Media Comment: A pen for hire

Dan Margalit (photo credit: REUTERS)
Dan Margalit
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The first edition of the free daily Israel Hayom hit our newsstands on July 30, 2007, almost 10 years ago. Its founding editor, Amos Regev, was replaced last month by Boaz Bismuth, who had served for nine years as the foreign news editor of the paper.
A new boss brings with him change and in this case, a spectacular change. Dan Margalit and Mordechai (Motti) Gilat, both long-time columnists, were summarily dismissed.
When it started, Israel Hayom was embarking on a revolution.
Its goal, which it met, was to replace the left-wing Yediot Aharonot newspaper and become the most widely read newspaper in Israel. To reach this goal, it had to prove that it was serious and had a stellar set of journalists.
Dan Margalit and Motti Gilat fulfilled that purpose.
The 79-year-old Margalit has had a stellar career.
While he began at Herut, the organ of Menachem Begin’s party, he went Left and wrote for Haaretz from 1964 until 1991 and continued at Maariv. His most famous scoop was the revelation in 1977 that then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin maintained an illegal bank account in the US. Forced to resign, Rabin’s replacement, Shimon Peres, lost to Menachem Begin.
Margalit’s career has been mainly that of a pundit and commentator and he has hosted numerous talk shows, notably Popolitika and Erev Chadash.
Margalit likes to portray himself as an ethical journalist, noting that when he realized that former prime minister Ehud Olmert was corrupt, he ended his 20-year friendship with him and started to regularly attack him in his articles. Indeed, Margalit is so enamored with himself that his tweet upon being fired was to characterize his job loss in terms of near-martyrdom: “My livelihood fell today in defense of freedom of speech.”
Margalit had been fired previously. Back in September 7, 2010, it was reported that his contract with the publicly funded Educational TV (ETV) network had not gone through the normal tender process. The Finance Ministry ordered Yaffa Vigodski, at that time the CEO of ETV, to terminate Margalit’s employment immediately since his contract did not conform to the norms of proper administration. His salary was reported to have been NIS 70,000 (Margalit claimed it was only NIS 35,000). Even Nahum Barnea of Yediot Aharonot could not refrain from asking in his column why Margalit received such a high sum from the state.
Globes reporter Eli Tzippori took Margalit to task over his freedom of speech comment. On June 16, he published an op-ed titled, “Dan Margalit is only concerned with Dan Margalit.” Tzippori, a recipient of Israel’s Media Watch’s prize for quality economic journalism, noted that Margalit was one of Israel’s richest journalists, who had made a small fortune from Israel’s public broadcasters, whether TV Channel 1 or the Educational TV. He added: “the attempt of Margalit to take for himself the defense of the freedom of expression is a sad symptom of the situation of a very elitist and limited group of journalists, which is very happy with itself and drunk with power, who thinks it has to govern and that it is responsible for liberalism, democracy and freedom of speech. The opposite is true.”
In this context, we should recall that Margalit had very little respect for the law of this land and its Supreme Court. In 1996, prior to the elections, he was the moderator of the Channel 1 Popolitika news show. Fairness was not his motto. Freedom of speech for those who disagreed with his view was not on the agenda. He used the show to consistently support the Oslo accords and to help Peres win the elections.
So much so that Israel’s Media Watch had to appeal to the Supreme Court to order the show to stop violating the law which prohibited such electioneering via public media shortly before elections. The court ordered an injunction but to no avail. Margalit used the show, after the court’s decision, to deride the court and of course continue his illegal and unethical usurpation of the public microphone.
Margalit is nine years past the age of retirement for government employees. Supreme Court justices and professors are pensioned at that age and do not complain. It is perhaps characteristic of Margalit that instead of being grateful to Israel Hayom for providing him a podium for the past 10 years, way beyond the normal pension age, he left in anger.
He accused the paper of preventing him from criticizing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and indeed upon his dismissal he tweeted (on Friday, June 16): “I do believe Bibi [Netanyahu] that he decided not to be photographed in the ‘Herzl pose’ in Basel [a revelation of Ma’ariv journalist Ben Caspit]. But the fact that this possibility was even deliberated indicates megalomania. Maybe he should send Yair [Netanyahu’s son]?” Graciousness and fortitude seem not to be his forte.
Incidentally, Haaretz promptly rehired him; so much for his “sacrifice.”
A week after Margalit’s dismissal, another columnist, Motti Gilat, was also fired. Gilat worked for Yediot Aharonot from 1976 until 2008 when he joined Israel Hayom. He was an investigative journalist, highly regarded by Yediot, and was given a staff of investigators.
Indeed, while at Yediot he had some major successes. These included revelations concerning Shas leader Arye Deri in 1990, the sexual misconduct of former defense minister Yitzchak Mordechai in 2000, the illegal presents given to former Police chief Rafi Peled in 1995 and many more. Upon leaving Yediot for Israel Hayom he accused Yediot of censoring him and preventing criticism of politicians such as Olmert, who was supported by the paper. He sued Yediot and in a compromise agreement received NIS 600,000 from the paper.
Interestingly enough, during his nine years at Israel Hayom there was not one major revelation to his credit.
Perhaps this is why Israel Hayom fired him. Like Margalit, Gilat did not move out graciously, although he will be 70 years old in October, an age at which most people have already retired. Like Margalit, he too faulted the management of Israel Hayom for caving in to the paper’s owner, Sheldon Adelson, and asserted he had even been warned, via corridor conversation rumors, that his critical writing against Netanyahu would cost him his job.
Gilat was replaced by Akiva Bigman, the editor of the Mida website, which describes itself as “a news and intellectual daily magazine, which aims to present the public with information and opinions not common in the Israeli media” and has openly declared itself part of the national camp, as does Bigman.
The release of Margalit and Gilat, both left-wingers, and the hiring of Bigman are a sign that Israel Hayom no longer feels the need to strengthen itself with the aid of left-wing journalists who can be bought, but has become mature enough to hire who it wants.
The authors are members of Israel’s Media Watch (