Press Freedom, Israeli-Style

By Elliot Jager
Tuesday, January 11, 2011

If, as Walter Lippmann wrote, the newspaper is the bible of democracy, the land of the Bible is exceptionally well endowed with that precious commodity. In a country less populous than New York City, scores of newspapers and magazines in Hebrew, Russian, Arabic, English, French, and other languages cater to a mixed readership historically addicted to newsprint.

Among these, the Hebrew-language dailies are dominant. How well do they reflect on the country's democratic ethos? Unfortunately, their multiplicity turns out to be no guarantee of quality or, more significantly, of a truly vibrant marketplace of ideas.

For a start, Israel's morning Hebrew dailies have less in common with American than with British broadsheets or tabloids, in that the demarcation between news and views is often blurred. In addition, the editorial lines of the leading Israeli papers are driven less by a coherent set of values than by the personal predilections and prejudices of their owners and the brutal competition for circulation.

Of the five principal Hebrew papers, the one with the most readers (at 35.2 percent of total circulation) is also the newest: the centrist-Zionist Yisrael Hayom ("Israel Today"), which burst on the scene in 2007. Copies of the paper are distributed free by legions of newsboys clad in red jumpsuits; a digital version is available gratis to e-mail subscribers. Politically, the paper, backed by the Las Vegas billionaire philanthropist Sheldon Adelson, is a definite outlier, notable (and roundly criticized by others) for the broad support it gives to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Similarly atypical is its star columnist, Dan Margalit, who tends to put the onus for the stalled peace process on Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

The next three papers provide the background against which to appreciate the sudden ascendancy of the first. Dislodged from the top spot and now trailing Yisrael Hayom by a half-percent is Yediot Aharanot ("Latest News"). Its owner, Arnon Mozes, very much involved in the race for number one, has been discounting the paper's cover price and distributing some editions free. While ideologically erratic, Yediot is sharply, consistently, and relentlessly critical of Netanyahu. Particularly virulent staff writers are the diplomatic correspondent Shimon Shiffer and Nahum Barnea, doyen of Israel's print punditocracy.

In third position, lagging far behind the two frontrunners at 12.5 percent, is Maariv ("Evening"), whose erstwhile owners, the Nimrodi family, were forced to cede operating control to businessman Zachi Rachiv. De-emphasizing the print edition, Rachiv wants to build a digital readership, and like Yediot has also begun to distribute free or heavily discounted copies. The paper's star columnist, Ben Caspit, despises Netanyahu with no less fervor than his peers elsewhere. Some media watchers discern a possible opening toward the political center with the arrival of a new columnist, Ben-Dror Yemini, who has combined attacks on Jews moving into heavily Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem with a campaign against the Left's domination of Israeli higher education.

Fourth comes Haaretz ("The Land") at 6.4 percent of market share but with a hugely disproportionate level of influence owing to its elite readership, the breadth of its coverage, and the inclusion of translated content from world-class foreign newspapers. The paper also publishes a twelve-page daily English edition, mostly translated from the Hebrew, in collaboration with the global edition of the New York Times, and maintains an English-language website. Owned by the Schocken family, and propped up by the German publisher M. DuMont Schauberg, Haaretz has been accused by its critics of straddling a (thin) line between mindless leftism and outright promulgation of a post-Zionist agenda.

Occupying fifth place is Makor Rishon ("Prime Source"). In its original incarnation, this paper was the brainchild of Amnon Lord, a secular man of the Left who, mugged by Oslo, set out to capture a likeminded, center-Right readership. In 2003, the paper was reconstituted under the ownership of Shlomo Ben-Tzvi, formerly a London businessman, who has integrated it with the waning Orthodox Zionist Hatsofeh and re-oriented it in a more hard-line religious and political direction. The free weekday digital edition, available by e-mail, and the Friday print edition have attracted a loyal constituency of uncertain size.

Finally, no survey of the Hebrew press would be complete without reference to three other dailies, none of them particularly Zionist and all serving the ultra-Orthodox world. These are, first, Hamodia ("The Herald"), mouthpiece of the hasidic-leaning Agudat Israel party; second, its competitor, the even more puritanical Yated Ne'eman (roughly, "Linchpin"), voice of "Lithuanian" ultra-Orthodoxy and organ of the Degel Hatorah party; and, third, serving Sephardi ultra-Orthodox readers, the Shas party's Yom L'yom ("Day to Day"). Common to all three is a policy of ignoring stories at variance with "Torah values," such as the recent trial and conviction of former president Moshe Katsav on charges of rape.

As a "bible of democracy" unique in the Middle East, Israel's Hebrew-language newspapers offer a cacophony of news and of uncensored and unfettered opinion. But for all their differences from the American mainstream press, they also resemble it in one respect: with the revealing exception of the upstart Yisrael Hayom (and, on a smaller scale, Makor Rishon), their political mindset is essentially monochrome. As for probity, objectivity, placing the collective good over narrow interests, that is another matter entirely. 

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