It takes a journalist to act as one

| 1 ביולי 2014

The most important debate regarding the new Israel Broadcasting Authority is over who the new director general will be and what attributes he will have.

Could the chief executive of the Phoenix insurance company, for instance, become the editor-in-chief of Israel’s new public broadcasting agency – the ultimate arbiter of journalistic questions? Right now, that’s the situation.

Article 37 of the proposed new law states that the director general of the new public broadcasting agency must have either a journalistic background or substantial experience in management. This director general will also be the “editor-in-chief” – the most important person in the hierarchy and the one who decides whether or not to publish something, and if so, in what form.

In my view, this is a grave mistake. A director general who has spent his career making money from white cheese doesn’t have the right tools to decide whether or not to apologize to businessman Sheldon Adelson or whether to report the scandal over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s overseas flights. Journalism is not some byproduct for which it’s enough to hire a good deputy and then you’ll know how to make the right decisions. Nobody would dream of putting someone who isn’t a lawyer at the head of the prosecution, and Israel has never yet had a hospital director who isn’t a doctor. The director doesn’t have to be the best doctor in the world, but he does have to be a doctor.

Last Thursday, Ram Landes came to the Elharrar Committee, the Knesset panel that is discussing the bill. Landes headed the committee that gave birth to the bill. He claimed the director general doesn’t have to be a content person. The Knesset members asked him, why not split the job? Let the director general be a management expert, while the head of the news department, a senior journalist, would be editor-in-chief. Landes answered that the most important thing is to have a clear hierarchical structure. You mustn’t create two centers of authority, he argued, and if the new director general isn’t a content person, then he’ll hire a good deputy.

That position is mistaken and, in truth, I find it quite astonishing that Landes holds it. He ought to be the first person to know that there’s nobody more important, especially in the formative stage, than the director general. Landes set up Channel 10 television’s news company; if it has a different, more skeptical, more aggressive DNA, it’s in no small measure due to the team of people that Landes chose and the spirit he instilled in the company.

Landes also ought to be the first person to know that two centers of authority can work together beautifully. He served during early stage as editor-in-chief of Channel 10 news, while above him administratively was the station’s director general. In other words, there were two hierarchies, and as far as I know from experience, it worked well. They asked Landes about this in the committee (Labor MK Nachman Shai and Yair Tarchitsky of the Association of Israeli Journalists opposed his position, and rightly so,) and he replied that, in reality, the director general of Channel 10 determines what is broadcast, with or without the title of editor-in-chief. Really? I have trouble believing Landes ever wanted to air something on Channel 10 that the director general of the station ordered him not to broadcast.

Incidentally, Channel 2 television also has two centers of authority. The Reshet and Keshet franchisees each has its own general manager, and then there’s the director general of the news company, who is also the editor-in-chief. That’s the way things work at newspapers as well: There’s an editor-in-chief and a managing director. Is it ideal for there to be two bosses? No, but the alternative – an editor-in-chief with no background in news and journalism – is much worse.

During the discussion in the Elharrar Committee, Landes questioned the success of this model in print journalism and proposed that, instead, certain protections should simply be granted the head of the news department. His questions were justified, but there’s an even bigger question: Where in the world does the model that Landes proposes exist? In what media outlet is the person who makes decisions about investigative reports, news and libel a person who has zero knowledge of and experience in the field?

Landes, in my opinion, did magnificent work in his report, and if Israel has a strong public broadcasting agency in the future, it will be in large part to his credit. It’s a pity to destroy all this work via one critical legal provision.

The article was published in Haaretz



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