The story behind the headlines

Conflicts over the ownership and editorial direction of The Jerusalem Post have sometimes been as dramatic as the news inside its pages.

By
January 1, 2008 11:24
The story behind the headlines

post paper 88. (photo credit: )

 
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The transition from a colonial outpost of the British Empire to an independent Zionist enterprise at the heart of the Jewish world; battles over political direction between Left and Right, in particular sharp divisions over how best to contend with the Israeli-Arab conflict; clashes over economic policy, including strikes, walkouts and dismissals, as power shifts from labor to capital. That's in part the history of the State of Israel; it's also in many ways the history of The Jerusalem Post over the past 75 years. As an English-language newspaper, the Post has always occupied a curious off-center position in Israeli society, a unique niche that places it somewhere halfway between the Hebrew-speaking Jewish state and the Jewish Diaspora where English has become the lingua franca. But the newspaper's personal history, the story of its founding, ownership, management and editorial direction, has often mirrored many of the same developments and conflicts of the nation whose epic story it has covered over the past three quarters of a century. The drama behind the headlines may not have always made it into the paper - though sometimes it did, and in others as well - but it is a story in and of itself that is well worth telling. The dominant character of that story is the visionary founder of the Post, Gershon Agron. Born Gershon Agronsky in Russia in 1894, he fled with his family from the pogroms to the safety of the United States a decade later. He was raised in Philadelphia. Agron's Zionist fervor led him during World War I to volunteer for the Jewish Legion, the British army unit formed of largely Palestinian Jews that included both Israel's future first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and second president, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. Agron became friends with both, and joined them in Mandatory Palestine in the 1920s, working for the Press Bureau of the Zionist Commission. Although the local population largely spoke (and read) Hebrew and Arabic, Agron saw a burning need for an English-language newspaper that could serve as a bridge between the Jewish community, the Yishuv, and the British rulers of the land who had made English its official language. He also saw the possibility of such a publication eventually serving the same purpose between the Zionist enterprise and the outside world, both the international community and the global Diaspora. Teaming up with a talented young journalist named Ted Lurie, Agron raised sufficient funds to launch what was dubbed The Palestine Post on December 1, 1932. The initial press run was 1,200 copies, and within a few months it jumped up to some 4,000 daily. The Post was privately owned and, in contrast to some of the Hebrew publications, independent of any direct political connection; indeed, in that very first edition Agron included a personal announcement that declared: "The Palestine Post will not seek to promote personal ambitions or party advantage…" There is no question though that Agron regarded the paper as an expression of the Yishuv's dominant Labor Zionist movement, in which he himself became an increasingly prominent figure. He also decreed: "The studied purpose [of the Post] will be the present and future welfare of the country and its people, and the Management will make no attempt to conceal its conviction that such welfare is best assured by a full realization of British policy as defined by the Mandate." For Agron, that meant fulfilling the promise laid out in the Balfour Declaration to establish a Jewish National Home in Palestine. The Post though, had to walk an extremely fine line; while supporting the Zionist enterprise, it could not directly challenge British rule (and its censorship laws), even when the Zionist establishment itself began to do so openly in the mid-1940s. The Post could decry increasing Arab violence against the Yishuv, and openly advocate for increased Jewish immigration to Palestine, doing so vigorously through its main editorial voice, the front-page "Column One" opinion pieces penned under the name David Courtney. The paper became the Yishuv's central voice to the British and the outside world, and thus became a natural target for Arab terror when the conflict between Jews and Arabs reached boiling point over the passing of the United Nations partition plan in November 1947. On February 1, 1948, a car bomb set by Arab terrorists exploded outside its offices in downtown Jerusalem, killing a typesetter, and wounding 20 other employees. Agron and Lurie rallied the staff and still managed to produce a paper the next morning, featuring a Courtney column beginning with the famous line: "The truth is louder than TNT." Just three months later, on May 16, the Post produced the most famous front page in its history, declaring: "State of Israel Is Born." But Israeli independence, the goal the paper had vigorously promoted since its inception, also posed severe challenges. The British were gone - and so were a majority of the Post's readership. Even its name was no longer relevant in a nation where "Palestine" now had an entirely different meaning. It took until 1950 until the name was changed to the The Jerusalem Post (The Palestine Post Ltd. remains its incorporated business name and still appears at the bottom of the masthead), reflecting Agron's determination to keep the paper in the capital despite the fact that all other major print media were located in Tel Aviv. Economically, the paper was stabilized through the growth of its printing press business, and later through the introduction of a foreign edition whose circulation significantly outstripped the local edition. Agron himself left the paper in 1955 to successfully run as the Labor Party's candidate for Jerusalem mayor, a post he held until his death four years later. Under Lurie and his eventual successor, Lea Ben-Dor, the paper maintained its support and close ties to the ruling Labor Party; indeed, foreign minister Moshe Sharett on occasion would drop by the office during the 1950s and personally look over the next day's editorials. THUS THE political earthquake that shook the country in 1977, when the Likud finally unseated Labor, also sent sharp tremors through offices of the Post. "The 1977 elections came upon us, as they did the whole country, as a great surprise," recalled the co-editor-in-chief at the time, Erwin Frenkel, on the occasion of the paper's jubilee anniversary. "From the time of its creation, the Post had related to the Labor Zionist movement. Suddenly we had to relate to a government controlled by political forces the paper had always thought of as 'dissidents.' We called a meeting of the entire staff and explained that we had no intention of trying to reverse the results of the elections. We said that we would judge the new government entirely on its merit..." That judgment, however, grew increasingly negative during the 1980s, as the editorial position became sharply critical of the Likud government's settlement policies in the territories. "The clearer it becomes that the government is determined to hold on to the areas at all costs, the more we see it as our mission to fight such a policy," said Frenkel's co-editor, Ari Rath. At the end of the decade though, the paper underwent its own sudden shift in political orientation, one that was no less dramatic and wrenching. The spur was a change in ownership. Over the years, Agron and his successors had sought to keep the paper in the hands of proprietors who were of like mind regarding its editorial views. For example, one of the major shareholders brought in was American-Jewish philanthropist Sam Rothberg, a close personal friend of Ben-Gurion and other Labor leaders. By the late 1980s the largest number of the company's shares were held by Koor, the industrial holding company of the Histadrut, the Labor-affiliated super-union that at one time had dominated the national economy. As that economy shifted from a more socialist orientation toward greater privatization, the Histadrut decided to sell off all of Koor's assets, including the Post. An auction sale was held in 1989, and many expected the winning bid would come from Charles Bronfman, the Canadian-Jewish billionaire whose family had long supported Labor leaders. Surprisingly, though, he was outbid by Hollinger, a company run by two lesser-known Canadians, Conrad Black and David Radler, owners of Britain's Daily Telegraph and hundreds of local papers throughout North America. The new ownership's impact was immediately felt, first on the business end. With a strong employees' union befitting a Histadrut-owned entity, and an ideological mission regarded as a foundation of the paper, the bottom line at the Post had never been just the bottom line. But Hollinger appointed a new publisher, Yehuda Levy, who immediately embarked on major cost-cutting measures to stabilize the paper financially, including dismissals of veteran employees. One result was a number of labor disputes at the paper during the 1990s, including a strike that saw journalists taking to the picket lines outside the Post's offices in Jerusalem's Romema neighborhood, and several declarations of labor sanctions. Even more contentious were disputes over editorial direction. Black and Radler were known for holding strong conservative views that their papers were expected to express. Although they initially promised not to make any dramatic changes to the Post's editorial views, it didn't take long for a clash to develop. IN NOVEMBER 1989, prime minister Yitzhak Shamir publicly attacked the Post's editorial views and its criticism of his government, claiming that they hurt the country's international standing. Frenkel replied with a strong editorial arguing that it was Shamir's policies which were hurting Israel's global standing, and the paper was right to have "consistently dissented from the Likud's territorialism." Levy was upset by the piece and demanded it not run in the Post's International Edition. Frenkel resigned in protest, and a group of senior editors joined together to demand from Hollinger that managing editor David Landau be appointed his successor, to run the paper without editorial interference from the publisher. Levy, with Black's and Radler's backing, refused outright, and the stage was set for a showdown that came in the first days of 1990, when 35 staff members walked out in protest. The dispute attracted extensive news coverage both within Israel and throughout the world, as did the paper's subsequent quick shift in political direction when Levy appointed N. David Gross, a veteran Post editor with political views closer to his own, as Frenkel's successor. The paper's editorial shift to the Right continued under Gross's successor, David Bar-Illan, a former concert pianist and writer for Commentary who had in the past worked with the new Likud leader, Binyamin Netanyahu. Ironically, when the elections of 1992 returned Labor to power under Yitzhak Rabin, who then signed the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians, the Post resumed its former position as an ardent critic of the government's policies - although this time from the Right rather than the Left. At one point the Foreign Ministry, incensed by the Post's editorial attacks, canceled a long-standing subscription of more than 1,500 copies of the paper it sent out to its embassies and consulates. As opposition to the government's Oslo policies mounted in some quarters, an incident thrust the paper itself into the thick of the story. In October 1995, just a month before his assassination, Rabin was invited to speak at an event co-sponsored by the Post at the Wingate Institute south of Netanya. When he began his address, he was drowned out by boos from the largely Anglo-Israeli crowd, and at one point a crowd member raced toward the prime minister, was wrestled down by his security guards and arrested for attempted assault. In 1996, Bar-Illan left the Post to join the Netanyahu government as its spokesman (he very briefly rejoined the paper three years later, before being felled by a stroke which left him incapacitated until his death in 2003). A succession of editors and publishers maintained the paper's right-of-center editorial line, while trying to increase circulation, trim costs and stave off the competition posed by a new English-translation edition of the left-wing Haaretz daily. BUT ONCE AGAIN, the Post itself became the subject of public and journalistic scrutiny as a result of ownership issues. Hollinger chairman Conrad Black had become internationally famous both for promoting conservative views and for the increasingly opulent lifestyle of himself and his wife, British newspaper columnist Barbara Amiel, known as a strong supporter of Israel. But it was only Black's Canadian-Jewish partner David Radler, renowned as a ruthless cost-cutter, who dealt directly with the Post's business affairs. By 2003, their Hollinger newspaper empire was tottering, amid accusations that the pair had siphoned off hundreds of millions of dollars from the company for their personal benefit. Under heavy pressure from shareholders and the Hollinger board, both men resigned from their corporate positions in November 2003. A subsequent internal report accused them of multiple instances of financial malfeasance; among the charges was that Radler and former Post publisher Tom Rose had inappropriately used moneys from the paper's charity fund to make personal donations in Radler's name. Black and Radler were convicted of fraud in the US courts earlier this year, and both will soon begin serving their prison terms. In the meantime, their successors at Hollinger put the Post up for sale; in November 2004, it was bought for $13.2 million by the Mirkaei Tikshoret Group, an Israeli company controlled by Eli Azur, a former sportswriter whose burgeoning local media empire includes regional radio stations, the Russian-language daily Vesty and the sports-broadcasting company Charlton. Once again though, the ownership became an issue of contention. Azur had bought the paper in a contractual arrangement with CanWest, a major media company controlled by the Canadian-Jewish Asper family. The Aspers claimed that Azur subsequently reneged on an agreement to sell them 50 percent of the company and allow them editorial control of the paper, and sued him in the US courts. Azur responded that he was never under any such binding obligation, and decided to dissolve the partnership in part because CanWest was determined to enforce a right-wing editorial line on the paper. Earlier this year the court found completely in favor of Mirkaei Tikshoret, confirming its full ownership of the Post and ending the legal dispute with CanWest. TODAY, The Jerusalem Post is again in a period of transition. The building it has occupied in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Romema for more than 35 years has been sold, and the editorial staff will be moved to a new location sometime in the next year. The paper's ownership is today entirely Israeli, and the Post's business strategies reflect this greater integration into local media. For the first time, Jerusalem Post articles are being translated into Hebrew for use in Mirkaei Tikshoret's free daily Israel Post, and the paper's recently revived youth magazines are being aggressively marketed to Hebrew-speaking Israelis looking to improve their English. Editorially, the paper has stabilized under editor-in-chief David Horovitz, who first joined at the paper 25 years ago and previously served as editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Report (now also owned by Mirkaei Tikshoret) before returning to the Post in 2004. Horovitz has endeavored to keep the news reporting free of bias or favoritism, while maintaining an inclusive editorial line that also allows for expression in its opinion pages of a wide range of views from Left to Right - the widest, in fact, found in any Israeli publication. Thanks to its Internet Edition, the Post is read daily by hundreds of thousands around the world, something its founders could not have imagined. For those who still prefer print, the International Edition continues to draw new subscribers, and the paper's French Edition has also expanded in recent years. The Jerusalem Post has undergone many transmutations since Gershon Agron put its first edition to bed 75 years ago, and in a turbulent, fast-evolving media business, will undoubtedly undergo more. But the statement he put on its first front page in 1932 can still serve as the paper's credo after all these years: "Its reports will be as objective as is humanly possible, and its criticism informed, legitimate and helpful." Calev@jpost.com

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