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October 10, 2015 | 27th Tishrei 5776

The Evening News

March 11, 2001
Marc Rosenstein

Another terrorist attack and the attendant feelings of nausea, anger, and helplessness. And the sadness is compounded by the images of Jewish demonstrators screaming “Death to the Arabs” in response. Here, more perhaps than in less fraught settings, I can’t help thinking that the mass media do not play a helpful role. The day after an attack, the two popular dailies, Ma’ariv and Yedi’ot Acharonot, are always taken up by page after page of graphic and emotional coverage: horrible pictures of body bags, wreckage, etc., and color pictures of each victim along with extensive coverage of funerals, quotes from eulogies, and interviews with the victims’ families about what the government should do. Not to mention television, which I don’t watch. And then, of course, there is the ritual of getting a response from political leaders here and abroad: is the American president’s condemnation vehement enough? Will any Arab leader issue a condemnation at all? Will the opposition miss a chance to point out that if they were in power such things wouldn’t happen?

The bare facts of these events - and the context in which they occur - are difficult enough; are the screaming red headlines and the intimate details necessary? Moreover, are they helpful - or do they perhaps fan anger and hatred and discourage voices of calm, of compromise, of analysis? If the media are blamed for creating an image abroad of Israel as one big violent battle zone, what is our image of ourselves, drawn from our own media here? Once, years ago, I was discussing with a neighbor how to transport our children across Jerusalem to day camp. She argued that the kids should not ride the public bus, because of the danger of terrorist attacks; I pointed out that were we to decide to carpool, the probability of their being hurt in a traffic accident would certainly be higher than the risk of a bomb on the bus. I won. But it made me realize how our perceptions, even here inside Israel, are dominated by the media’s interpretation of reality.

Which leads to an interesting dilemma: terrorism seeks to change policy not by force of arms, but by force of public opinion; it seeks to make us, for example, withdraw entirely from the West Bank and dismantle all settlements there because we are unwilling to continue to live with the risk of random acts of terror against innocent civilians. Our response to this tactic is to a large extent a function of the popular consciousness of just how endangered we are, of how great the risk -and the loss - we will incur by refusing to back down. But if our sense of being threatened is inflated by media sensationalism, then the media are actually contributing to the achievement of the terrorists’ objectives. There was a time when it was fashionable to say that we would not let terrorists dictate our daily lives. We would not avoid public places, or buses, we would stoically go about our lives, to show them that their method would not intimidate us. That was then, this is now. A perusal of the newspaper on the day after an attack is enough to make you keep your kid home from the school trip, stop using the bus, stay at home and lock the door... It is interesting to consider: if terrorist attacks were covered like the traffic fatalities which far outnumber them, what would our consciousness be like? how might our national mood be different? how might the political balance be different?

No answers, and no real possibility for change. The media are driven by the free market - sensationalism sells papers the world over - and I certainly would not want them controlled by “big brother.” It is hard to avoid the feeling that we are being manipulated in a direction that is not in our own best interest, but not by a political agenda - by a capitalist one. But as it happens, the result does tend to bolster the political right - ironically, considering the common view that the press tends to lean to the left.

Wasn’t there a movie (Network?) in which the masses rebelled against the networks? Doesn’t seem likely to happen here.


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