Is Sheldon Adelson’s “Israel Hayom” newspaper killing the Israeli press and endangering Israeli democracy, or ensuring Israeli democracy by guaranteeing media heterogeneity? A debate between me and Ori Nir of the American Friends of Peace Now.
By David M. Weinberg
TEL AVIV (JTA) — Liberal pundits (such as Ori Nir, see below) have coined a new saw: Sheldon Adelson and the newspaper he owns, Israel Hayom, are primarily responsible for the collapse of many Israeli media outlets, and this endangers Israeli democracy.
The assertion is wrong on both the business and ideological levels.
The imminent failures of Maariv and Channel 10 television, and the deep troubles of Haaretz and other smaller publications, are first and foremost the function of long-term market forces, such as the advent of Internet news sites, that predate Israel Hayom. Maariv’s downward slope began long before Israel Hayom debuted in 2007, which explains why Maariv was bought and sold four times — at a loss each time — over the past 20 years. Its consistently terrible management and lack of brand positioning spelled its doom.
The same for Channel 10. The same for the Davar, Hadashot and Hatzofe newspapers — all of which have folded over the past 20 years. Sheldon Adelson had nothing to do with these bankruptcies.
Undoubtedly, some readers have moved from Maariv, Yediot Achronot and Haaretz to Israel Hayom because the latter is distributed free. These readers also may have discovered that Israel Hayom is a good paper, with solid editing, experienced reporters, comprehensive coverage and a fine lineup of sharp columnists (full disclosure: including me).
But Israel Hayom also has tens of thousands of subscribers who pay for home delivery. And now Maariv and Yediot are distributing tens of thousands of free copies every day, too, on trains and in shopping malls across Israel.
What really irks the veteran Israeli media outlets is that readers have abandoned them for ideological reasons. Readers fled Yediot and Maariv because they became crass, trashy publications dominated by glossy features about models, actors, singers, rich playboys and the “true heroes” of Israel — journalists themselves.
By contrast, Israel Hayom features academics, scientists, pioneers, and Zionist and social activists. It also promotes hiking and travel within Israel, not the casinos in Greece, the restaurants in Rome or the fleshpots of Thailand.
Readers also edged away from Maariv, Yediot and Haaretz because of the deep gap that opened between the left-wing ideological viewpoint peddled by these publications and the healthy, increasingly conservative instincts of the Israeli public. These papers idolized Shimon Peres and his “new Middle East,” puffed up Yasser Arafat and promoted the Oslo process long after its failure was clear, and they lionized Ariel Sharon and pumped for Gaza disengagement while ignoring Sharon family corruption.
Yediot and Haaretz also regularly dump on Jerusalem, Israel’s largest city, as medieval and backwards while exalting Tel Aviv as cool and cultured. They sneer at Orthodox Judaism and mock religious Jews. They disparage Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with savage vehemence and fanatical constancy. Not a month goes by without Yediot conjuring up some nasty, cockamamie story about Netanyahu’s wife, Sarah. For Haaretz, Israel can do no right and the Palestinians can do no wrong.
There’s more. In the 1970s and ‘80s, Yediot under editor Dov Yudkovsky, and to a lesser extent Maariv under editors Rosenfeld, Shnitzer and Dissenchik, became razor-sharp media watchdogs, launching one investigative report after another into government and financial sector corruption. They were papers with values and an edge.
But under Yediot publisher and acting editor Noni Mozes, and under Maariv’s disgraced and jailed publisher Ofer Nimrodi and current owner Nochi Dankner, the last decade has been dismal. The papers became enmeshed in promoting the financial and political careers of Israel’s liberal, WASPish elites and the vested business interests of the publishers themselves. They often defended corrupt politicians and attacked attorney generals and the system of law enforcement. They came to represent the interests of their owners’ business and political connections, not the public interest. This is a real threat to democracy.
It’s no surprise that Israel’s top crime-busting investigative journalist, Mordechai Gilat, left Yediot in disgust after a 30-year career there. Gilat now writes for Israel Hayom.
Israel’s Ted Koppel, a journalist named Dan Margalit — former editor of Maariv, anchor of Israel’s top TV political debate program and the man who exposed Yitzhak Rabin’s financial misdemeanors — is Israel Hayom’s senior political and diplomatic columnist.
It’s also no surprise that Yediot and Maariv are now running an unabashed, aggressive campaign promoting the return to politics and national prominence of Ehud Olmert and Aryeh Deri, both of whom earned reputations as corrupt politicians and both with criminal convictions. And lo and behold, both happen to share left-of-center political orientations.
So Israeli readers have been looking for alternatives. In Israel Hayom, they have found a paper where Israel and Netanyahu get the benefit of the doubt while Israel’s enemies are treated with a bit more suspicion, and where shady characters in the business and political worlds are not coddled. Apparently that suits many Israelis just fine.
Israel Hayom is simply doing a better job than Maariv, Yediot or Haaretz of competing for readership in the free marketplace of ideas. Let’s hear it for freedom and pluralism of the press.
Israel Hayom certainly has its faults, chiefly that at times it is slavishly and uncritically pro-Netanyahu. But that’s the real reason for liberal attacks on the paper and its owner, not any ersatz concern over Israel’s democratic soul.
What truly endangered Israeli democracy was the ideological orthodoxy and conformity that once characterized the Israeli media market. Yediot Achronot, for example, held 70 percent of the readership on weekends, a near monopoly unheard of in any other democratic country.
Israel Hayom has brought a modicum of much-needed heterogeneity to the Israeli media, helping to ensure and heal Israeli democracy. For the first time, Yediot has some serious competition, which most democrats would say is a good thing. Think of Yediot as MSNBC and Israel Hayom as (a more intellectual) Fox News. It’s legitimate in the U.S., and it is legitimate (and good) for Israel, too.
By Ori Nir
WASHINGTON (JTA) — Can you imagine Israel without a free, independent, vociferous and diverse media? Can you imagine Israel without Maariv and Haaretz? Without biting commentary, investigative reporting and an open, cacophonous marketplace of views and ideas?
Such an Israel terrifies me, and it should alarm you, too. It is not the Israel in which I grew up, certainly not the Israel that we all love to love and be proud of. Increasingly, Israel is heading in that scary direction.
The media industry in Israel is alarmingly shrinking. Independent media organizations are struggling to survive, while a daily newspaper that serves as a de facto mouthpiece for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — fully funded by a rich conservative American Jew — is handed out free on every other street corner and threatens to dominate the public discourse.
Not only the commercial, independent printed press is fighting to survive; the electronic media also is in crisis.
Sure, online media and narrowcasting are eating away at traditional media organizations in other Western democracies. Newspapers are folding in America as well. Just like anywhere else, the proliferation of Israeli blogs is welcome. But just like anywhere else, personal blogs don’t have the resources that news organizations muster to produce deep, broad, professional and independent reporting.
Israel, however, is a special case.
Israel’s democracy is fragile, and for the past four years some of its basic tenets have been under attack by its own democratically elected officials. Many of the notorious undemocratic bills and initiatives that ultranationalists in the current Knesset have introduced are aimed at silencing dissent, at weakening Israel’s civil society and at limiting political expression.
Netanyahu and his coalition have been striving — not without success — to dominate the public debate. The prime minister strongly believes in the power of words, images and perceptions. He therefore fights his battles, more than any past Israeli leader, in the public domain, using the media. And media organizations, particularly ones that depend on government funding or government control, have been losing their independence. Israel’s Broadcasting Authority, once known as the BBC of Israel, is a case in point. Under political pressure, its management and editorial staff are limiting criticism and dissent, and sticking to a perceived “party line.”
I admit, I am an Israeli media devotee. At the age of 6, I severely injured myself while chasing my brother in a fight over a newspaper’s weekly supplement. I later worked for an Israeli daily newspaper for two decades. And recently I helped my organization, Americans for Peace Now, establish a daily review of the Israeli media. We offer it to anyone free because we believe that Americans should be familiar with the facts about Israel and with Israel’s public discourse.
When critics attack Israel for its shortcomings as a democracy, I always point out that Israel has an impressively thriving media, and therefore a well-informed public, engaging in open and unhampered debate on issues of supreme importance for their nation. That is still the case. But it may not be for long.
There may not be much that American Jews can do about other threats to Israeli democracy. When it comes to the threat to the Israeli media, however, they really can help. Buy a subscription for the electronic edition of an Israeli daily. Give a subscription to a young relative returning from a Birthright Israel trip. Publish ads in the Israeli media. Encourage your local federation or your favorite American Jewish organization to do the same. Get Israeli media apps for your mobile devices and pay for upgraded services.
Supporting the Israeli media is a win-win. It will make Israel a better democracy and you a better friend of Israel. You will be better informed and more deeply involved. You will have a stronger sense of reinforcing the kind of values that you believe in and would like Israel to follow.
An independent, thriving media is an asset for Israel and for anyone who loves it. Letting it perish will serve those who don’t see Israeli democracy as an asset but as a liability.
Ori Nir is the spokesperson for Americans for Peace Now.