Between the Lines: Arkadi Gaydamak's unreal reality show

If the court looks for a precedent, they may want to examine the case of Fred Thompson and 'Law & Order.'

Arkadi Gaydamak 88 (photo credit: )
Arkadi Gaydamak 88
(photo credit: )
While a long-time fan of the television series Law & Order, my appreciation of the American crime show has waned somewhat in recent years. One factor was the replacement in the cast several years ago of Steven Hill, the Orthodox Jewish actor who played the role of crusty New York City District Attorney Adam Schiff, by Fred Thompson, the former Republican senator from Tennessee who has mixed real-life politics with character-acting throughout his career. I just could never buy the credibility of the southern-accented Thompson as a New York DA, especially when Hill's character was so clearly based on the real-life holder of that office, the legendary Robert Morgenthau. Perhaps by now you may be rightly asking why such musings about a US TV show belong in an Israeli media column. That can be answered in just two words: Arkadi Gaydamak. The Russian-Israeli businessman/philanthropist has made himself a ubiquitous presence in the local media over the last few years by his worthy charitable efforts on behalf on the residents of the Galilee during the Second Lebanon War and more recently of Sderot; his ownership of the Betar Jerusalem soccer club; and the lavish parties he's thrown for the Tel Aviv hoi polloi. His rise to celebrity has proven you don't need to speak Hebrew, or even very good English, to become a notable public figure here - you just need to have lots and lots of money. Last year, he made his own play in the local media market by purchasing the Radio 99 FM broadcast franchise. And now, as if he weren't already getting enough exposure, Gaydamak is on the verge of getting his own reality television series, set to start later this year on Channel 2, produced by Reshet, in which each week he will use his financial acumen to aid small and struggling businesses. To this purpose the station has been running a series of commercials showing Gaydamak supposedly sitting by the phone waiting for calls from grocery owners and other small-scale entrepreneurs encouraged to ask his help. That would be okay - except that Gaydamak has political ambitions. He has established his own Social Justice Party, is already setting up branches for the next local and national elections, and has openly declared his candidacy for the upcoming Jerusalem mayoralty race. Gaydamak's purchase of Radio 99 raised concerns that he might try to use the station as a means of promoting his political goals, even though he has pledged not to do so. While there are serious issues involved in political figures owning media properties - just look at Italy's Silvio Berlusconi - it is not feasible to completely regulate ownership of journalistic businesses. Take, for example, Judy Shalom Nir Mozes, who has an ownership stake in the Mozes family's Yediot Aharonot empire. Though it has been charged that this connection has benefited her husband, perennial Likud leadership contender Silvan Shalom, it's impossible to draw a sharply defined line in an open marketplace to forbid this or that figure from having any kind of interest in a newspaper or broadcast outlet. It is up to consumers, journalists and, in some cases, appropriate regulatory agencies to ensure such economic arrangements do not become abuses of the public trust. This is different, though, from Channel 2 and Reshet simply handing political contender Gaydamak a free program platform designed to present him as the savior of the small businessman. "It's kosher, but it stinks," is how Knesset Economic Committee chairman Gilad Erdan (Likud) described the situation to Haaretz last month, stating that the Second Broadcasting Authority, which oversees commercial television content, has no legal basis to forbid Reshet to drop its plans for the series. Sorry, but I'm not buying that. At the very least the authority can make a special petition to the High Court of Justice to stop this series, something which I suspect someone is going to do down the line anyway. And, returning to my initial point, if the court decides to look elsewhere for a precedent, they might want to check out the case of Fred Thompson and Law & Order. Last year, just before Thompson declared his eventually unsuccessful candidacy for the Republican presidential nominee, he dropped out of the series, something he would have been obligated to do eventually anyway under US campaign laws that require all candidates to receive equal time on the airwaves. (Better still, after losing that race to John McCain, he is not returning to the DA's seat at Law & Order, now held by the great Sam Waterston.) It should be no different here. For Reshet and Channel 2 to give Gaydamak this kind of free advertising when he is an active political player not only stinks, but can't be considered kosher by any media rabbi. To put it another way, this show must not go on.