It was The New Yorker’s Abbott J. Liebling, who also wrote the “Wayward Press” media critique column, that famously asserted that “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”

Journalist Jack Shafer’s 2004 reference to Liebling as having “portrayed the press as a comic circus populated with evil clowns, union-busting lions, and crookeder than usual carnies performing inside a tent that could go up in flames at any moment” should be just as famous.

One has to admit there is a certain contradiction between the idea that a truly democratic society is dependent on a free unfettered press and the reality that that same press, which is expected to confront, criticize, investigate and face down political, cultural and economic power, needs financial support to exist. Without financial investment and profits, the private-sector media collapses.

This past week, we learned that the Discount Investment Group headed by Nochi Dankner will be selling the Ma’ariv daily newspaper to Hirsch Media head Shlomo Ben-Tzvi, who also publishes the Makor Rishon newspaper.

Ben-Tzvi founded a cable television channel a decade ago, Tchelet, but it ceased broadcasting three years later.

He later purchased Hatzofe, the National Religious Party’s newspaper for seven decades and Nekuda, the intellectual monthly of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, which existed for 30 years. They were “merged” into the weekly Makor Rishon, which became a daily in 2007 with Ben-Tzvi becoming editor-in-chief.

During the years 2006-7, he pioneered with Sheldon Adelson the concept of a free daily paper, Israeli, but it closed, amid litigation.

One immediate challenge faced by the presumed new owner is the fate of Ma’ariv’s staff. It is expected that no more than 20 percent of those currently employed will be retained. But the more important issue for the new owner and his editorial management are the attempts already being made to deny the new Ma’ariv-Makor Rishon professional legitimacy.

Already, the radical anti-Zionist +972 web site has employed such epithets as “ultra-rightist” and “extremely conservative,” but nevertheless had to admit that Makor Rishon has “a reputation for high-quality reporting and analysis.”

The Associated Press, reflecting input from the biased local Israeli press, described publisher Ben-Tzvi as “hardline religious.”

In a September 9 column in Haaretz, Peace Now’s Yariv Oppenheimer launched a political assault. Ben-Tzvi, he wrote, in collusion with Dankner, a crass financier, was planning “to make Ma’ariv the mouthpiece representing a one-dimensional world view.” Oppenheimer sees its journalists becoming “servants of a clear political agenda” forced to dictate “a one-sided, right-wing, nationalreligious political ideology.”

That Haaretz and Yediot Aharonot have been mouthing a one-sided, left-wing, professionally unethical opposition to Binyamin Netanyahu is a fact Oppenheimer conveniently ignores.

An Haaretz editorial had a different line, claiming that “the current owner [Dankner]... bought the paper to promote his economic and personal agenda, [but that] the purchase of Ma’ariv by a professional publisher who understands the media business is the right move.”

The objection raised by the editorial was that the concentration of media outlets into the hands of a few individuals is harmful to democracy in itself.

THE PRESS scene today, in an open and robustly democratic Israel, with four newspapers in Hebrew – Yediot, Ma’ariv/Makor Rishon, Israel Hayom and Haaretz – differs, paradoxically, from that of the early days of the state when a much more hegemonic Mapai-led government heavy-handedly dominated public discourse.

Even The Jerusalem Post was visited at times by Moshe Sharrett, who “assisted” in the composition of its editorials.

Party organs such as Herut, HaBoker, Davar, Al HaMishmar, the afore-mentioned Hatzofe and others are no more. The haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community still manages to maintain several competing organs.

Ma’ariv, until the 1980s, was considered a bastion of Zionist Revisionism, sympathetic to the Herut party’s nationalist outlook but not its mouthpiece, before veering to the Left. Moshe Zak, Uri Keisari, Shmuel Schnitzer, Shalom Rosenfeld and Aryeh Dissenchik, all former members of the Betar youth movement, were its backbone.

Dosh, its outstanding caricaturist, drew cartoons for the Lehi underground broadsheet. In the 1960s, Geulah Cohen and Moshe Shamir joined the paper.

Oppenheimer and others need not overexcite themselves.

The paper could said to be returning to its roots.

Another aspect is that the break-off of Ma’ariv from Yediot Aharonot early in 1948 was a precursor to the “private economic and marketing interest vs. the interest of public responsibility” conflict, which is perhaps again being perhaps out today.

Yehudah Mozes and Azriel Carlebach had a falling out and Ma’ariv became a paper of journalists, owned by them, rather than being a commercial money-making venture.

IN 1920, Nikolai Lenin was quoted as saying: “Why should freedom of speech and freedom of the press be allowed? ...Ideas are much more fatal things than guns.

Why should any man be allowed to buy a printing press and disseminate pernicious opinion calculated to embarrass the government?” The denigration of the sale of Ma’ariv by far-left figures, whose less-than-honest concern for pluralism and democracy is merely a facade, is nothing more than reconstituted Leninism.

Shafer, quoted above, had another observation: “The press-critic racket has been dominated by liberals and leftists whose critiques have usually owed more to their political mind-sets than to the media they consume.”

But it is not the “press-critic racket” here that they dominate but, as had been highlighted in our columns, too much of the mainstream media, and not only the privately-owned press but the state broadcasting systems including the IBA’s television and radio outlets, the IDF’s Army Radio and much of the Second Radio and Television Authority networks that are either too lax in enforcing their ethical obligations or actively pursue ideological agendas by exploiting their microphones and cameras.

In a 2004 book published in Israel, Our Story: The National Narrative in the Israeli Press, author Ya’acov Yadgar’s thesis was that between 1967 and 2000 the championing of a national narrative by the press underwent extensive alteration, from the exclusivist Israeli- Jewish identity formulation to one more universal, humanist and peace-oriented. His study also asserts that the journalists exhibited patterns of extreme mobilization in the furtherance of this change.

This selling and buying of Ma’ariv might very well break the stranglehold Israel’s elite leftist camp possesses, which is not only political but also cultural. As detailed in the studies of Haifa University’s Dr. Eli Avraham, for example, in his 2002 book The Hidden Israel, the Left has consistently marginalized significant elements of Israel’s society.

Israel’s Hebrew print scene seems to be changing. We now will have two post-Zionist-oriented papers and two Zionist-oriented ones. This seems to be an optimistic message for the New Year. Israeli is maturing, and even its media is no longer monolithic.

The authors are, respectively, vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch www.imw.org.il.

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