Reality Check: Shaking things up

Why is challenge 'Yisrael Hayom' puts to 'Yediot' a "threat to democracy?"

January 25, 2010 05:28
4 minute read.
Reality Check: Shaking things up

sara netanyahu 248.88. (photo credit: )


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Let me admit straight away that I have no sympathy for Sara Netanyahu. Just as the Victorians believed that children should be seen and not heard, the same is true for the partners of Israel's political leaders. Although the prime minister's wife has lowered her public profile during Bibi's current tenure as prime minister - some would say she's been hidden - she still plays a powerful behind-the-scenes role in his office and is a legitimate target of journalistic interest.

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There is though a weary sense of déjà vu surrounding this latest Sara Netanyahu scandal. We've been through it all before during Netanyahu's first premiership: the sacked nannies, dismissed housekeepers, the temper tantrums and so on.

Back then, Netanyahu supporters were quick to blame his political rivals for these stories and the same is true today, but now with a new twist: Netanyahu's defenders also claim that Yediot Aharonot's breaking of the scandal and the prominent front-page coverage given to it has more to do with the growing competition Yediot faces from the new newspaper on the block, Yisrael Hayom, than any serious news agenda. In return, others are describing Yisrael Hayom, a newspaper that is distributed for free, as a danger to our democracy.

In terms of its rapid growth, there is no doubt that Yisrael Hayom has been a great success. In its latest weekend edition, it proudly boasted that it had upped its weekend print run by 100,000 copies, to 350,000. Uniquely for a free newspaper, it offers distribution right to the reader's doorstep in certain areas, providing a level of service to rival that of any paid-for newspaper.

So where's the problem? Why is the emergence of a new paper seen by some as a threat to democracy? The answer lies in Yisrael Hayom's owner, US billionaire Sheldon Adelson, for whom money seems to be no object if it is spent on furthering the political agenda of his friend, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. The closeness of the two men could be seen at the swearing-in ceremony of Netanyahu's new government, when Adelson had a front-row seat in the Knesset gallery.

ACCORDING TO its critics, Yisrael Hayom has only one aim: to provide Netanyahu with a positive press. They point out that unlike other Israeli newspapers, it does not need to make a profit because Adelson is prepared to subsidize its losses from profits from his property and gambling businesses.


This indeed seems to be true, for there is little, if any criticism of Netanyahu in Yisrael Hayom while, according to industry insiders, the rates it charges for full-page adverts are far below the norm. Moreover, when Yisrael Hayom first hit the streets during Ehud Olmert's premiership, it was blatantly hostile to Olmert, with its star commentator Dan Margalit repeatedly being given space on the front page to call for the former premier's removal from office.

But then there is nothing new in a newspaper owner sustaining losses in return for the prestige of owning a newspaper or for the ability to push a certain political agenda. Many newspapers around the world, some of them very prestigious, could be defined as vanity projects, existing only because their publisher derives a nonfinancial value from his ownership of them.

The novelty of Yisrael Hayom has been its success in changing the face of the local newspaper market. For the first time in decades, a newspaper has sprung up that provides serious competition to Yediot's monopolistic domination of the market. At the same time, it is also sounding the death knell for Yediot's one-time competitor, Ma'ariv, which is sinking fast. Why pay for Ma'ariv when you can receive a free newspaper, even delivered to your door, that is almost exclusively staffed by former senior Ma'ariv journalists.

To be sure, the disappearance of a newspaper with a proud history would be a sad development, but then it wouldn't be the first time this has happened here. Over the past couple of decades Davar and Al Hamishmar were forced to close but our democracy has still managed to stay vibrant.

Ma'ariv has been on its last legs for a number of years; the emergence of Yisrael Hayom is merely hastening its demise. And at the same time, somewhat ironically, the right-wing Yisrael Hayom is actually helping to balance the books at the left-wing Haaretz, which prints and distributes the paper for Adelson.

Yisrael Hayom is far from a perfect paper. Its uncritical stance toward Netanyahu (and his wife) makes it a dull read, and readers will eventually tire of its one-dimensional analyses, but it is still a welcome development in the media world.

For too long, the Yediot empire ruled the local media landscape, something that was neither good for the standards of its journalism or for Israeli society as a whole. Yisrael Hayom is definitely not the most impressive newspaper ever to come off the printing press, but it has shaken up a market that had become too complacent. That in itself is a good thing.

The writer is the former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.

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