyahu surely knows that: His father was the personal secretary of Jabotinsky. Instead, he chooses to viciously attack the media, thus undermining democracy.

I served under a totally different leader, Yitzhak Rabin. When he saw in the morning a damning story or commentary, he would just shrug and say: “They have their job to do, and I have mine.” During his first term as prime minister, in 1977, Dan Margalit, the correspondent for Haaretz in the United States, exposed that Rabin’s wife, Leah, had kept a U.S. dollar bank account in Washington, D.C., which was then illegal. Yitzhak Rabin took responsibility and resigned.

Much later, in 1994, when Rabin again was prime minister, we flew to Aqaba, Jordan, for a joint press conference with King Hussein. Now guess who the moderator was: None other than Dan Margalit, who later joined us during the helicopter ride back home. I’ll never forget the picture of Rabin chatting casually with the journalist who had once brought him down. Gone are the days.

Uri Dromi, former spokesperson of the Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres governments, is the director general of the Jerusalem Press Club.

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