Many liberals proudly point to Israel’s argumentative, boisterous press as a sign of the vitality of Israeli democracy. If they are still doing this, they’re talking about a bygone era. Press freedom is an iffy proposition in an Israeli media environment playing by Bibi’s rules.
Tal Schneider wrote an extremely dispirting account of the state of Israeli media in the age of Adelson (full disclosure: Tal flew to Seattle to write a profile of me published in Maariv several years ago). Sheldon Adelson has single-handedly upended the fragile existence of the Israeli free press. Before, you had three major dailies, Maariv, Yediot and Haaretz, which carved out an ideological space corresponding roughly to left, right and center. The papers were owned by wealthy Israeli families who treated their properties not just as a business proposition, but as a social asset held in trust for the Israeli nation.
Then Sheldon Adelson decided he was going to upend the apple cart. He would create a daily that was free, and which he would subsidize with his unlimited capital. His paper, Yisrael Hayom (also called “Bibiton”) would have no ideological position other than supporting everything Bibi Netanyahu said and did. Adelson’s enterprise loses $3-million a month, nearly $40-million per year. Bibi has publicly conceded that he never could’ve won his second election as prime minister without Bibiton. Schneider writes:
This is not a classic business loss. In fact, it’s a political donation of $3 million a month by the magnate to his protégé, the Prime Minister of Israel.
The newspaper has become the most popular in all of Israel. It has destroyed the economic model of all the other papers, which charged readers and subscribers.
Adelson spent $150-million to elect a far-right GOP president and failed. He spends $40-million a year to keep a far-right Israeli prime minister in power. If Adelson has his way he could control the political fate of TWO countries, not just one.
The first casualty of the new media order has been Maariv. When its wealthy family, the Nimrodis, unloaded it, a mid-sized settler media mogul, who published the far-right Makor Rishon, bought it. But its continuing losses drove the new owner into bankruptcy. Now Maariv is in court and being pursued by both Bibiton and the Jerusalem Post.
Both Yediot and Haaretz are losing money hand over fist for their respective owners. But as of now, they appear somewhat stable.
Schneider recounts the additional damage Adelson did to Israeli TV. Channel 10’s ace investigative reporter, Raviv Drucker, produced a documentary about Adelson’s business travails in the U.S. and Israel. I watched it. It didn’t seem overly incendiary to me. Nor was it especially damaging. Just garden variety criticism of his litigiousness, imperiousness, and general nastiness. All stuff we all knew.
But Adelson reacted as if his mother had been dragged through the mud. He threatened a lawsuit and persuaded the money-man behind Channel 10, another wealthy Likudist Ronald Lauder, to force his station to pen an abject apology to Adelson. I’d never seen or read anything quite like it. Again, here is Schneider:
Adelson has also brought a major commercial television station to its knees, by forcing Channel 10 news to publish a lavish apology over an investigative piece about his business dealings. After threatening a huge lawsuit, the directors of Channel 10 gave up without a fight, causing the CEO and the chief editor to quit their jobs in protest.
Not content to bring only Channel 10 to its knees, he’s devised a way to bring all of Israel’s public broadcasting (radio and TV) to heel by torpedoing its economic model of a television license fee. Under the guise of ending a hated public tax, Bibi proposes funding the public airwaves directly out of the annual budget along with advertising revenue. But that’s only the beginning of the radical transformation of state media envisioned.
Instead of 1,600 employees, the new enterprise will only have 600. The new venture would stop producing independent programming (the sort that might be most politically threatening to the established order). Instead, it would buy canned programming from independent producers. To me, this sounds like a recipe for a media wasteland. Not to mention, that the Israel Broadcasting Authority will be prone to even more governmental interference than currently since much of its funding will come from the Knesset, rather than an independently financed licensing fee. Another recipe for disaster.
Finally, a perfect recent example of just how cowed the Israeli media are can be found in a story I just reported alleging that senior minister Silvan Shalom, who is a candidate for president of Israel, had sex with a ministry secretary in his hotel room fifteen years ago. The only media outlet in Israel which reported this story along with Shalom’s name was the small, independent operation, News1. On the strength of this story, I reported the news here as well.
But I wondered what prevented other media outlets from reporting this. Was there a gag order? Shalom is known as being extremely litigous and protective of his reputation. No, Shalom couldn’t invoke a gag since he’d not been charged with a crime (though this Ynetnews story did claim there was a gag). Nor did anyone produce any threats from Shalom’s attorneys, as had intimidated two Israeli media portals from reporting that Shalom was Israel’s richest politician with a $40-million net worth.
If there was no overt threat or gag, what happened? This is a perfect example of pre-emptive self-censorship. Today’s Israeli media is so shell-shocked, so intimidated that it decided it wasn’t worth the trouble to report Shalom’s name. Only yesterday, did the prevailing editorial wisdom change and Shalom’s involvement was made public.
It goes without saying that Israel’s security establishment takes a dim view of reporters writing about their activities. This report by the Committee to Protect Journalists warns of serial violations of journalistic freedom by the Israeli military against both Jewish, foreign, and Palestinian journalists. This Reporters Without Borders 2013 report ranking press freedom finds Israel to be ranked 112th of 179 countries. Not an enviable position. Unfortunately, this subject is so passe in the Israeli context that it barely raises a ripple in the media world. Which is why Israel’s wholesale destruction of its own media is a subject that draws more concern from Israelis. Eitan Altman maintains a Facebook page documenting similar Israeli violations of press freedom.
So the next time you hear a liberal Zionist like Peter Beinart or Leon Wieseltier brag about Israel’s thriving free press, you can laugh in their face. Israeli media is on life support. It will not die with a bang, but a whimper. The only property left standing may be one funded by one of the most noxious moguls in the entire United States. What does that say about the state of Israeli democracy?