Haaretz: Still not out, after a century innings

Popularly called “left wing” by its critics, the paper in fact favors the free economic market, and over the years has critiqued socialist-related policies.

July 31, 2019 14:17
Haaretz: Still not out, after a century innings

Albert Ely, a veteran of Kibbutz Sha’ar Ha’amakim in the Jezreel Valley – a community with deep socialist roots where US Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders once volunteered – holds a copy of Haaretz magazine. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

Journalism history shows that prior to 200 years ago, few newspapers lasted longer than two years. So for a newspaper to survive 100 years is quite an achievement, a testament to the place that the daily Haaretz carved out on the Israeli media map: the longest-running newspaper currently in print in Israel.
The newspaper that began as Hadashot Haaretz came into the Schocken family in 1937, when Zalman Schocken, a German immigrant, purchased it and appointed his son Gershom as editor, a post he held for 51 years.
Elegant and tasteful, snobbish but discreet, avant-garde and stylistic are all superlatives that the newspaper’s faithful readers would give it. In spite of the crisis in the print media industry today, the paper has not only managed to counter economic trends but even improve.
For example, its arts and culture treatment is far beyond what the paper produced even 20 years ago. Its Gallery section, both in the daily and in an enlarged weekend format, as well as two books supplements – one literature and the other more popular trade books – attest to the paper’s impact on influencing Israeli cultural tastes.
Its economics and industrial coverage – as reflected in the daily TheMarker supplement – is incomparably beyond what the paper offered up 20 years ago. TheMarker’s economic coverage of Israel is probably comparable to The New York Times, for which economics has not been its forte in a city blessed with the Wall Street Journal.
Haaretz has won kudos for its investigative journalism, notably Gidi Weitz’s exposés, including scandals involving the present and former prime ministers.
Successive Schocken owners have cautiously distanced themselves from the Israeli leadership – Golda Meir once remarked that the only government Haaretz supported was the British Mandate – but partly it was the reclusive nature of Gershom Schocken, even if he was both a member of and also chaired the so-called Editor’s Committee (a gentleman’s club for senior officials to brief the media about sensitive defense-related topics), as well as a member of the third Knesset.
The credit for turning the paper from a stuffy Germanic paper into a lively and attractive newspaper belongs to Hanoch Marmori, a graphic artist who succeeded Gershom Schocken as editor.
It is the paper’s views on the Israeli presence in the West Bank and east Jerusalem that triggers some of the paper’s critics. The newspaper’s editorial board is testimony to a left-wing outlook, stretching from left of center to far Left. The first intifada divided the paper’s editorial board, but some members including publisher Schocken moved the paper toward wholly supporting Oslo.
All this reflects the paper’s philosophy of defending human rights and human values, yet this has not extended to no less a human value – for a paper that sees itself as Zionist – to also strengthening the Jewish people’s historical ties to the Land of Israel. For Haaretz, the Zionist value is overtaken by the demographic challenge of absorbing the Palestinians into an enlarged Israel, called for under basic democratic rights. Yet every value is relative rather than absolute, and the paper has failed its critics by not striving to accommodate both values: the historical and biblical ties together with Israeli-Palestinian coexistence.
Some of the public criticism of the paper is unfair, reflecting in part a basic misunderstanding of the news business, and how the news reality is constructed. Its op-ed pages, while unmistakably turned toward the Left, give due space to other views, including from the Israeli Right, and the religious.
Popularly called “left wing” by its critics, the paper in fact favors the free economic market, and over the years has critiqued socialist-related policies.
Another area of popular misunderstanding concerns the paper’s perceived hostility to religious matters. As reflected in its pages and website, the paper is decidedly very interested in Jewish culture and gives it due regard – Zalman Schocken in Germany saw a mission to widen Judaism as expressed in the Reform tradition. Rather, the paper’s qualifications regarding religion is that it opposes, understandably, political attempts to impose religious standards upon the wider society.
But part of the blame lies with the paper itself, which increasingly appears to fail the test of objectivity. The Gershom Schocken school of journalism strictly adhered to separating fact from comment, as reflected in the newspaper then having two separate sections – for the news, and for features where comment was free.
By contrast, the school of journalism advanced by the current editor-in-chief, Aluf Benn, makes no bones about allowing reporters to freely express opinions. In part, this reflects how electronic journalism – notably radio and television – increasingly combines commentary and analysis with factual reporting.
Economically, the paper has strengthened its economic base within its Hebrew and English digital editions.
As an able editorial administrator, Benn has succeeded in keeping the paper afloat, displaying an albeit mistaken image of buoyancy despite the economic ax that every print newspaper in the West faces today.
Yet a closer, critical look shows gaps in its coverage, partly reflecting economic issues. To take as one example, the paper’s international coverage – particularly for a paper that compares itself presumptuously, and arrogantly, to being “The New York Times of Israel” – is wanting. While the real New York Times prides itself on its foreign coverage, Haaretz’s foreign representatives are seemingly not there. It has one full-time foreign correspondent in Washington, Amir Tibon, who provides solid coverage of the ins and outs of the US-Israel bilateral relationship, as well as the American Jewish scene.
Surprisingly the paper’s unsigned editorials – the statement of a newspaper – is notably absent in relating to international issues and controversies, almost always focusing on Israel-related subjects.
Benn’s error is to assume that international news agencies like Reuters and Associated Press are a solution for foreign news, because while major international news is covered by “the agencies,” Israel’s bilateral relations, Jewish world news, indeed news about Israelis abroad can only be covered by a news organization’s own representatives. Thus, a former newspaper editor living in France, a reporter married to a British lady, and another reporter who had been in Germany years ago amount to Haaretz’s foreign staff! True, Western Europe is less important today, and has long lost its role as an international diplomatic player.
In the absence of a bureau in Moscow, for example, Haaretz covered the breakup of the Soviet empire and the resignation of Mikhail Gorbachev – one of the most historic events of the 20th century – by dispatching the politician-cum-journalist Yossi Sarid to Moscow for three days.
While it is true that full-time foreign correspondents are beyond most newspapers’ budgetary limits, including Haaretz’s, an imaginative news organization would have looked for other opportunities such as local part-timers to fill the vacuum.
But the major vacuum is surely the paper’s failure to cover the Arab world from within the Arab world. Notwithstanding that the paper is the only one with a reporter based in Ramallah, in-depth coverage of the region – so important for the informed Israeli, much more than say Western Europe – requires representatives in Arab capitals.
And many Arab governments today allow Israeli journalists to travel to their capitals, even if they don’t have diplomatic ties with Israel. However, the paper’s commitment to foster Israeli-Arab relations is wanting because its own journalistic staff is sorely lacking in Israeli Arabs.
To be honest, the paper’s economic base is far from stable. Amos Schocken’s attempt to enter Israel’s popular newspaper market, with the creation of Hadashot, a racy, anti-establishment paper, was short-lived. And an attempt in the 1980s to create a chain of local newspapers, including Ha’ir and Kol Ha’ir, providing Israel’s cities with a quality local weekly – unusual in the world of local newspaper journalism – did not last, and those papers are now distributed freely, comprised mostly of advertising with little editorial content.
But Schocken did notch one success with the creation 22 years ago of an English version of Haaretz, a translated version of the Hebrew newspaper. Working on the concept that if Haaretz employs hundreds of Hebrew journalists for the Hebrew paper and its website, the deployment of a team of translators produces – presto! – an English version. It enjoys a respectable circulation of both Anglo-Saxon Jewish readers, but also Arabs and international readers like diplomats.
But Schocken has not invested in the English paper. This is most notable, for example, in the weekend Friday paper, traditionally the day when Israeli papers pull out all stops with sumptuous supplements, and their best writing.
On the last Friday of June, for example, the Hebrew edition had a 28-page newspaper, together with a 68-page weekend magazine, a 48-page MarkerWeek on economic news and features, a four-page literature and culture supplement, a popular books supplement comprising 16 pages, and a bumper 80-page Arts and Entertainment supplement.
For the same price (27.50 shekels), readers of the English edition received only a 16-page newspaper, as well as 24-page entertainments listing – most of which could be accessed from the Internet – as well as The New York Times insert. By comparison, The Jerusalem Post reader paid 22 shekels and received a 24-page newspaper, a 48-page weekend magazine, and a 16-page local news supplement. Schocken’s strategic error was to discontinue the weekend supplement, the flagship of the weekend press.
Yet Schocken could well take a leaf out of the success of the English version, and draw upon the same principle of translating the Haaretz Hebrew edition to create a Haaretz Arab-language edition, targeted to Israeli Arabs, the Palestinian areas, and even sold in Arab capitals. This would project a moderate Israeli voice to Arab audiences.
Amos Schocken clearly relishes having joined the international league of newspaper publishers in the Western world, with the publication of the English edition of a Hebrew daily that itself was little known abroad. But while he feels at home in the intellectual climate of the West, less clear is whether – notwithstanding his commitment to solving the Palestinian problem – Schocken would similarly enjoy the status of an Israeli mukhtar in the sand dunes of Arabia that a Haaretz Arab-language edition could bring.

Prof. Yoel Cohen is on the faculty of The School of Communication, Ariel University. His books include The Whistleblower of Dimona: Israel, Vanunu & the Bomb; and God, Jews and the Media: Religion and Israel’s media

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