Wednesday 21 December 2011

And now a word from our sponsors

This is a classic headline from an English newspaper. It must be very very old (even I can’t remember Freddie Starr), but the point, is: What a brilliant headline! It grabbed your attention, didn’t it? Admit it:)
But one must remember that that’s the game with newspapers, or the media in general. It’s not to inform, to educate, to spread the word, but rather it’s all about selling, grabbing attention, and drumming up custom.
I once worked in the print newspaper industry (there, now you can guess my age. A newspaper? What, a real one? Made of paper? where the ink comes off in your hands? Well, I must be, what, at least 75 years old?)
And it was a real experience. One learns what to put in a headline, and what not. “Pensions” for example. This is a non-starter. As the business editor, I naturally had an article on pensions now and again, and my challenge for that shift was to get it in the paper with some snazzy headline that grabs the attention, but avoids the p-word. Well I had fun trying.
The papers have their agenda. Usually it’s stirring things up, dramatisation, exaggeration, misreporting.
Often the reporters are lazy (I’m being kind here) and simply regurgitate some story, or article from a given source, without thought or reflection or even questioning.
When I was new to the industry, working at a leading newspaper in Israel, there was a run-of-the-mill industrial dispute story, and it stated that the workers were arguing for more than 10%. So I, naively, asked the reporter “10% of what?” He hesitated, obviously momentarily thrown by the audacity of a heavily-accented newcomer, and then replied “In Israel, we just say X%”.
Now I was stunned. By his ignorance, his lack of concern, and unprofessionalism.
I won’t start comparing to when I worked for the Financial Times in London, where the reporters there were first and foremost experts of their field, and secondly reporters.
Instead, to help you see through some of the sloppiness, here are some pointers.
Resignation: You may recall that back in the summer of 2008 Ehud Olmert announced his “resignation”. Now the papers had a field-day. Who wouldn’t, with the resignation of a sitting prime minister, and especially in the case of Olmert, who was constantly being badgered at the time from left, right and centre, by accusations of corruption, general mishandling of the Lebanon War, and generally being even more incompetent than he was when he was mayor of Jerusalem. Only Olmert, wily politician (and lawyer - double whammy) was really orchestrating the event. He was the one who called the press conferences and generally managed the direction of reporting. The following day he was still prime minister, and still head of his party. In effect, it wasn’t a resignation at all. It was an advance notice that, due to popular demand, he would not be heading his party at the time of the next election. But the press just went along with what was fed them.
Cuts: This is very common in Israel. “The cabinet today argued over cuts to the budget of more than 2 billion shekels”. But when you start reading the small print you see that it’s not a cut but a redistribution. They’re actually discussing a cut from one department, say education, so that another, say defence, gets more. At the end of the day, that’s not a cut. But the Israeli press for some reason can’t bring itself to say “Government decided to spend more on defense today, but cut spending elsewhere to pay for it”.
Reforms: This is an old one. Pay close attention next time the press in Israel report on a “reform”. Reform sounds dramatic, sweeping, well thought out, far-reaching. But really all they mean is “change”. As in "VAT goes up by 1%". That’s not a reform. Simply raising or lowering an existing tax is not a reform. Abolishing income tax and instead slapping taxes on frowning, or telling an unfunny joke, now that would be a reform.
Some follow-up on earlier blogs:

  • In ‘Why didn’t the chicken cross the road?’ (Dec. 7), I described a ridiculously pedestrian-unfriendly junction just by Komemiyut station. Well that last lane, the one without a zebra crossing, now has traffic lights. They’re not working yet, but they’re there. (It’s still an unfriendly junction, though).
  • In ‘Hugh. Pugh. Barney McGrew.’ (Oct. 26) I described the laughable misnaming of the bus stop near Arlozoroff train station. Well, the other day a bus pulled up near the station, though on the other side of the intersection, and from there the station’s not readily visible. The bus did not have one of those recorded announcers. So the driver announced “Rakevet Tsfon Merkaz Savidor’ (Train North Savidor Central) which seems like plenty of information. And a young fellow, obviously not from Tel Aviv, went up to the driver and asked ‘Is this Arlozoroff?’ (Answer yes). I rest my case!

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Why didn't the chicken cross the road?

Easyjet, the nofrills airline, recently covered all its flight destinations in a celebratory issue of its inflight magazine. (Yes, I know what you’re thinking. A review of an airline’s inflight magazine? What depths has this blog sunk to?!! But wait, my, friends. We’re talking about a nofrill airline, with no inflight entertainment, no meal, no drinks, no old episodes of Ramzor, no dumbed-down, child-friendly inflight version of Kill Bill. What else has one to do but read the magazine?). Anyway, the front cover of this magazine depicted each and every one of Easyjet’s destinations, from Barcelona to Inverness to Copenhagen. And there I was searching for the iconic representation of Tel Aviv. Looking... looking... Nothing! OK, well maybe some icon of Jerusalem then. Looking.... looking.... Nothing! Guess what Easyjet had chosen as their symbol for Israel.
The Holon Design Museum.
And they’re no fools. The Design Museum is a state-of-the-art museum, designed by internationally acclaimed Ron Arad, opened in March 2010, to rave reviews.
And it’s not in Tel Aviv. Or Jerusalem. Or even Haifa or Rishon. It’s in Holon.
Yes Holon. The city that never sleeps. Sorry, got that slightly wrong. Holon, the city next door the city that never sleeps. Holon (or correctly Cholon, as in Hebrew it is written with the guttural chet חולון The name comes from the Hebrew word חול chol, meaning sand) has done wonders in recent years, ever so subtly creeping up all sorts of leagues. Under the mayorship of Moti Sasson, a Holonite born and bred, the city has been awarded 5 gold stars by the Council for a Beautiful Israel. (If you’re interested, check out the Council for a Beautiful Israel. You can’t miss it, it’s housed in a concrete eyesore in the middle of Tel Aviv’s Hayakon Park. Mmmmm, makes you think. Obviously the word “beautiful” doesn’t quite survive the translation)
Anyway, current mayor Moti Sasson has emphasised children in his revival of the city, and Holon can now boast a Cartoon Museum, a Digital Art Center, a Cinematheque, and a children’s theater, as well as plenty of parks and street art. Sasson himself, in the post since 1993 (which for an Israeli politician, is an achievement in itself) has been instrumental in many of the city’s changes. In 2010, he was named by Britain’s Monocle magazine as one of the 10 “freshest movers and shakers in urban politics worldwide.” Though the city is small (pop. 185,000) the mayor thinks big. As Sasson said, “It may sound bombastic, but we would like [Holon] to be the cultural center of the Middle East.”
Cultural center it may be, but a fine example of public transportation design it is not.
Let’s look at Holon’s brand new Komemiyut station.

As you can see from this wonderful shot, the station floats in a transport island. It is boxed in, slap in the centre of a monstrous intersection, with the site bounded by (going clockwise, from bottom left hand corner) a cemetery, a stadium, the edge of a residential district, and a municipal waste of space. The railroad itself runs neatly north to south down the center of the Ayalon Highway. The station naturally ends up under a bridge which carries the local highway over the Ayalon. So maybe the positioning of the station is a “given”, a fixed point. What surrounds the station isn’t. So let’s see what Mayor Sasson and his Middle Eastern cultural gurus have designed for the traveling public.
For a start no one can claim to work “right by the station”. There are no offices, no shops, no colleges, no institutions, in fact pretty much no buildings right by the station. As I say, it “floats”, as if it was plopped from above in the thick of a spaghetti junction.
Clearly there are people that live nearby. They can at least claim to “live right by the station”. So let’s follow Dorit Meshulam, one of those lucky few, as she winds her merry way home from the station.
She steps off the train, and climbs the 46 steps to the concourse. She leaves the station building (opened in September 2011, spick and span, toilets are impeccable). She turns right and walks 100 meters, crossing the entrance to the bicycle park (spacious, room for 56 bicycles) as she does so. At the lights she crosses a single lane, and continues. After 50 meters, she crosses a further 2 lanes (this is the slip road from the Ayalon Highway). She swivels to her left, and now waits for another set of lights to change. She crosses the 4 lanes to the island in the middle, and finally crosses a further 3 lanes. She is now on the northern side of the bridge. To get to her house--remember she lives in the nearest building to the station--she now needs only cross the northern slip road to the Ayalon. This is a slip road, leading off from the 4-lane traffic heading west at this point, so it’s a wide, fast road, and here we get to see the municipality’s sense of humour: THERE IS NO PEDESTRIAN CROSSING AT THIS POINT.
Well I think the message is clear there. Sure let’s build roads, let’s build railroads. Let’s pour billions of public money at Israel Railways. But where’s the access? Where’s the thought? What possible attention to detail has left the nearest living Holonites (I've ignored the late lamented Holonites who are actually nearer the station) cut off from a station that they can actually glimpse from their bedroom windows. They only have to walk almost 200 meters and cross 11 lanes of traffic and wait for four separate sets of traffic lights. Just to catch a train. That is, if they can get to the other side.