The suicide of the late Yitzhak Hershkowitz and its connection—as ascertained in his suicide letter—to the broadcast of a Channel 2 investigative report "The PWC [Public Works Council] File," might create obstacles that should be removed so that the report can be examined critically and soberly. The reporter, Carmel Luzzati, should not be held responsible for Hershkowitz's death: the suicide of an adult, sane person is an autonomous act whose responsibility falls on its perpetrator, and on him alone. Nonetheless, the Channel 2 News Desk should, in our opinion, take responsibility for its very problematic journalistic product, as we will try to show below.
The first case that the report covers in detail is the accident concerning a bus of young single people on Highway 65 on 9 October 1999, a case still being investigated in the Nazareth District Court (Criminal Case 1081/00). In court proceedings prior to the broadcast of the report, Supreme Court Judge Edmond Levi allowed its broadcast only "if the respondents (the news company: EL and MK) are careful not to take a stand in order to avoid the petitioner's (Hershkowitz: EL and MK) 'being tried' in a place not suitable for such." For our purposes, the issue of taking a position should not be examined only according to the criteria of a sub judice crime, which requires subjective intent on the part of the reporter to influence the judicial proceedings, or at least his subjective belief that his report will almost certainly influence the proceedings. The professional ethical code of journalism, also applicable here, forbids creating, during the covering of a criminal procedure, "the clear appearance of intending to influence the results of the trial," which can be determined objectively and is not dependent on the reporter's subjective intentions or expectations. "In general," the code explicates, "there should be no publicity during the trial of a decisive opinion about the testimony or positions of the parties or a position concerning any specific outcome of the proceedings."
Did the broadcast meet these standards?
The charges submitted in the case of the bus accident claim that the accident was caused "by the way the bus was driven, combined with the poor maintenance and unreasonable state of the road due to the first rains." Thus, the primary defendants in the case are the bus company, its owners and its safety officer, as well as the bus driver. Only then come the PWC personnel—Yitzhak Hershkowitz, the Engineer for the Northern District, and Reuven Yomtov, Deputy in Charge of Maintenance. Unlike the PWC defendants, who were charged with causing death by negligence, the primary defendants were charged with a much more serious crime: manslaughter.
The charge sheet reveals a long line of failures by the bus company: operating drivers beyond the permitted number of hours (Section 2), violating the transportation regulations which require carrying out an examination and maintaining a log in order to keep track of the maintenance record of the buses (Section 3), partial and faulty briefing of the drivers (Section 5) and deceitfully obtaining the license to operate the garage of the company, through the fake presentation of a person named Abd Fanous (Defendant no. 5), who holds a certificate authorizing him to run a garage, as the professional director of the garage. "In actual fact," details Section 6, "defendant No. 5 received 1,500 NIS every month in exchange for allowing the certificate to be hung on the garage wall, without his even being present at the garage and without his ever taking care of any of the company's buses." Maintenance and repairs were carried out in the garage "by persons who did not have the professional knowledge or certification for such."
During the half year preceding the accident, the charge sheet continues, the warning light for the ABS system (a system which is intended to prevent the wheels from locking, should the bus brake during skidding) turned on in the bus involved in the accident, pointing to a problem in this system. The bus driver reported the problem to his superiors at that time, and they instructed him to ignore it and continue driving. Even when the bus was brought to the garage for repairs, five days before the accident, the repair of the ABS system was neglected, although the entire system, near the back left wheel, was covered with soot and black oil; the system sensor was not working and was not situated properly in a way that could read the data and activate the system. The charge sheet details a line of additional faults that were found in the bus at that stage—all of them decreased its stability and its traction on the road during travel, all of them neglected by the bus company.
According to the charge sheet these faults proved fateful: during the accident, when he found himself going too fast for the slippery road, the bus driver's first attempt to brake did not succeed, and the bus continued to accelerate before it began to slow down, its sides veering right and left on the road in a zig-zag motion. The second attempt to brake caused the vehicle's left rear wheel to lock as a result of the defect in the ABS system, while the other wheels continued to spin. The bus veered to the right and crashed into the safety rail. The driver turned the steering wheel sharply to the left, and thus caused "the spinning of the bus and its sliding across the width of the two lanes of the road" (Section 27) until it slid into the chasm at the side of the road.
Viewers watching the report were not told any of these details. There was no mention that the bus company and the driver were defendants in the case. The report related only to the black stain that the prosecution claims was on the road at the time of the accident, and claims that Hershkowitz was negligent in its removal. When the report finished describing the accident, all of the additional charges in the case were reduced to one general sentence: "There are other defendants in the trial, which has now carried on for four and a half years, some of whom have been accused of even more serious offenses." Moreover, the context in which this sentence was uttered—in a report entitled "the PWC file," the entire content and specific purpose of which was to expose the negligence by the PWC—leads to the impression that those "additional defendants" also belong to the PWC. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the report does not mention the charges against the driver and the bus company in the case, since that might have undermined the conclusion raised in the biting opening sentences: "The driver is at fault in most road accidents. That, at least, is what we have been taught to believe since we were children. But the reality is completely different. It seems that the people responsible for our roads think that we are driving in an amusement park."
The body of the report dealing with the black stain is not free of shortcomings either.
First, the news company was aware of Hershkowitz' assertion that the accident occurred kilometers away from the stain (this claim was not presented during the coverage of the accident but after the end of the report), but the report, in the guise of a factual report, takes a clear stand in favor of the prosecution; and the computerized illustration, as well as the announcer's text, presents the bus as very clearly sliding on the stain. Hershkowitz' version, on the other hand, was not illustrated at all.
Second, the report states that that engineers' report about the stain that was sent to Hershkowitz, "simply wasn't dealt with." Here is the language of Section 25 of the charge sheet: "Defendant 5 (Hershkowitz: EL and MK), who received the report about the slippery stain on October 6, 1999 [three days before the accident: EL and MK], quickly called the Supervisor of Maintenance in his region—Mr. Nello Gavriel—to his office in Upper Nazareth and instructed him to remove the stain mentioned in the report about slipperiness, i.e., the black substance." Note that it is the prosecution's version at the trial which is lenient towards Hershkowitz; the fact that it was hidden from the viewers is, therefore, unprofessional and unfair. Here, as well, it is difficult to avoid the assumption that the report hid this fact from the viewers because it would detract from the strident introductory remarks of the reporter before showing the broadcast, in response to the question of anchorman Aharon Barnea, "What do you suggest the viewers should pay special attention to?" "I think that the most prominent thing," the reporter answered, "is the fact that even when there are breaches of safety and there are warnings and letters and alarm bells sound—the PWC doesn't do anything."
Third, it is misleading to present the remarks of Ms. Nira Bar-Natan, one of the passengers in the bus whose sister was killed in the accident: "What really bothers me is that there were warnings that this road was becoming a death trap and no one did anything. Here someone took this letter and... I don't want to use harsh language..." Precisely because of the heavy emotional impact of Bar-Natan's remarks, it was not fair to have presented her opinion about a controversial issue still being adjudicated, about which she had no information. In the context of a report which was conducted entirely from the viewpoint that "the PWC doesn't do anything," bringing such remarks holds traces of passing judgment.
Up to now we have considered the way the report handled the bus accident and how this treatment conflicted with the proper norms of a media survey of a criminal proceeding. A broader look at the report in its entirety exposes a report that does not shy away from being manipulative.
First is the music. Throughout the report, the music played intends to move the viewer emotionally, most of it being the kind that brings to mind dark scenes in crime movies: dramatic drumming (in the background of a shadowed interview with one of the contractors), a screeching synthesizer (in the background of a survey of work on Highway 55), and the continuous, drawn-out playing of one note (in the background of a survey of the accident on Highway 65).
Second, the frontal visualizations. Against the background of a recitation of the charges against Hershkowitz in the case of the bus accident, for example, there is a shot of a unicycle rolling with terrifying slowness towards the edge of the chasm. Hershkowitz himself appears for the first time later on in the report, in a close-up shot that is unflattering, to say the least, with the camera pulling back from his forehead to the rest of his face, as if he was at the end of a telescope sight. In addition, the accidents themselves were visualized in a way that has already been criticized in this journal, in the context of a survey of accidents: close-up shots of blood stains, and repeated showings of the same frontal visual, either the rolling of the bus towards a chasm (in the accident on Highway 65) or a completely totaled vehicle (the accident on Highway 55).
The third and main point: Strong descriptive statements in the text of the report, for which it is difficult to find any empirical grounding. We have already mentioned examples such as, "it would seem that the people who are responsible for our roads think we are driving in an amusement park," or "even when the warning bells sound, the PWC doesn't do anything." An additional example is: "The area of safety is a pawn between the contractors who want to make a profit, and PWC inspectors, who only want to get home safely." And note—not specific inspectors in the PWC, but "PWC inspectors."
Is it possible that the use of such tricks is meant to cover up the lack of hard facts?
The report did not succeed in providing a basis for its determination that "even when the warning bells are ringing, the PWA doesn't do a thing." The second fatal accident covered in the report (the report covers only two accidents) occurred on Highway 55, when vehicles crashed because the drivers failed to heed a change in the direction of travel. Following a warning letter sent to him, before the accident occurred, Hershkowitz took action: he fired the safety inspector at the site, Engineer Rami Shamir. The accident occurred 16 days afterwards, during the thirty days' warning between the announcement of his dismissal and its going into effect. The report creates the clear impression that Hershkowitz was, in this case, slow to react. But documents that Hershkowitz sent Channel 2, prior to the broadcasting of the report, prove that he acted immediately to stop the inspector's work, and did in fact urgently instruct that a substitute safety contractor start working—an instruction not even mentioned in the report.
It should be emphasized that Hershkowitz did in fact cooperate and corresponded directly with the "Friday Studio" television broadcast, a fact not even hinted at in the report or in the subsequent reactions. Hershkowitz's response was quite detailed and refuted the report's claims one by one, but the report made do with the general reaction of the Director of the old PWC, Zev Forkush, according to which the investigation that was undertaken showed that no one from the PWC was at fault in handling the complaints of the safety problems on Highway 55. In this instance, the news company failed to fulfill its obligation for fairness and its obligation to present a response of someone criticized in the report. It is of the utmost importance to allow someone who is criticized to respond. As a rule, in a legal process (and we are aware that in this case, of Highway 55, no legal proceedings have yet begun), presenting a response is the best way to avoid the impression that one is passing judgment. When someone who responds does not have his response presented in full, it undermines the willingness to respond; and without such a response, the picture is not complete and is at times distorted.
Even the closing remarks that end the report are rife with exaggerations. Against the background of damaged cars, the following words are uttered with special emphasis: "A new study states that more than half of all accidents are caused by problems of infrastructure. More than half. If 500 people were killed last year in road accidents, there might be 250 families who have to search for the guilty parties." First, the said study (details of the study are not presented in the report, but Luzatti kindly referred us to it), by a graduate student at the Technion that has not yet been published, does not discuss "more than half" of the accidents in this context (28 roads were examined), but 44% of them. Thus, in fact, the opening lines of the report are also undermined: "The driver is guilty in most road accidents. That, at least, is what we have been taught to think since we were children. It seems that the reality is completely different." Also, the infrastructure problems do not necessarily mean that one has to "search for guilty parties." The problems could stem from various reasons, mainly budgetary, for which the category "personal guilt" does not apply.
The report did, in fact, deal with a subject eminently worthy of discussion. But it was motivated by a desire too eager to "search for the guilty party," giving it a bombastic and biting tone with no underlying basis.
Carmel Luzzati agreed to speak with us, off the record, but did not give us a written response.
Anat Globus, the spokesperson for Channel 2, sent the following response: "From the tenor of the questions given to us by Mr. Eli Linder, it is clear that those who prepared the article and stand behind it have already formed their position about the PWC investigative broadcast on 'Friday Studio' of the Channel 2 News. This conclusion is further reinforced by what Mr. Linder told us, that he prepared the article together with Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer. Kremnitzer has already publicly expressed his opinion that the PWC investigation was a violation of the sub judice principle. Under these circumstances Channel 2 News cannot cooperate with the authors of a report whose position was decided upon in advance. As the saying goes, 'tend to your own house first.'"
"Therefore, we can only repeat the announcement that we publicized after the tragic death of Mr. Yitzhak Hershkowitz: The investigation on the PWC for 'Friday Studio' was done over a period of several months, taking special care to follow journalistic guidelines. The investigation was broadcast only after the fact-gathering and documents passed stringent tests, and only after the opinions of everyone involved were gathered."
Adv. Yeshiel Kasher, who is representing the bus company and its owner, Yehuda Yolezri, said in response that Yolezri's position is that, upon the subsequent revelation of the documents relating to the state of the road at the time of the accidents, there was absolutely no reason to continue charging Yolezri with responsibility for the accident.
Adv. Micha Patman, who is representing Shlomo Yolezri, the safety officer for the bus company, stated in response that the media, as reputable as it is, is not the proper channel for presenting a court case still being tried.
Adv. Aryeh Licht, who is representing Abd Fanous, refused to respond.
The bus driver, Effi Nakumi, who is representing himself in the trial, refused to respond.
This article was first published on issue 54 of The Seventh Eye. Read it in Hebrew here