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It would be hard to imagine a more ironic situation: Labor's media darling, Shelly Yehimovic, sitting cross-legged on the Jerusalem Conference Center stage Sunday night at the end of the party's manifesto convention, surrounded by sympathetic reporters and complaining about the way the press has been savaging her party, especially its chairman, Amir Peretz.
Habitual complainants against the "leftist media" must be already sneering. Personally, Yehimovic has nothing to complain about the way her successful primaries campaign was covered in the media, including a front-page photo in Ma'ariv - on the morning of the vote - of Yehimovic herself, who took time off to go jogging on a Tel Aviv beach, just by coincidence, in front of the paparazzi's lens.
But where Chairman Peretz is concerned, her criticism is well-founded. The media - particularly the country's largest and most influential newspaper, Yediot Aharonot - is marginalizing him.
The morning after Yehimovic's diatribe, Yediot only found a place for Peretz's social and financial program at the bottom of page nine, with 150 laconic words. You don't have to agree with Peretz's radical plans, but at the very least, they warrant serious debate.
In an election campaign in which the three major parties and two-thirds of the electorate seem to be heading for the consensual middle-ground, Peretz's manifesto is the only detailed, original and provocative program to come out of one of the mainstream parties.
I saw the disdain that many reporters have towards Peretz at the Herzliya Conference when he got up to speak. At the press table, one senior TV reporter didn't even listen after the first sentence of Peretz's speech before passing judgment. "Bad, boring," she muttered audibly and turned away.
But not all the press is anti-Peretz. In Ma'ariv, which likes to portray itself as the champion of the underdog, he does get a fairer hearing. Neither is he deprived in Haaretz, which even endorsed him in the leadership primaries against Peres and will probably do so again on the eve of the elections. But the influence of these two papers together doesn't come close to Yediot's power to dictate the public agenda, as well as that of much of the electronic media, especially Channel 2.
The Israeli media is not so much pro-Left as it is pro-establishment, and it is now gearing up to fend off threats to the establishment. This explains why it gave positive exposure to Binyamin Netanyahu as a capitalist finance minister, yet is hostile to him now that he is a candidate for prime minister and therefore a threat to the establishment's agenda.
Peretz, too - with his civilian agenda and championing of the non-ruling classes - is perceived as a threat to the "proper" order.
The formation of Kadima, coupled with the election of a Moroccan-born union leader as head of Labor, caused a shift of power of a kind the Likud never achieved in all its years in government. Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert succeeded where the Likud failed and have managed, even before going to the polls, to identify their new party with the highest echelons of the government, defense and business establishments. The media has played a major role in this.
PERETZ IS trapped. On the one hand, he wants to emphasize his unique personality and views, since they are what set him apart from the run-of-the-mill politician. On the other hand, in order to get elected, he must persuade enough skeptic voters that he can walk the walk. They belong to the crucial middle-ground - middle-class citizens who could easily switch their vote from Likud, via Kadima, to Labor and back again. These are exactly the voters most influenced by Yediot and Channel 2.
It's hard to analyze the real reasons behind the obvious decision of Yediot's publisher, Arnon Mozes, and editor, Rafi Ginat, to marginalize Peretz, protect Kadima and dampen the real debate that should be raging on the correct fiscal policies for Israel.
Beyond the instinct to defend the establishment, there is a range of financial motives, personal beliefs and friendships at play here - none of them transparent. But a lot can be learned about their methods from the court case going on between Yediot and Nir Becher, who was fired last month from his job as the editor of Yediot's successful "7 Days" weekend supplement. Becher is claiming wrongful dismissal and suing Yediot for NIS 1 million.
In his deposition this week, Becher claimed his relations with Ginat were ruined when the editor-in-chief tried to prevent the publication of investigative reports on former communications minister Dalia Itzik (now a member of Kadima), on former Electric Corporation Chairman Eli Landau (a close friend of Sharon's) and on the way that Sharon and his son, Omri, had taken over religious councils by appointing political allies to head them.
The reports were eventually published after Mozes intervened; but Mozes also allowed Ginat to fire Becher.
Politicians on the right have been attacking the press for the past couple of years for "going easy" on Sharon because of disengagement. But the motive behind the attempt to suppress the reports of the corruption within Sharon's inner circle don't seem to be political. Becher and Gidi Weitz, the reporter who wrote the features, are far from being right-wingers. Yediot might be an immense source of power, but Mozes also has a lot to lose from new legislation against cross-ownership of media outlets and from intense scrutiny by the regulatory bodies. His business interests extend beyond this one newspaper. Besides, he and Ginat have friends in high places - and let's face it: What media mogul wants to spend a Shabbat meal with someone who was just trashed by his own newspaper?
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