Published in The Jerusalem Post on February 21, 1999
Our current election campaign is the best illustration of politics distorted beyond any degree of respectability and lowered to sub-basement levels because of pandering to television. But look beyond the dubious television coverage and political advertising. This race will be decided elsewhere, away from the studios, at the grassroots.
Ever since the famous Nixon-Kennedy debate of 1964, TV has played a central role in the way Westerners choose their politicians. Here in Israel, playing to the cameras has become a monster out-of-control. What won’t a candidate do or say to grab a coveted spot on the gladiator gab shows ring-mastered nightly by Shilon, Shilon, Topaz, Reshef, Gazit, Margalit, Achimeir or Mishal?
The verbal violence and political extremism encouraged by these circuses rots the national level of debate. Believe me, because I’ve dealt with such matters: you can’t get past the first level of bookers for these notorious programs unless you promise to bark something particularly fiery or outlandish or extremist. Or pledge to attack the hareidim.
And in the end, have you ever seen a politician actually answer a substantive question, in any depth, on TV? Never! Our would-be leaders parrot over and over again whatever lines their media advisor rehearses with them in advance, no matter what asked.
Seldom are the TV hosts able to crack the veneer of polish and powder brushed thickly on the foreheads of their interviewees. Rarely can a politician or commentator complete a full thought or deal with a real dilemma in profundity – before the camera switches to a party hack in Afula for his thoughts, or turns away for a “word from the sponsors”.
Nevertheless, the mavens of broadcasting are planning to serve-up more and more of this superficial slop over the next four months, including an extra half-an-hour a night of bite-sized, fast-clipped, spicy campaign trivia. It’s important to report in detail, you see, on David Levy’s newest haircut or Chaim Ramon’s latest mood swing.
In the never-never-land of campaign irrelevancies and minutiae that has been created by spokesmen and reporters, Yaron Dekel (of Israel Radio and TV) is indispensable. God forbid we should make our choices for the next prime minister of Israel without being updated by Dekel by the hour on the infighting within the Centrist Party, on Labor’s safe-spots lottery, the unrest in Likud’s Karmiel branch and the intricacies of rabbinic power plays within Shas. All are need-to-know items requiring national attention!
So why do we addictively follow this rubbish — more so, according to the ratings, than almost any other kind of TV programming? For entertainment, I guess. You can sit in your living room and see the heat without feeling the fire. What is more exciting than watching Binyamin Netanyahu fire his defense minister live in prime time, or being in the front row as a frustrated ethnic politician lambastes Ehud Barak and the entire Labor Party!?
Surely Israelis know that what they see on TV is exaggerated sensationalism meant to produce a good show, nothing more. Assuredly people realize that to run a country takes more than good TV skills or a knack for sassy advertising!
FORTUNATELY, this tight election is not going to be decided by the mass media. Experts contend that political talk shows and advertising have virtually no effect on the outcome, even on the 16 percent of voters who say they remain undecided. It is grassroots political work – what the specialists call “intermediated propaganda” — that makes the difference.
This is less complicated than it sounds and was used to great effect in Yitzhak Rabin’s 1992 prime ministerial effort. Simply put, you reach people through other people they respect – intermediaries.
The proven methods of making contact with the floating voter include parlor meetings by the thousands led by opinion leaders, neighborhood rallies led by respected community activists or rabbis, the dissemination of party propaganda through synagogue bulletins, or video-conferencing Shas-style. It is said that Rabin’s successful campaign actually knocked on one million doors across the country.
So in order to win, this year’s contenders are going to have to get us off our lazy-boy recliners and out into the field. The challenge: to disconnect from messieurs Shilon, Gazit, Margalit, Yavin and Eilon; to zap off the misleading boob tube and get active.
Try this as a campaign rallying cry: Don’t just watch – do something!