Monday, February 11, 2008

Haim Yavin: 40 years of television news

The woman in the cartoon above is exclaiming, "Nostradamus was right! The end of the world is drawing near." She is watching Haim Yavin announce his departure after having delivered the evening news for the past four decades. The cartoon is by Amos Biderman, from the Feb. 6 Hebrew newspaper Haaretz.


Haim Yavin, the face on the television screen, is an Israeli institution, an iconic figure who has had a remarkable career presenting television news for 40 years. On Feb. 5 he said good night for the final time as news anchor of the government-run television channel.

Because Yavin anchored the news ever since television began in Israel, people are telling each other that we have come to the end of an era. That is not exactly the case.

Older Israelis know Yavin as the newscaster who brought the world into their homes when the government started the country's first television channel in 1968. Prime Minister Olmert told a farewell event for the veteran news anchor: "We went through all the experiences of our lives ... with one person," news presenter Yavin.

Younger Israelis, on the other hand, may be strangers to the government channel. Some know Yavin mainly as an object of jokes on satire programs of the commercial channels, which have long since surpassed the government channel in ratings. Yavin has been called a dinosaur, and even some of his admirers say he stayed too long.

Yavin is often likened to the U.S. newscaster Walter Cronkite, who was once voted the most trustworthy man in America. Cronkite's stint as CBS anchor lasted 19 years, which is not even one-half the length of Yavin's career at the anchor desk in Israel. Cronkite worked for a company with a mandatory retirement age of 65. Such restrictions do not apply to Yavin.

Now 75, Yavin is not leaving television work. Although he no longer will anchor the nightly news, he plans to continue making television documentaries. In 2005, his five-part series, "Land of the Settlers," shown on the commercial Channel 2, presented an unfavorable view of the Jewish presence in Yehuda, Shomron and Gaza. The series, Yavin has said, "annoyed them a lot, in just showing reality as it is." The Yesha Council tried to get the government channel to fire him.

Yavin shot much of that series himself with a camcorder over a two-year period. He has said he decided to make a documentary about the impact of settlements and occupation in the territories "so that I and those like me can’t say we didn’t see it, we didn’t hear it, we didn’t know.”

Now Yavin is working on "The Sector," a documentary series on Israeli Arabs to be broadcast later this year, also on commercial television. It, too, deals with material that is not ordinarily covered. Yavin told an interviewer last year that unequal treatment of Arabs in Israel "causes bitterness, second-class citizenship and creates talk of apartheid."

"Zionism needs redefining," Yavin said. "I'm not saying to give up on the Zionist state, but to find a fairer compromise for allocation of this land and its resources. And if not, things like the October 2000 riots will reemerge, but far worse."

Yavin's farewell to the "Mabat" news program was a media event. His final newscast attracted 9.6 percent of the Israel public, the highest rating which Channel 1 news has received in the past half-year. As Yavin signed off for the last time, the government channel segued into a live, 75-minute show in which he received tributes from colleagues, competitors, family and various public figures including the Prime Minister. This show drew the fourth highest rating of the evening, 14.6 percent, a rarity for the government channel. A game show had the highest rating that night (22 percent), followed by Channel 2 news (20.4 percent) and a mock-interview show (16.2 percent) starring Eli Yatzpan, a comedian whose impression of Hosni Mubarak brought a formal complaint from Egypt's foreign ministry a few years ago.

Although the tribute to Yavin had been publicized in newspapers' television schedules, the guest of honor seemed surprised to see the array of people who turned out. "Wow! What's happening here? What's happening here?" Yavin said as he spotted familiar faces. As the program got going, he reverted to his trademark reserved comportment, smiling in a restrained way and casting a quizzical look from time to time as ageism and cliches filled the air. Sometimes it seemed as if the guest of honor were being held captive by the very trivialization which he deplores in today's ratings-driven television.

Once, Yavin seemed to lose his cool briefly. This was when the master of ceremonies, Yigal Ravid, tried to ask an annoying personal question. Ravid wanted to inquire about Yavin's thick, dark hair. He accompanied his question with a little giggle. Yavin told Ravid to lay off. Yavin said the question annoyed him. Ravid kept asking anyway, until Yavin cut him off and changed the subject to the early days of television news in Israel.

Earlier in the show, Mordechai (Moti) Kirschenbaum, who was among the founders of television news in Israel, had commented on Yavin's role: "For 25 of those 40 years we were a monopoly, and you were the voice and face of television news. There were stormy events---not like in any other country---wars, intifadas, peace, you name it, politics of every type. Everyone saw and heard it through you."

Yavin, picking up on these comments, said Kirschenbaum, Dan Shilon and a few unnamed colleagues who were in at the start established the moral basis of Israel television: "It must report truth."

Yavin continued: "We didn't always report in a beautiful way, we didn't always report in an elegant way, there were others who surpassed us in the 'look' ...."

The master of ceremonies tried to interrupt: "Yes, and there were claims that we didn't always report the truth, you know."

Yavin ignored the interruption and kept talking: "And there were instances when we struggled for our right and our obligation to report the truth. These were not easy struggles. Some went to the High Court of Justice."

Yavin evidently was referring to Israel television's successful battle in the early 1980s to overturn official prohibitions against interviewing leaders of the outlawed Palestinian Liberation Organization. Instead of inviting Yavin to talk more about this journalistic issue, the master of ceremonies cut off the discussion and introduced a new segment in which Yavin received a facetious proposal from two politicians. They suggested he join the government as a representative of the pensioners' party. If Yavin took offense, he did not show it.

The next morning, a television review in Haaretz praised Yavin and heaped scorn on the televised tribute. The reviewer, Gideon Levy, referred to Yavin as "the last of the Zionists." Levy, himself a prominent voice from the left, wrote that Yavin was never a leftist but did have a world view and expressed it, "something that is so rare in today's television."

Yavin has said similar things about himself. He has said that he is of the center, not the left, and that he doesn't see himself as a prophet or historian. "I report as is," he has said. "In my blood, I'm a Zionist."

In interviews, Yavin has discussed differences between reporting news and voicing his own opinions. In 2005, after "Land of the Settlers" appeared, he stated: "It is now becoming acceptable to include personal opinions in the evening news. ... I'm against it. After all, everyone agrees there is no objectivity in news coverage; but there is an aspiration toward objectivity, and therefore when presenting the news there is no justification for taking a personal stand. I compare myself to a night editor who also writes editorials. In my opinion, it is legitimate to carry on a personal campaign that is subjective and balanced, and is written in the first person."

In 2007 he said, "There's no such thing as objectivity, but there is fairness. And you can seek to be objective. As an anchorman I always sought to be objective, but I've never hidden [in my documentary films] that this is my personal travelogue, in my name."

In the same interview, Yavin was quoted as saying that the media are naturally leftist because, "The press seeks out the irregularities and the distortions in the establishment. It is by definition anti-establishment."

In 2004, a foreign journalist asked Yavin whether he felt that government interference was a problem. Yavin responded: "The government cannot win. There's a constant battle between the government, the authorities, the establishment, and us, the media people, who consider ourselves free journalists. ... This country is a very free country, a very outspoken country. ... Everybody argues all the day about everything. So they cannot really stop us and all the efforts to do some sort of censorship against our broadcasts, against the press, fail because of this openness, because of the openness of the country."

The founders of Israel television expected to change the world for the better but didn't quite succeed, Yavin has said.

"Now TV is a jacuzzi," he told an interviewer last year, "an entertainment tool to titillate the viewers. One great porridge. People can't separate what matters from what doesn't. People want to be amused, to put their feet up and channel hop."

"The medium has become trivialized," he said. "It's all ratings. It's a competition for viewers. Multi-channels meant the end of the period of serious television. News today on Channels 2, 10 and 1 are ratings structured. Coverage isn't catastrophic, but there are whole shows, discussion shows, that are just shouting in the studio. They trivialize the debate."

Television came late to Israel, a full generation after it had become an influential medium elsewhere in the world. By the time Israel saw its first television broadcasts in 1968, the country had been through three wars and 20 years of intense nation-building including mass immigration amid economic shortages.

Yavin set a tone. Newscasters who came after him are influenced by standards he established---factual reporting, presented straightforwardly, in a calm manner, no shouting, no crying, no showing off. In this sense, younger Israeli newscasters are carrying on professional aspects of the Yavin era.

In a different sense, the Yavin era ended years ago. It was already on the way out as early as the 1991 Gulf War, when Israelis became aware that CNN was faster than their own media in reporting Scud missile attacks. The government channel still had its monopoly then, but its domination of the screen was breaking down. Commercial television received official approval in 1990, and by 1991 Channel 2 had begun experimental broadcasts. These included a satirical mock-news program, "The World Tonight," which brought comic relief into Israel homes on weeknights during the war. Its principal performers, Avri Gilad and Erez Tal, are now important personalities in commercial television.


As a news presenter, Yavin comes across as calm, measured, decent, friendly, even gentle. This can belie the toughness and sharpness of tongue he may reveal when going after a story.

Channel 1's Feb. 5 tribute to Yavin included excerpts of a confrontation five years earlier between Yavin and Olmert. The day after the 2003 elections, Yavin asked Olmert about the politics of forming a Likud-led government coalition. Olmert, who had managed the Likud campaign, didn't answer directly, and Yavin pressed him.

The following exchange took place, between two sharp-tongued adversaries.

YAVIN: [interrupting] Do you know what my lifelong dream is? Excuse me for interrupting you. Do you know what my dream is, Ehud Olmert? That once in my life when I put a simple question to a politician, to any politician---this isn't personally directed at you---that when I ask a question, I will get an answer to the question.

OLMERT: Haim, I will tell you something.

YAVIN: [interrupting] I asked why not...

OLMERT: Believe me...

YAVIN: [interrupting] Look...

OLMERT: Believe me...

YAVIN: [interrupting] I asked you a simple question:

OLMERT: Haim...

YAVIN: [interrupting] Why not a national government?

OLMERT: Haim, believe me---facing your biting wit, a person of ordinary intelligence is incapable of giving an answer as clever as your question. So I give up on the ability to compete with you on wit...

YAVIN: [interrupting] Well then...

OLMERT: ...and I will continue to respond to the question...

YAVIN: [interrupting] Nevertheless...

OLMERT: I think I should respond...

YAVIN: [interrupting] Nevertheless...

OLMERT: ...and if you want to be sarcastic toward me...

YAVIN: [interrupting] I'm not being sarcastic.

OLMERT: I'll let you. It's okay. It's...

YAVIN: [interrupting] I asked you a question.

OLMERT: ...legitimate.

YAVIN: I asked you a question.

OLMERT: [trying a different tack] I imagine that since yesterday [election day] you aren't so happy. But I am.

Yavin did not let Olmert deflect him with this accusation of bias. Yavin continued to press Olmert, who recalled the other day that Yavin "was very aggressive to me."

In the Feb. 5 show, Olmert added, "The thought that Haim Yavin is leaving seems and sounds terribly strange, but at least it's possible to say one thing: how fortunate that you are doing this at an age when it's possible to begin everything anew."

Asked if he wanted to say anything to Olmert in return, Yavin echoed the Prime Minister's words. "Everything's already been said," Yavin replied for Olmert's benefit, "how fortunate that it's still possible to start again from scratch."

Yavin said nothing further on the subject, leaving others to wonder if he intended this improvised parting shot as a political barb. Various opponents have been calling for the Prime Minister to resign, and, unlike Yavin, Olmert has not agreed that it's time to give up his government job and do something else.

---Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv

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