The Unspun

The Jews and the Catholics are defying the media god.

Ariel Sharon is not only defiantly unyielding and hopelessly un-seductive in his public presentation, he’s way too fat. There’s the small head on top of the inflated body – and the waddle. To even make this point, you are thinking, is a terrible thing. How shallow can you get? This is exactly the kind of superficiality that corrupts America! (I might as well anticipate the apoplectic e-mail.) But the picture is the picture. Among the messages it sends is that the Israelis don’t care how they look to the world; they are removed from and superior to popular judgment. (Yeah, well, look at Arafat, you say. But I’d argue that Arafat’s cockroach look works for him – and by candlelight and with cell phone he seems even more unkillable; or I might argue that Sharon joins Arafat in a state of perceptual recalcitrance.)

Cardinal Bernard Law in Boston and Cardinal Edward Egan in New York, for their part, are comically ossified figures, throwback black-and-white fifties guys (you can smell them almost – the mustiness, the Brylcreem), in addition to being furtive, guilty, inarticulate, dumbfounded in front of the camera. Their message is one of incomprehension – arrogance born of cluelessness as much as pride. Media? What media?

Certainly in the case of the Israelis, many people would say, bully for them (less so, for obvious reasons, in the case of the Catholics): Israel will do what it has to do in spite of the media. The media is so much ephemera, whereas what’s going on in the Middle East is life and death (the Catholics make the point that they’re dealing with eternal life and damnation). Screw the media, in other words; whatever the costs, we’ll take our stand. It’s Tennyson-esque.

No, you could not say to the Israelis or to the Roman Catholic hierarchy, as would be self-evident (second nature even) to an American politician, that if you fail in the eyes of the media, you fail entirely. That the media is the ultimate arbiter of how you do your job. That for an Israeli leader, no matter how successful he is politically and militarily, if he can’t get on the right side of the media, he lacks the necessary competence for his position. That in the church, no matter how spiritually pure and administratively astute you are, if you blow the media thing, you’re no help to anybody.

“It’s a P.R. issue” is what Israeli officials and Roman Catholic Church leaders say, with great disdain (or knowing professionalism), about the media reaction (and when they play the media wrong, they say, “We have a P.R. problem” – which is a little like saying, when you’re losing a war, “We have a military problem”).

In a sense, the Israelis and the Catholics are both premodern in their media affect. They regard media as an ancillary, vulgar, cosmetic, often nettlesome, although frequently beneficial, function.

“The American media,” said Ido Aharoni, the Israeli consul for media and public affairs in New York, when I broached the subject with him last week, “is our friend.”

Aharoni carefully drew me a pyramid diagram: There were 1,500 “decision-makers” at the top of the pyramid, politicians and government officials, who have to be influenced; then 15,000 opinion-leaders below them – celebrities, shock-jocks, pundits, CEOs – whom it’s important to influence; then the remaining 284 million Americans. The Israelis pay Howard Rubenstein, the New York P.R. king, to help them influence those 16,500 people who they think will influence everyone else, and employ Mark Mellman, the Washington pollster, to measure how the job is going.

Likewise, the Catholic Church has, when it lumbers into gear, a big-time public-relations operation (largely deployed to avoid press). And after several months of media pillory, the American cardinals got it together and headed to Rome last week in a sudden, well-coordinated effort of media responsiveness. “It’s in part a P.R. exercise, a dramatic way to say to critics ‘The pope gets it now,’ ” a reporter for a Catholic paper told the Times. (Less helpfully, the Times also quoted a friend of the pope’s describing him as an old man with the innocence of a child.)

Such views, though, of the media as a procedure, as an outlet that you supply, even as a beast that you need to calm, run contrary to the more current idea of the media, the 24/7 saturation media, as a competing reality, even a truer reality – the real world in which we live and are judged. (Thomas Friedman on the Times op-ed page recently conjured an image of a generation of Arabs growing up on a steady diet of horrific pictures of the intifada – “If 100 million Arab-Muslims are brought up with these images, Israel won’t survive.”)

Both Israel and the church think they can negotiate the story and hence the perception.

When the Times ran a front-page piece about the bulldozing of blocks of the refugee camps and the destruction of the Palestinian infrastructure, Israeli supporters furiously complained that the Times didn’t show the other blocks that were left intact around it. With similar literalness, against a background of reports and pictures from the Jenin “massacre,” the Israelis argued for a body-count definition of the word (undoubtedly the word massacre will stick, whatever the body count turns out to be).

For the Catholics, the initial response to the sexual-abuse charges was to protest the unfairness of making the story about these few rotten eggs instead of about priests who diligently serve the flock. In a hapless strategy of media containment, Cardinals Law and Egan wrote weird, cryptic, withholding, trust-us-to-do-the-right-thing letters to the faithful.

They are bargaining with instead of accepting the media god.

It’s about control, or the habit of control.

Both the Israeli government and the Catholic hierarchy have spent most of their institutional lives in a favorable media world. Israel’s press might be free, but it is, of course, not the Arab press (which is regarded by Israelis as a conspiracy of libel and illogic). Catholic media – the church owns and supports a big print and broadcast operation – is separate from secular media. U.S. media, for its part, has always been partial to Israel and deferential to the church. When it isn’t, it faces well-organized SWAT teams.

Aharoni, the media consul, points out that CNN chairman Walter Isaacson recently invited right-wing Jewish groups to Atlanta to air their complaints about CNN’s coverage. (Indeed, Aharoni argued, CNN was losing out to Fox precisely because Fox had a clear partiality to the Israeli side.) And when, recently, pro-Israeli Jews decided that the L.A. Times was too soft on the Palestinians, they organized a boycott of the paper.

Ten years ago, the Boston Globe reported, Cardinal Law had “called down ‘the power of God’ on the news media, including the Boston Globe, for its coverage of the case of a pedophile priest, the Rev. James R. Porter,” managing to stifle the scandal.

The assumption, for both the Jews and the Catholics, continues to be an old-fangled, and, I’d argue, antiquated one: that the media will, in the end, always represent a mainstream, Establishment consensus view. That the impression the media leaves is a function of what you tell it, or what pressure you put on it, instead of a product of the available footage, the amount of coverage, and the acrimony of the talking heads.

Ambassador Alon Pinkas, the Israeli consul general, a young and telegenic diplomat who was eager to speak to me last week about Israel’s media initiatives, ticked off his appearances on Chris Matthews, Larry King, Hannity & Colmes (he seemed pleased that when he debated Palestinian representatives, they were no match for him).

Now, I could see his point: Israel is a nation at war, and every night it’s given an opportunity to explain its philosophy and goals to one of its most important constituencies. Pinkas, on Israel’s behalf, has been given an open mike. What could be bad about that?

But I have seen Pinkas on the cable shows. And he’s terrible. He does it all wrong. What he does is defend, justify, rationalize – and none of those things are media virtues. He appears to have no salesmanship abilities at all – and for better or worse, television is a sales tool, a seducer’s medium. He’s on the wrong side of the medium and doesn’t seem to know it. We see him (the Palestinians are hardly any better) as just part of the 24/7 distortion field – indeed, the distortion field, the run-amok fury and recriminations, become the media spectacle. The Israelis and the Arabs are not just combatants on the ground but, increasingly, players in a deeply toxic media drama – they’ve O.J.-ified themselves.

It may be axiomatic that if you get bad media, you don’t know you’re getting bad media. If you could see yourself the way others see you, you’d make the necessary adjustments.

Then, too, there’s the resentment of having to look the way others want you to look. And the double resentment of having your enemies play the look-and-feel game – the game of symbols, perception, and seduction – better than you.

The Israelis in some sense have chosen, or have been forced, to fight a media war – the symbolic power of the intifada and the martyrdom of the suicide bombers – with a conventional war. Kids blowing themselves up plays to the media; tanks and bulldozers, much to the Israelis’ perplexity, do not. The church, too, seems to be nothing so much as a product of its frustration. Neither knows how to fight what’s happening to it. When the Israelis invade, they increase the moral standing and the power of the Palestinians. Every time the Catholic Church defends celibacy, it becomes more clearly indefensible – ever more ridiculous.

As these things almost invariably play, Israel and the church have begun to pronounce their real enemy to be the media. Arab satellite TV is already as big an enemy of Israel as the refugee camps; Ted Koppel felt put out enough by charges against Nightline of anti-Semitism to devote a show to the issue. Baltimore’s Cardinal William H. Keeler went to the heart of what the church thinks the matter is at his recent news conference: “It’s really the media of the United States that has made this an American problem. We’re in this feeding-frenzy situation right now, where the coverage of cases of 20, 30 years ago is being plastered in the headlines.”

Israel and the church will both continue to bitterly make the same point: They won’t change who they are and what they believe in because of the media.

But they will.


The Unspun