On January 4, 2007, Rina Matzliach (political correspondent for Channel 2 News) reported that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert intended to remove Amir Peretz from his position as defense minister and offer him a different portfolio. If Peretz refused to go along, Matzliach added, he would be fired. As of this writing, one and a half months after the item was broadcast, Peretz is still serving as defense minister. Nonetheless, Matzliach states that she stands behind her story: "You can't say my report was incorrect. In politics, as opposed to other fields, news items reflect a certain situation and feeling rather than established facts. When I reported the story, it was correct in terms of the situation at the time. Matters have changed since then, as a result of Peretz's improved standing in the Labor Party and the Defense Ministry. As a rule, I'm careful not to just float half-baked theories, but in politics it's unavoidable."
Rina Matzliach is not alone. At a time when the political and professional futures of high-ranking leaders, politicians, and IDF personnel are in doubt, more than a few stories are being reported that later prove groundless. These lapses involve senior journalists and commentators, and not just the small fry. An added phenomenon is being observed of late: drawn-out situations, such as the investigations of the president or the prime minister, which are still undecided, are reported as if dramatic developments were taking place. Even if the State Attorney's Office ultimately decided to investigate the prime minister concerning the tender for the sale of Bank Leumi, or to draft an indictment against President Katzav, the reports put out earlier clearly jumped the gun.
The task that falls on the print and electronic media in such a volatile climate is not an easy one. On the one hand, the public is hungry for any scrap of information that can offer a clue to the future; but at the same time, the investigations and discussions are confidential, with only a small inner circle "in the know." Added to this mix is the editors' pressure on correspondents to produce headlines, exposés, and exclusives coupled with tough competition between media outlets. The result is that lately newspaper headlines and newscast leads look more like fortune-tellers' prophesies than descriptions of current reality. Speculation, educated guesswork, and tortuous phrasing abound, with vague language like "apparently," "most probably," and "possibly" alongside "liable to" and "likely" on almost every page. In some cases, the predictions turn out to be correct and ultimately come to pass, but at other times they fail to materialize – or are simply forgotten.
Rina Matzliach, like other journalists I spoke to about stories they reported that never "panned out," has not yet given up on the possibility that the scenario she predicted will take place. "I still hear it (Peretz's dismissal) being brought up sometimes," she says. "I kept the story to myself for a few days after hearing it in the Knesset cafeteria from a reliable source; I was hesitant to publicize it. I received other indications and veiled hints, and in the end decided that if I didn't report it, someone else would."
"There are times when competition definitely dictates the factors at play," Matzliach adds. According to her, editors also play a significant role in slip-ups of this type. "A lot of times, I qualify my words, and the editors insist on less fuzziness and take out words like 'is inclined to....' In the case of the item about Peretz, the headline was more sensationalistic than the content. This phenomenon stems from the fact that the public has become used to getting messages that are quicker, sharper, and more clear-cut, and less complex and multifaceted."
On January 11, a week after Matzliach's story on Amir Peretz's dismissal, Channel 2 News commentator Amnon Abramovitch aired a report that the Winograd Commission would issue "warning letters" (in preparation for possible legal action against them) to Olmert, Peretz, former IDF Chief of General Staff Dan Halutz, and ex-OC Northern Command Udi Adam. That same day, sources on the commission denied the report and emphasized that the individuals mentioned had not yet testified before them. "I admit that the tone of my report was too strident and far-reaching," says Abramovitch. "But the foundation of the story was correct. The commission considered the basic question of whether it was empowered to issue warning letters to those liable to be harmed by it. I suggest that we wait and see the conclusions of the inquiry."
The preoccupation with the Winograd Commission generated other stories that jumped the gun. On January 9, Yedioth Ahronoth's headline proclaimed: "Winograd Commission Has Targeted Halutz." The subheading of the article, written by Nechama Douek and Yossi Yehoshua, stated: "When Findings Published, Heads Will Roll." And in another headline, on an inside page: "Winograd Commission Already Aiming at COGS, Say High-Ranking Figures Who Have Testified. The Speculation: Publication of the Findings Will Wreak Havoc, Those Found Responsible Will Pay the Price and Be Dismissed."
"There's no question that we're in a situation where reporters are tempted to put out assessments based on nothing more than educated guesswork," says a high-ranking journalist who chooses to remain anonymous. "The assumption is that someone among the senior figures being investigated will be found guilty. This assumption may prove correct, or it may not. But by then no one will remember what was written."
The legal sphere is also abuzz with activity that may well have momentous consequences. The media is breathlessly staying on top of developments in the string of suspicions surrounding Olmert, spotlighting any statement on the topic, however vague or ambiguous. On January 9, the legal correspondent for Channel 10 News, Baruch Kra, opened the prime-time Evening News with a story termed "exclusive," according to which a decision had been made to launch a criminal investigation against Olmert. At the time, Kra did not know precisely which affair involving Olmert was to be the subject of the investigation, so he listed the three principal ones: the tender for the privatization of Bank Leumi (which Kra labeled "hot" and extremely "significant"), the political appointments at the Small and Medium Enterprises Authority, and Olmert's problematic ties with his former business partner, attorney Uri Messer.
The next day (January 10), Haaretz went one step further, reporting on the front page: "It is speculated that the Justice Ministry will announce in the next two weeks the launching of a criminal investigation against Olmert in the sale of the controlling interest in Bank Leumi." Legal correspondent Yuval Yoaz added that "a criminal investigation is also expected to be initiated against Olmert in the case of the alleged patronage involving attorney Uri Messer." And indeed, a week later, State Prosecutor Eran Shendar announced that an investigation was being opened against Olmert in the Bank Leumi affair. Nevertheless, as of this writing, the prediction regarding the case of attorney Uri Messer has not yet come to pass.
Another prominent figure whose name has been linked to a police investigation presently underway is Finance Minister Avraham Hirschson. It is being suggested that when Hirschson served as chairman of the National Workers' Histadrut labor federation several years ago, he did not report a case of embezzlement that came to light in a non-profit organization under his jurisdiction. During the month of January, Yedioth Ahronoth's crime reporter Buki Na'eh wrote on several occasions that Hirschson was expected to be interrogated by police within a matter of days. On January 4, the paper's headline read: Police to Investigate Finance Minister: Hirschson Suspected of Involvement in Stealing Millions from Non-Profit under His Responsibility." In the body of the article, it was written that "Finance Minister Avraham Hirschson will very shortly be investigated by police on suspicion of theft, aggravated fraud, conspiracy to commit an offense, and money laundering." On January 8, another headline declared: "Mazuz Gave Police Go-Ahead to Investigate Finance Minister: Brig.-Gen. Yoav Segelovitch Expected to Probe Hirschson in Next Few Days on Suspected Involvement in Theft of Millions from Non-Profit." And again on January 11, the headline read: "Hirschson Apparently to Be Investigated Soon," while in the body of the article it was stated that "It appears that in the next few days Finance Minister Hirschson will be called in for questioning by the Economic Crimes Unit on suspicion of theft by a public servant, theft by a director, aggravated fraud, conspiracy to commit an offense, falsification of corporate records, and money laundering."
More than a month later, Hirschson has yet to be investigated by police, and a gag order regarding the entire matter is presently in place. Hirschson will ultimately be investigated; the only question is when. Na'eh refused to respond to the subject, saying only that "everything will look different next week; Hirschon will be investigated then."
And yet another example, this time from Maariv: on January 28, the paper's political correspondent, Nadav Eyal, quoted a senior source at the Justice Ministry: "It's not certain that Peres will end up in the clear in the campaign contributions affair." And later in the article: "Are the contributions Peres received during the Labor primaries still haunting him en route to the presidency? A high-ranking source said privately: 'This is not the end of the road. The State Comptroller did not notice the details of a certain contribution.'"
"I stand behind this story," says Eyal. "The statements quoted in it were indeed made, and it was reported because of its importance to the public in light of the fact that Peres is a candidate for the presidency." At the same time, he agrees with the argument that the media in Israel tends to deal more with the future and less with the present and the past. "This is something that is particularly characteristic of Israeli journalism," he says. "The print media tries to provide readers with information that they haven't heard the night before on television, and for this reason strive to create an agenda for the future. Radio is also using similar means to fight for the listeners' attention."
The end result is more articles like those of Ben Caspit, who had the lead story in Maariv of January 23: "Moves in Kadima to Oust Olmert: In One Scenario, Several Ministers Will Meet to Decide Which of Them Will Succeed Olmert and Who Will Get a Central Post in the Next Cabinet"; or of Sever Plocker writing in Yedioth Ahronoth on January 9: "Exposure of Corruption at the Top Is Only Beginning," "More Criminal Affairs Soon to Be Revealed," and "Public Soon to Be Exposed to Another String of Criminal Cases, Suspicions, and Waves of Arrests: Energy, Construction and Infrastructure in the Crosshairs."
Journalists who report stories "ahead of time" are aware that they are jeopardizing their professional reputations. "The editors often pressure me to inflate and expand the information I've got," says the journalist who did not wish to be identified. "But I prefer to qualify it and keep it small since my name appears in the byline." But in contrast to the embarrassment involved in publicizing a story that turns out to be nothing more than hot air, journalists whose forecasts are ultimately borne out earn professional esteem; and, in retrospect, the information they published is considered a scoop. In the weeks leading up to the indictment against President Moshe Katzav, for example, Yedioth Ahronoth correspondent Tova Tzimuki reported on several occasions that the charge sheet to be handed down included serious crimes, among them rape. When it turned out that Tzimuki was right, her reputation rose among her colleagues.
This article was first published on issue 67 of The Seventh Eye. Read it in Hebrew here