Between the lines: Rich in controversy

The healthiest situation for the media is having a multiplicity of views on both the Right and the Left.

Gaydamak 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Gaydamak 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
For those interested in the local journalism scene, the monthly media review magazine Ha'ayin Ha'shvi'it (the seventh eye) - published by the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think-tank, and featuring articles by leading academics and some of the top members of the profession - is essential reading. Alas, after 11 years, the magazine has just come out with what it says is its final issue, at least in print form. In a sign of the times that speaks as much about the state of the media as any of the journal's articles, it is now moving to a strictly on-line version. The farewell edition opens with a piece by one of the journal's senior editors, Nahum Barnea, better known as Yediot Aharonot's star columnist, in which he raises serious issues that have been very much in the news lately. Barnea begins by comparing today's "fourth estate" map in this country with that of a decade ago, when the main concern was over concentration of media ownership, at a time when the top newspaper proprietors were trying to extend their financial reach into Channel 2 and the new cable stations. As Barnea notes, the development of the Internet as a news resource, and decreasing general consumer interest in mainstream media, has to some degree rendered such a concern less relevant. Indeed, if the concurrent economic upheavals in the industry make life for us journalists more precarious, the growing multiplicity of news sources certainly makes for a healthier situation. The one area about which Barnea still expresses concern, however, is that of media ownership by foreign proprietors, citing the recent moves of Sheldon Adelson, the American-Jewish casino mogul who is one of the world's richest individuals. Adelson tried to buy Ma'ariv from the Nimrodi family last year, and while that effort failed, he did purchase a controlling interest in the new free commuter daily, Ha'Israeli. Here it is worth mentioning that Adelson has made no secret of his strong right-wing views, or his opposition to the policies of the Olmert government in its negotiations to reach a final-status agreement with the Palestinians. Barnea writes: "There are countries in which it is made difficult for foreigners to own media outlets. When Robert Maxwell wanted to buy Ma'ariv, proposals of this sort were considered here. It is possible to be a publisher from anywhere on one condition - that the inclination of this publisher is financial, not political. Billionaires with a political agenda are a disease in every stream of the media, and in Israel, where the political establishment deals with existential issues, it is even more so." Barnea is surely right about the fact that many rich people, here and everywhere else, buy or own media companies in part to see their political views propagated, and that's surely the case with Adelson. It's not an ideal situation, but I certainly don't think a media scene such as we once had in Israel - where papers such as Davar and Al Hamishmar explicitly represented partisan political interests, and the only broadcasts outlets were government-controlled - was any better. He's also right that there are countries which limit foreign ownership of media, and there are logical reasons why Israel might consider being one of them. Personally, though, I'm against the idea. And I think Barnea is stacking the argument against Adelson specifically, for example, by arguing - unpersuasively, in my view - that the casino magnate is somehow less tolerant of opposing viewpoints than Amos Schocken, the left-wing publisher of Ha'aretz (which, itself, is now 25 percent owned by German media conglomerate Alfred Neven DuMont). Let me be clear in stating that I don't share Adelson's views, and I've written elsewhere strongly rejecting the idea that Diaspora Jews, or any non-citizen of this country, should have any direct political say in deciding where it draws its future borders. This does not mean, however, that they shouldn't have the freedom to express their opinions here, including the right to own or invest in media which represent those views. Surely, the healthiest situation for the media is having a multiplicity of views on both the Right and the Left. One way to achieve this is to encourage investment, including from abroad, in local journalism, rather than seeking to discourage it, especially in a relatively small market like this one. Of course, I can easily be accused of having an agenda in this debate, since my own career here includes working in newspapers and magazines funded by wealthy Diaspora Jews who wanted to see their political outlook propagated in print. But those views spanned the political spectrum, perhaps thus justifying the very point I'm making. As for Barnea, a journalist I greatly admire: He also can't be seen to be addressing this issue from an objective perch. Despite dismissing concerns of local media concentration, the fact remains that his employers, the Mozes family's Yediot empire, still enjoy an overwhelming market share in local print media. If Adelson or any other foreign billionaire, Right, Left or politically indifferent, chooses to challenge that dominance, I say more power to them. AS IF to confirm the fact that one shouldn't focus exclusively on the issue of foreign ownership of media, eyebrows have been raised recently in local journalistic circles over the hiring of some prominent personalities by Radio 99, the station owned by the mysterious and politically ambitious immigrant-Israeli businessman, Arcadi Gaydamak. Among them are well-known television news correspondents Gal Gabai, Orly Vilna'i and Emmanuel Rosen. Among those who have refused is Army Radio presenter Razi Barka'i, who told Ha'aretz: "The considerations I had at one time for not joining Radio Gaydamak are applicable today as well, perhaps even more so, because I don't intend to broadcast on a station that is managed by a politician. I can't get into the considerations of other people. My decision followed my norms, but everyone has his own norms." Rosen, in contrast, said: "I don't think it's our job to judge the owners of our workplaces, so long as they are legitimate people who walk freely in the State of Israel, and obtain permits to operate radio stations and own soccer teams. All of the media in Israel are subject to the management of businessmen, and I personally don't know any of them. I don't know how Sami Ofer made his money, just like you don't know how Amos Schocken made his money. When the Messiah comes, it is possible that the 36 righteous people or the righteous gentiles will manage the media, but in the meantime that's not the way it is. Our job as journalists is to ignore completely the question of who the stockholders are, and to be free to write and broadcast everything that we deem appropriate. No one, including Gaydamak, will tell me what to talk about." Again, I can't claim to be objective in this matter, since two of my former employers (one of them a non-Jew) will soon be heading into jail cells after being convicted of fraud. But neither they, nor anyone else, ever told me what I could or couldn't write, and if they had, only then would my professional scruples have been put to the test. Though I admire Barka'i's view, I think Rosen is right that, in the media business today - with emphasis on the word "business" - most ownership issues are far from black-and-white, and journalists have to make their own assessments, in each specific case, over who really owns their professional souls. [email protected]