Former Likud deputy prime minister Dan Meridor warned of an erosion of democracy in Israel. Zionist Union MK Ksenia Svetlova derided a claim by the head of the Government Press Office to the effect that Israel is a beacon of media freedom, and argued that freedom of the press is in real jeopardy here.
But the most dramatic pronouncement on the opening evening of the Jerusalem Press Club’s international conference on the Freedom of the Press came from keynote speaker Carl Bernstein, he of Watergate fame, who declared Israel to be the current “epicenter,” no less, of world events — “ground zero for today’s geopolitics.”
Any serious reporter, any would-be TV news anchor, whether from the US, UK or anywhere else, Bernstein declared, needs to spend quality time in Israel and its immediate surroundings, and really understand what is happening here, if they want to understand the world.
Bernstein was the final speaker at the opening session of the two-day conference, held at Jerusalem’s Mishkenot Sha’ananim cultural and conference center, which brings together dozens of local and international journalists and academics.
Meridor, who chairs the JPC board, opened the session with the warning that certain Israeli legislation — he cited Sunday’s ministerial approval of a bill that would define Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people — was part of a global trend that “takes the pendulum away” from democracy and the principles of liberty.
Expressing what would prove a recurring theme among many speakers of concern for the freedom of Israel’s media, Meridor said he worried that democracies’ essential “layer” of independent journalism “is being eliminated.” And without that layer, he said “the talk is short and shallow and emotional — reason doesn’t guide it.”
Speaking directly after Meridor, the head of the Government Press Office, Nitzan Chen, argued that “Israel tries to be a beacon of free press,” and to enable local and international journalists to provide fair coverage of the country.
Soviet-born Svetlova, who was a journalist before entering the Knesset two years ago, scoffed at the notion and, recalling the absence of press freedom in the Soviet Union, warned, “We are getting there.”
Citing a libel suit brought by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against journalistic critic Yigal Sarna, Svetlova declared, “We do face interference in the affairs of journalists and free speech by the government” and “the prime minister can and does target journalists.”
She noted that freedom of speech is not enshrined in Israel’s basic laws, but relies, rather, on a 1953 Supreme Court ruling. Free media in Israel, she asserted, needs legislative protection — and she said she tried and failed to advance such legislation in the Knesset last year.
Bernstein, the main speaker at the session, devoted most of his remarks to what he called “the great reportorial failure” of US television coverage of the presidential primaries. He lamented that there had been no serious investigative TV documentary about Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton in the course of the primaries, and said TV journalism, often disfigured by sensationalism, simply hadn’t done its job.
He recalled being asked why the media hadn’t forced Trump out of the race. But “it’s not the job of the press to undo any candidate.” It is, rather, for the public to decide on its leadership “based on information hopefully developed by … investigative reporting.”
Bernstein — who authored a 2008 book on Clinton and said he had known Trump for many years — criticized both presidential candidates but reserved a string of his harshest barbs for the winner. He condemned the president for branding the press the enemy of the people and for targeting it as the ostensible creator of fake news — “which certainly it is not in regard to Donald Trump.” He called Trump a liar on a scale never previously seen from a president. He said Trump was routinely unprepared for his work on “The Apprentice” and now the United States had a president who was unprepared. He said that the Trump family’s conflicts of interest — including the recent solicitation of Chinese investments by members of the Kushner family — would have prompted congressional investigation if it had been the Clintons who were in power. He said “we need to know a lot more” about Trump’s ties with Russia. And he lambasted the president’s authoritarian inclinations and demagoguery. “We saw it in the McCarthy era,” Bernstein said, “but never at the level of the presidency.”
He did allow that Trump, on the campaign trail, had exposed the hypocrisy of too many American leaders, and the lying of those he was running against.
Bernstein, who in 1972 with Bob Woodward exposed the Watergate scandal and brought down president Richard Nixon, returned repeatedly to a guiding two-principle mantra for journalists: the press exists for the public good, and its job is “to give readers and viewers the best obtainable version of the truth.”
To that end, rather unexpectedly, he declared that any senior reporter who wants to understand the world today needs to come to Israel and internalize what is happening here. “I do not understand how anyone who covers the White House,” he said, or wants to be a news anchor, “can do that without coming here and understanding what is happening here and within a 100 mile radius of here.”
Acknowledging, nonetheless, that this was his first visit since 1982, when he covered the Lebanon War, Bernstein — who revealed good-humoredly that he was a regional president in the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization in his teens — said he had always followed what was happening in Israel but that was no substitute for being here.
What was unfolding in the Muslim world, internally and externally, was impacted by developments here. And any reporter who wanted to understand our world — be it DC, Europe, terrorism, or developments in the Muslim world — needed to connect to Israel, he repeated.
Asked during the session what exactly he meant, Bernstein spoke of having gone to Ramallah, witnessed Israel’s demographic transformation, and recognized Israel’s social changes. “This is the epicenter,” he said. “This is ground zero for today’s geopolitics.”
Pushed after the session by this reporter for some specifics, Bernstein reiterated that “it’s a general impression I have: We don’t know enough about what emanates from here.”
Was he referring to the Palestinian conflict, Israel’s grappling with Islamic extremism, its internal relations with its Arab minority, or perhaps its internal religious frictions? “All of the above,” Bernstein said, “but also because of the changes in this country that are not perceived outside this county.”
Was he tapping into the spirit of the evening, and concerns about Israeli democracy? “I don’t know enough,” he said, to answer that. He then reflected that when he came in 1982 to cover the Lebanon War, that was a conflict in which defense minister Ariel Sharon had misled the government about his true goal — hardly the most democratic process, and that was 35 years ago.
“I know I’m being vague,” he apologized.