A peek behind the curtain: The Netanyahu newspaper scandal

The public loses the most in this because it is not privy to the “why” of the coverage with which it is provided.

January 18, 2017 21:22
4 minute read.
COPIES OF ‘Israel Hayom’ and ‘Yediot Aharonot’ are displayed in Ashkelon l

COPIES OF ‘Israel Hayom’ and ‘Yediot Aharonot’ are displayed in Ashkelon l. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The Israeli public got a peek behind the curtain over the past week as alleged transcripts of leaked conversations between the prime minister and Yediot Aharonot publisher Arnon “Noni” Mozes were made public. Much of the critique in Israeli media has been directed against the prime minister, arguing that this could be part of a wave of revelations that could bolster the opposition. But the real question people should be paying attention to is what the leaked conversations reveal about how politics and media truly operate in Israel and elsewhere.

The media has largely avoided this larger question, for obvious reasons. When it is revealed that senior politicians sit down with media tycoons and discuss how a newspaper might aid the politician or oppose them, that reveals a degree of collusion that most media don’t want to admit takes place today and has underpinned the media’s relationship with power since time immemorial. One Israeli journalist, Guy Peleg, reportedly called the conversation transcripts “disgusting,” revealing a “give and take” in which the prime minister discussed receiving more positive coverage in exchange for supporting a law that would affect free daily Israel Hayom, a competitor of Yediot.

“Believing that the newspaper’s publisher can dictate to someone what to think against his will is ridiculous,” wrote Ben-Dror Yemini at Ynet. Of course a newspaper can’t dictate to a writer what to think, or even what to write. But the culture inside a newspaper, a culture that may come from the very top, can influence writers to employ self-censorship, and newspapers can recruit writers with certain political views and push stories advancing certain political views.

This incident reveals the nefarious nexus of media, money and politics. Follow the politics and one gets predictable results. The Left hates the Right, the Right hates the Left. But follow the money and one finds a world that is more opaque. Profit has no ideology.

Wealthy leftists and wealthy rightists are more united in protecting their financial interests than they may be disunited ideologically. And they can be counted on to put financial interests before ideology. They don’t want the public to know that, of course. They want the public to think that a leftist is a leftist and a rightist is a rightist.

But what happens when someone owns a newspaper and is worried about declining advertising revenue? Apparently those same media leaders will work with politicians across the political spectrum to protect their business interests. When that happens the public loses.

One minute the public is receiving “scandalous” front-page stories and the next those scandalous stories are dialed back, if just a bit. Why? Most of the time we don’t know. We don’t know why certain politicians get a boost and others don’t. Why certain organizations get profiled and others not.

We are told by those in media that there can’t be collusion and conspiracy. Why? Because there are so many journalists, with a myriad of opinions, and it would be impossible to herd them all. I’ve read these accounts from journalists as well. “Even if we wanted to be biased it wouldn’t be possible.” “The media can’t truly drive one message because it’s too complex to do so.”

But that’s not entirely true. Of course major media such as CNN or The New York Times can suddenly decide to present Russia in a negative light. It’s obvious that when major media wants to back a public policy, such as the Iran deal in the US, it can stay on message. In the case of the Iran deal or the issue of Russia’s supposed threat to the US, the financial interests of media conglomerates are not paramount.

But in a small country such as Israel where there is a very narrow media playing field, financial interests, politicians and media have a much tighter bond. There is compelling evidence that the conversations being leaked are only the tip of the iceberg. A media leader and politician don’t suddenly discuss the synergy between law, revenue and political coverage. They do so because such things have happened in the past. Because such things have probably gone on since the 1950s, since before the State of Israel.

The public loses the most in this because it is not privy to the “why” of the coverage with which it is provided.

Suddenly the media is involved in talking about the boycott bogeyman, suddenly it is involved in something else.

There isn’t always a financial interest involved, but it’s important for the public to demand accountability from its newspapers and not merely its politicians, and to ask tough questions. An educated and critical public is essential to a democracy. When the public becomes complacent and doesn’t demand accountability and transparency, that’s bad for everyone. There is nothing more damaging for democracy that a ruling clique of moneyed elites whose interests are interwoven and for whom the public is just a foolish bunch of sheep. The wool was momentarily removed from over the eyes of the public in Israel, and the lessons that should be learned are much larger than this one specific issue.

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