Israeli Media Woes Could Boost Bibi

Economic and Political Tremors Threaten To Silence Criticism

End of Era: Angry Israeli journalist protests the downsizing that is expected to lead to hundreds of layoffs at Ma’ariv newspaper.
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End of Era: Angry Israeli journalist protests the downsizing that is expected to lead to hundreds of layoffs at Ma’ariv newspaper.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published September 23, 2012, issue of September 28, 2012.
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Adelson, the Las Vegas billionaire so close to Netanyahu that he sat in the front row of the Knesset’s VIP section for Netanyahu’s 2009 electoral victory appearance, owns Israel Hayom, and he made the crucial decision to hand it out for free, offering ad space at a discount and absorbing the losses. This made it difficult for other newspapers, though more established, to compete. Israel Hayom has exceeded all expectations, claiming some 38.7% of Israeli readers — 1% more than the second place Yediot Aharonot.

The rise of the free daily has benefited Adelson’s close friend. The newspaper is so staunchly pro-Netanyahu that it has been derisively referred to as “Bibi Hayom” and the “Bibiton,” a play on “iton,” the Hebrew word for “newspaper” and Netanyahu’s nickname, “Bibi.” Adelson is widely said to have set it up in 2007 with the aim of helping to get Netanyahu elected and secured in his office.

“Israel Hayom has definitely been a catalyst in the situation we see today,” said Haim Har-Zahav, a board member of the Israel Journalists Association, which is representing Ma’ariv’s journalists in the newspaper’s crisis. Former Ma’ariv staffer Rafi Mann, currently a journalism and communications lecturer at Ariel University Center of Samaria, in the West Bank, agreed, saying Israel Hayom had made a “substantial contribution” to the current state of affairs.

Hardest hit in terms of subscribers was the once-mighty Ma’ariv, which had been on a steep downward slide for more than a decade. “Ma’ariv was already playing catch-up with Yediot — it had nothing unique to offer,” commented Eytan Gilboa, director of the School of Communication at Bar-Ilan University. “Then came Israel Hayom, which is different from any newspaper; it’s like printed television. It’s much thinner, with lots of pictures and simple language.” Israel Hayom, he said, became the only viable tabloid competitor to Yediot.

Israel Hayom columnist Dror Eydar told the Forward that he rejects the accusations leveled at his newspaper. “It’s very easy to blame the new member for the demise of the veteran,” he said. Eydar argued: “The problem at Ma’ariv is a crisis of 20 years. Israel Hayom is not the cause of the crisis — it is maybe the solution in the new era of media consumption.” Its free-distribution model, Eydar argued, is helping to maintain a culture of newspaper reading in Israel at a time when people have become accustomed to free online content.

Meantime, Netanyahu’s critics on television, as in print, are facing hard times. Closure looms at the fiercely investigative Channel 10. The government is refusing to agree to what the channel considers a manageable program for debt repayment to the state for overdue license fees.

Many in the media and in politics claim that Netanyahu is being inflexible toward Channel 10 in an effort to punish it. Nachman Shai, a former television reporter who is now a lawmaker with the opposition Kadima party, has claimed: “The government wants to strangle Channel 10 because of its sins.” The station has aired several probing reports on Netanyahu, who responded to one series of investigations last year by serving the station with a $1.2 million lawsuit, which is ongoing.

Journalists also claim that a recent legal case will inhibit investigative reporting that clashes with government defense priorities. Haaretz reporter Uri Blau was indicted and sentenced, albeit to only four months of community service, for possessing classified documents. Blau’s lawyer, Jack Hen, condemned what he called the “precedent-setting prosecution of a journalist for doing his job, according to which the public’s right to know and freedom of the press were seriously damaged.”

The goal of Haaretz and Channel 10 over the coming months is clear: survival. What is less obvious is what game plan Ben-Zvi has for Ma’ariv.

Har-Zahav believes that it will represent its new owner’s ideology and be “to the right of Israel Hayom.” Reich predicts a political change, but one that will be less dramatic, so as not to lose mainstream readers. He will realize that he has “to restrain himself if he wants to maximize the value of his new asset,” Reich said.

Yoav Ribak, co-chief news editor at Ma’ariv, is trying to stay positive about what the sale may mean. He expects only 300 of the 2,000 staff members to work for Ma’ariv after its sale. Asked if he thought the paper could continue to do serious investigative reporting, he said: “I think that’s possible if the new publisher wants it. The staff here will do this if given the chance.”

Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com


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