Reality Check: Shaking things up

Why is challenge 'Yisrael Hayom' puts to 'Yediot' a "threat to democracy?"

sara netanyahu 248.88 (photo credit: )
sara netanyahu 248.88
(photo credit: )

Let me admit straight away that I have nosympathy for Sara Netanyahu. Just as the Victorians believed thatchildren should be seen and not heard, the same is true for thepartners of Israel's political leaders. Although the prime minister'swife has lowered her public profile during Bibi's current tenure asprime minister - some would say she's been hidden - she still plays apowerful behind-the-scenes role in his office and is a legitimatetarget of journalistic interest.

Thereis though a weary sense of déjà vu surrounding this latest SaraNetanyahu scandal. We've been through it all before during Netanyahu'sfirst premiership: the sacked nannies, dismissed housekeepers, thetemper tantrums and so on.

Back then, Netanyahu supporters were quick to blame hispolitical rivals for these stories and the same is true today, but nowwith a new twist: Netanyahu's defenders also claim that Yediot Aharonot's breaking of the scandal and the prominent front-page coverage given to it has more to do with the growing competition Yediot faces from the new newspaper on the block, Yisrael Hayom, than any serious news agenda. In return, others are describing Yisrael Hayom, a newspaper that is distributed for free, as a danger to our democracy.

In terms of its rapid growth, there is no doubt that Yisrael Hayomhas been a great success. In its latest weekend edition, it proudlyboasted that it had upped its weekend print run by 100,000 copies, to350,000. Uniquely for a free newspaper, it offers distribution right tothe reader's doorstep in certain areas, providing a level of service torival that of any paid-for newspaper.

So where's the problem? Why is the emergence of a new paper seen by some as a threat to democracy? The answer lies in Yisrael Hayom'sowner, US billionaire Sheldon Adelson, for whom money seems to be noobject if it is spent on furthering the political agenda of his friend,Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. The closeness of the two men couldbe seen at the swearing-in ceremony of Netanyahu's new government, whenAdelson had a front-row seat in the Knesset gallery.

ACCORDING TO its critics, Yisrael Hayom has only oneaim: to provide Netanyahu with a positive press. They point out thatunlike other Israeli newspapers, it does not need to make a profitbecause Adelson is prepared to subsidize its losses from profits fromhis property and gambling businesses.

This indeed seems to be true, for there is little, if any criticism of Netanyahu in Yisrael Hayom while, according to industry insiders, the rates it charges for full-page adverts are far below the norm. Moreover, when Yisrael Hayom firsthit the streets during Ehud Olmert's premiership, it was blatantlyhostile to Olmert, with its star commentator Dan Margalit repeatedlybeing given space on the front page to call for the former premier'sremoval from office.

But then there is nothing new in a newspaper owner sustaininglosses in return for the prestige of owning a newspaper or for theability to push a certain political agenda. Many newspapers around theworld, some of them very prestigious, could be defined as vanityprojects, existing only because their publisher derives a nonfinancialvalue from his ownership of them.

The novelty of Yisrael Hayom has been itssuccess in changing the face of the local newspaper market. For thefirst time in decades, a newspaper has sprung up that provides seriouscompetition to Yediot's monopolistic domination of the market. At the same time, it is also sounding the death knell for Yediot's one-time competitor, Ma'ariv, which is sinking fast. Why pay for Ma'ariv when you can receive a free newspaper, even delivered to your door, that is almost exclusively staffed by former senior Ma'ariv journalists.

To be sure, the disappearance of a newspaper with a proudhistory would be a sad development, but then it wouldn't be the firsttime this has happened here. Over the past couple of decades Davar and Al Hamishmar were forced to close but our democracy has still managed to stay vibrant.

Ma'ariv has been on its last legs for a number of years; the emergence of Yisrael Hayom is merely hastening its demise. And at the same time, somewhat ironically, the right-wing Yisrael Hayom is actually helping to balance the books at the left-wing Haaretz, which prints and distributes the paper for Adelson.

Yisrael Hayom is far from a perfect paper. Its uncriticalstance toward Netanyahu (and his wife) makes it a dull read, andreaders will eventually tire of its one-dimensional analyses, but it isstill a welcome development in the media world.

For too long, the Yediot empire ruled the local medialandscape, something that was neither good for the standards of itsjournalism or for Israeli society as a whole. Yisrael Hayom isdefinitely not the most impressive newspaper ever to come off theprinting press, but it has shaken up a market that had become toocomplacent. That in itself is a good thing.

The writer is the former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.