Open Zion

10.03.12

Wither The Israeli Press?

On the Thursday before Yom Kippur, several hundred employees of the Israeli newspaper Maariv left their desks and marched under the hot Tel Aviv sun toward one of three buildings towering over Azrieli mall. They occupied the building's lobby, determined to make their way to the offices of IDB Holdings. Guards shut down the elevators, but about two dozen employees broke into the emergency stairwell and climbed to the 41st floor. Their efforts ended up purely symbolic: Nochi Dankner, one of Israel's leading tycoons and the head of IDB, was out of the country.

After sinking almost 100 million NIS into the paper in less than a couple of years, Dankner and IDB—who'd promised to revive Maariv to its glory days as Israel's most widely-read paper—decided to sell the Maariv brand and printing services to right-wing publisher Shlomo Ben-Zvi. All of the paper's 1,750 employees would be fired (with some hired back by Ben-Zvi), and Maariv wouldn’t have the funds to pay the compensation due to them under Israeli law. "Our first goal is to get all of our legal rights," said Hagai Mattar, a Tel Aviv municipal reporter who heads up the newly formed union of Maariv journalists. "Then we would like to see how Maariv can be saved with as many journalists keeping their jobs. This paper is vital to Israeli democracy."

Even with newspapers shutting down everywhere, the perils facing Israel's mainstream media are exacerbated by the reemergence of overt partisanship, fueled by right-wing tycoons and involvement (or lack thereof, on some occasions) by Benjamin Netanyahu's government. Once known for its vigorous and open public debates, the Israeli press, in its new shape, raises questions about conformism. The impression Americans have of a raucous, free-wheeling public debate in Israel may be a thing of the past. One couldn't have imagined a worse time.

Until a decade ago, Yedioth Ahronoth and Maariv, the two major Israeli dailies that dominated since the late seventies, battled over readers. Yedioth won out: Maariv kept its position as an important agenda-setter, but began losing money. Its descent became a free fall in 2007 with the arrival of Israel Hayom—"Israel Today"—a free paper published by the American billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a friend and longtime supporter of Netanyahu.

Before Israel Hayom's advent, Adelson joined a free tabloid with Ben-Zvi, but he wasn't happy with the little influence the paper had. A recent court case between Ben-Zvi and Adelson revealed that Netanyahu and his trusted proxy, Nathan Eshel, who later worked at Israel Hayom before rejoining Netanyahu's staff, chose the editor of the joint venture. Adelson then participated in talks over the purchase of Maariv, and finally decided to launch a completely new daily. He appointed another of the prime minister's associates, veteran journalist Amos Regev, as editor of Israel Hayom.

The paper took an explicitly pro-Netanyahu line, including attacks on then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. An Olmert aide once called it "a party paper pretending to be a media product." The claim was recently—and absurdly—borne out by the revelation that the paper's top political columnist, Dror Eydar, was also employed by Netanyahu's office, with a contract equal to half the average Israeli salary. Eydar refused to resign or apologize, and his editors could not be bothered to explain the seeming conflict of interest.

More than 250,000 copies of Israel Hayom circulate daily, making it the most widely read paper in Israel. It offers low advertising rates—some say 25 percent of the market value—and, unlike other free tabloids, has a large weekend edition. The paper doesn't seem to have a business plan—just a political one: Estimates based on industry publishing costs have Israel Hayom losing over $60 million in its first three years of operation alone. With the addition of the expensive weekend section, that number could be low.

Maariv was the first victim of Israel Hayom's market dominance. Also right-leaning, Maariv lost many of its audience members and advertisers to the newer paper. Yet even the most conservative Maariv writers are cautious about Adelson’s paper. "Israel Hayom is more dangerous than Haaretz," said Kalma Libskind, a right-wing Maariv writer known for his criticism of the liberal media, "because Haaretz is at least led by an ideological line while Israel Hayom is led by the world view of a single man." Another conservative pundit at Maariv wrote: "The combination of fortune and [political] agenda is becoming dangerous—it's called propaganda."

Since Israel Hayom's launch in 2007, Maariv has gone through no less than five editors-in-chief and three owners. Recent weeks raised yet more questions about IDB's conduct since taking over the paper. Revelations included political influence and financial interests finding their way into the paper's pages, suggesting that the crumbling market allowed ethical weaknesses to manifest in print.

Yet even at its worst moments, Maariv constituted an important voice. Unlike Israel Hayom, it placed news ahead of its politics. Perhaps the best example was Libskind's series on zoning corruption involving General Yoav Galant, who was slated to take over as Israel's top military officer. Galant, thought to be "more hospitable" to the idea of an Israeli attack on Iran, was forced to step down and replaced by current Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, later known as an Iran skeptic. It's an exaggeration to claim that Maariv prevented war with Iran, but this shifting balance inside the Israeli army was nudged along by the paper's reporting. A free press can make a difference.

That’s Maariv’s fall is not an isolated incident is perhaps most troubling. Haaretz, next in line, faces massive layoffs after the Jewish holidays. A couple of weeks ago, employees held a demonstration outside the paper’s headquarters, shutting down editorial work for several hours. Their colleagues from Maariv attended. And if Maariv goes down completely and Adelson ends up buying the paper's printing house, Haaretz—which currently provides printing services to Israel Hayom—could go bankrupt too.

As public broadcasting becomes more politicized and the government persists in using regulation to pressure the commercial channels, the media's tendency to conformity seems only likely to grow. There will be less dissenting work, fewer investigative stories and a greater abdication of that foremost responsibility of the free press—to challenge those in power.

Benjamin Netanyahu, who still blames the media for his downfall in 1999 and many political challenges in his current term, won't shed any tears.

UPDATE: Right after publication, Haaretz journalists went on strike. At the time of writing (early evening in Israel), there are no updates on the internet sites of Haaretz group (English and Hebrew alike). The recently formed journalists' union has also decided not to publish Thursday's edition. The journalists are protesting massive layoffs Haaretz group is planning in the coming month.