For Netanyahu and Trump, attacking the media is all part of the game

A new opposition arises in Israel and the US: The media

Trump and Netanyahu (photo credit: REUTERS)
Trump and Netanyahu
(photo credit: REUTERS)
"There is hardly anyone in Israel who takes your propaganda broadcasts seriously, and that may explain your ratings,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posted on Facebook in December, walloping Channel 10, one of Israel’s most-watched TV news channels, as a “propaganda tool” that broadcasts “radical-left positions.”
With only a few words altered and the medium changed to Twitter, Netanyahu’s attack essentially mirrors that of President Donald Trump’s battering of America’s media establishment.
“CNN is the worst – fortunately, they have bad ratings because everyone knows they are biased,” the then-presidential candidate said in October.
“I don’t know who is the original or who is the copycat,” remarked one senior Israeli journalist who has borne the brunt of some of Netanyahu’s condemnations.
Both statements form a long line of attacks against media and journalists and typify personal and testy relationships the prime minister and president have with their respective media establishments, relationships that the heads of state contend have been one-sided and require a rebalancing – in other words, media outlets and even journalists should be fair game.
“It is the chest-thumping phenomenon. While we often assume that leaders are looking for positive coverage, which is true, negative coverage can help them even more,” said Gadi Wolfsfeld a professor of political science and communications at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. “They can say, ‘Look, I am standing up to our enemies.’ Among the base, this is good.”
Certainly, the award for most-pummeled journalist in Israel goes to Channel 10’s Raviv Drucker, whom Netanyahu has repeatedly attacked as part of a conspiracy “airing false propaganda against me and my family every night, with the goal of bringing down a Likud prime minister.”
Drucker has lobbed numerous accusations against Netanyahu and his family leading some, especially supporters of the prime minister, to argue that the reporter is pursuing a vendetta against Netanyahu (Drucker and his supporters highlight the reporter’s damaging investigative reports against politicians regardless of party, including Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak).
“Raviv Drucker does have a real problem with Netanyahu, and Netanyahu has an even bigger problem with Drucker,” Wolfsfeld asserted, reflecting many Israelis’ view of their relationship.
But some of Drucker’s reports have also led to important criminal investigations, including most recently accusations that Netanyahu’s personal lawyer illegally pushed for the purchase of German-made submarines.
According to Drucker, being the most maligned journalist in Israel has its upsides.
“I would say the benefit of the attacks is that, first, the community that doesn’t like the head of state – in our case, Mr. Netanyahu – all of a sudden approaches me as the opposition,” said Drucker. “In short, they give me a lot of information.
“A lot of people that are part of Netanyahu’s party, MKs, ministers and so on, still speak with me,” the 46-year-old Drucker declared with pride. “They just do not want to be seen with me.”
In other words, bearing the scarlet letter of the “opposition party,” as Trump has labeled the media, such as the “failing” New York Times, may actually bolster those organizations with increased sources of information.
In Israel, this has played out during the ongoing criminal investigations of the prime minister, where last month viewers of Channels 2 and 10 were treated to a nearly daily drip of leaks regarding conversations held between Netanyahu and newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes, allegedly to rig Yediot Aharonot in favor of Netanyahu in exchange for the weakening of rival paper Israel Hayom.
Across the Atlantic, the acrimonious media-Trump relationship has actually ushered in an unprecedented level of access. In under a month, reporters have already uncovered what Trump wears in his leisure time while watching television – a bathrobe (Trump’s press secretary denied this, saying Trump “definitely doesn’t own [a bathrobe]”), and have revealed damaging information that led to the firing of national security adviser Lt.-Gen. Michael Flynn.
“The Israeli press is still alive and kicking and is still a very important tool in Israeli democracy,” said Uzi Benziman, founding editor of The Seventh Eye, a media watchdog, and former journalist at Haaretz. “Even as many Israelis more and more turn to the Internet and social media to get their information, the traditional media still play a central role,” the veteran journalist said.
Nevertheless, faith in the handful of television stations, newspapers, websites and radio stations that dominate the media landscape is at a low. According to a survey conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute, only 24% of Israelis trust the media – an 11.5% drop from last year.
While many factors may have precipitated this drop, it did coincide with an unprecedented level of personal attacks by Netanyahu on the media, during the 2015 election campaign and over the past year. The most notable attack, a six-minute diatribe labeling highly respected investigative journalist Ilana Dayan as “extreme Left,” was read aloud on the reporter’s investigative show in November.
But the biggest failure of the Israeli media establishment was its inability to accurately predict the 2015 election, at a time when many columnists for Yediot Aharonot and others were seen as cheering the prime minister’s downfall.
“Both Israeli and American press failed to adequately and accurately cover their elections, because both predicted opposite results,” Prof. Eytan Gilboa, director of the Center for International Communication at Bar-Ilan University and chairman of the Israel Communication Association, said. “This perceived media failure contributed to mistrust of the media. Politicians sought to amplify that.”
As Trump tweeted in January, “The failing @nytimes has been wrong about me from the very beginning. Said I would lose the primaries, then the general election. FAKE NEWS!”
Why does Netanyahu set his sights on journalists and media, and is there a method to the madness? Drucker thinks a large aspect of the personal attacks are emotional responses combined with the desire to discredit.
“We are trying to address [the attacks] with a rational mode, like there is a strategy, but I think it is really related to emotions and revenge,” said Drucker.
Netanyahu has repeatedly complained of the continual attacks on his son and wife, which likely play a large role in the personal level of disdain for much of media.
Another journalist who has been publicly attacked by the prime minister sees the animosity toward the press as a “political vehicle” to rile up the Likud base.
The Prime Minister’s Office provided comment to The Jerusalem Post on Netanyahu’s media strategy and offered a different reasoning, stating that the prime minister is not attacking the media but “twinning his powerful messages with powerful mediums to reach more people than ever. Much of the traditional media are deeply biased.
“Freedom of speech is not limited to the press. The press have the right to criticize the prime minister, and the prime minister has the right to criticize the press when they spread falsehoods about him,” the statement continued.
According to Gilboa, much like Trump, Netanyahu considers himself in opposition to perceived left-leaning establishment media that seek the end of his reign.
“This is a paradox in Israeli politics. Although the Likud has been in power with few interruptions since 1977, most Likud members feel that they are still in opposition,” remarked Gilboa.
This acrimonious relationship goes back over two decades. As opposition leader, Netanyahu was accused by many in the media of stoking the flames of incitement that led to the murder of Yitzhak Rabin.
“They are afraid,” Netanyahu famously said about the media in 1999, while running against Ehud Barak.
Netanyahu’s struggle with the media took a decided shift in favor of the prime minister with the creation of the free daily newspaper Israel Hayom in 2007, with Netanyahu taking over the media regulations portfolio as communications minister since November 2015, and with the ascent of social media as a way to bypass the traditional media.
Among Israeli news outlets, Israel Hayom, which last week featured a front-page photo of its foreign news editor Boaz Bismuth beaming alongside Trump in the Oval Office, has had unmatched access to the president and then-presidential candidate.
The paper is generally seen to promote a pro-Netanyahu line, and according to Freedom House “endangers the stability of other media outlets,” as it undermines their revenue stream (US billionaire and Trump mega-donor Sheldon Adelson operates the paper at a substantial loss).
Israel Hayom’s influence is so great that it brought the publisher of Yediot Aharonot, formerly Israel’s most widely read newspaper, to allegedly seek Netanyahu’s support for a bill to stop Israel Hayom’s free distribution model, in exchange for favorable coverage.
For Netanyahu’s part, he stated last month that he dissolved his government partly because of “subversion within the government to pass the [‘Israel Hayom] law.’” While Netanyahu has some levers at his disposal to temper the media, he doesn’t appear to have succeeded, as the news cycle is still driven by damaging leaks led by Channel 2’s Amit Segal and Amnon Abramovich, Drucker, and others.
Trump is similarly facing an aggressive media establishment that shows no signs of backing off. Press secretary Sean Spicer’s combative press briefings and counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway’s proverbial shaming for stating “alternative facts” provide perfect illustrations for the future of Trump-press relations.
“I envy them,” one Israeli journalist said of the American press corps’s handling of the Trump administration, “for succeeding in being both assertive and elegant and maintaining politeness.This is something we tend to forget in this neck of the woods.”