Since the 1960s, Israeli journalist Yair Stern has made a name for himself working in various media, but he's perhaps best known as a guiding force behind the development of his country's television industry over the past 40 years. Last week, on the eve of receiving an Excellence in Media Award from his alma mater, Temple University, Stern, now 66, reflected on journalism and the coverage of Israel by the international media.
He is the only son of Abraham Stern, founder of the Fighters for the Liberty of Israel ("Lehi" for short), a Zionist group that fought to evict the British from Palestine. His father was, in fact, killed by the British in 1942, months before his son was born. The younger Stern said that when he was younger, it was "hard living up to" expectations the public had of him as a possible "successor or heir" to his father. It was an inner struggle for him, he said, but he knew he had to build a career and start a family of his own — to "find [his] own way in life."
"That way" has meant helping develop policies for a young country's emerging-but-limited media system and allow it to be a conduit for a "free flow of ideas."
Raised in southern Israel, Stern began his career as a reporter for Ma'ariv, the largest daily newspaper in the Jewish state. It was during a mission to the United States with other young Israelis in the late 1960s, recalled Stern, that he first came to Philadelphia. While here, he met the dean of Temple's journalism school, who encouraged him to continue his studies. Stern ended up returning to Temple, where he said he was introduced to broadcast opportunities, something not yet in existence in his own country (they didn't come along until 1969).
After earning his master's degree in 1970, he returned home and began working at Israel National Television. He made his way up the ladder in various positions, both in writing and producing. In the early 1990s, he became director general of Israel Television, which, at the time, was the only TV channel in the country. He later served as chairman of both the Israeli Chief Editors Group and of the country's TV Rating Supervision Board.
Looking back on his life, Stern said "everything has changed." Where there was once one channel — in black and white — there are now two commercial channels and a cable network with more than 150 stations broadcasting from all over the world.
"People are [now] flooded with TV in their homes," he said.
Radio, too, he added, has gone from two stations — one national, the other a military channel — to dozens of channels. He also described how he witnessed the addition of the Internet on the information scene, a venue, he noted, where most young people are getting their local and international news these days. But he fears that readers tend not to notice the differences between what is mentioned in one media outlet versus another, or the lack of "depth" in a story.
"With having so many sources of news, you don't know who to believe," said Stern, as viewers spread their attention among these multiple outlets.
"I see this, but I don't know what to do," said Stern. "This scares me, for the future. I am worried about the younger generations, who won't know what's right and what's wrong. I really have no answer for it."
In his opinion, the international media, aside from reportage emanating from the Arab countries, has been mostly "fair" regarding Israel. American journalists, in particular, he's found, "are more professional, neutral," when it comes to covering Israeli news during periods of heightened tensions.
Since his retirement in 2000, Stern has worked as a media consultant, and said he was honored to get a call a few months ago telling him that he and six other Temple grads would be recognized on Oct. 22 with the 2008 Lew Klein Alumni in the Media Awards.
"Temple gave me a lot, really opened the gates of the world for me," reflected Stern.
So what would his dad think of him?
Said Stern: "He'd have been proud I became a mensch."