Media Comment: Did the media single out Netanyahu?

Our observations during the past 20 years support the conclusion that the Israeli media has a distinct preference for the left-wing camp.

PM Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to foreign press about Operation Protective Edge (photo credit: GPO)
PM Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to foreign press about Operation Protective Edge
(photo credit: GPO)
 The behavior of Israel’s media during election campaigns has historically been rather dismal. Our observations during the past 20 years support the conclusion that the Israeli media has a distinct preference for the left-wing camp. In 2012, Tzipi Livni was the media’s darling. In 2008, the media supported Livni as head of Kadima, in the aftermath of the resignation of Olmert. In 2006, the media was still operating under the euphoria of the expulsion from Gaza and Olmert, the crook, was king.
Traditionally, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been at the receiving end of the media’s antipathy both toward him personally and to the Likud’s right-wing platform. Perhaps the worst display of this was in 1996, when the media used all means at its disposal to present Netanyahu in a negative light. In 1999, Netanyahu publicly indicted the media for this type of behavior, with his famous slogan “they are afraid,” though it didn’t help him. He lost the elections and resigned as Likud head.
Tuesday a week ago, Channel 10 TV made big headlines with its public opinion poll which showed equality (22 percent each) between the public support for Netanyahu and Labor leader Isaac Herzog as prime ministerial candidates. This was, so the line went, a big blow to Netanyahu who just a week earlier, in a November 30 Haaretz poll, had the support of 35% of respondents. Likud minister Gilad Erdan was quick to point out that the Channel 10 poll also had Gideon Sa’ar as a candidate, taking 13%. The poll did not ask what the support would be without Sa’ar, and so could not be compared to the previous poll, Erdan said. Moreover, if one adds the support for Sa’ar to that for Netanyahu one finds that Netanyahu did not fare too badly at all.
But Channel 10’s headlines were that the poll was a blow to the prime minister. It is thus not surprising that the following Thursday Netanyahu publicly accused the media of wanting to overthrow him. Was this accusation justified? Did the media actually pick especially on Netanyahu, or was this simply Channel 10 attempting to create headlines to increase ratings, with Netanyahu happening to be the victim? TV Channel 1’s Ayala Hasson opened the channel’s Friday night Yoman news show with the headline: “Surveys are one thing and reality is another.” She warned that one should handle polls with care and certainly not give them undue importance. In fact, many people within the media noted that the Channel 10 poll itself predicted that Israel’s Right would continue to keep its hold on power, given the prediction that the Likud would get 20 seats, Bayit Yehudi 15, Kulanu 13, Israel Beytenu 11, Shas seven and United Torah Judaism seven – altogether 73 mandates.
The previous week saw the unification of the Labor party with Livni’s Hatnua party, with Labor’s Herzog agreeing to rotation deal with Livni for the premiership. In the aftermath, Herzog faced a rather critical media. Even far-left journalist Amnon Abramowitz did not give Herzog an easy time on Channel 2’s prime Friday night news magazine, making sarcastic comments and roundly criticizing the rotation agreement.
He was not the only one. Danny Kushmaru, on the same news show, pointedly asked Herzog: Why should Livni, whose party does not meet the election threshold, receive the premiership through a rotation agreement? Perhaps this demonstrates your lack of self-confidence? Dana Weiss added: “The public seemingly does not buy the premise that you can lead.” Nadav Haezni asked Herzog: “Where do you differ from Zehava Gal-On? And what are you, Livni or Gal-On?” Last Thursday, Ayala Hasson grilled Herzog on her weekly radio program on the IBA’s Reshet Bet, criticizing the Livni agreement. She also noted that his agreement with Livni could be interpreted as panic, given that Livni’s political base had evaporated. The next day, on the Yoman news program, she interviewed Livni, noting that, “Your merger [with Herzog] looks good. You, how should we put it, played him, with an empty hand: with between zero and four Knesset members you managed to bend him [Herzog].”
In response to Livni’ s assertion that had Netanyahu not fired her she would have continued serving as justice minister under him, Hasson noted: “It sounds a bit like an excuse. You sit in a government that you criticize and believe that it is extremist, yet you hold on to the Justice Ministry. In truth you hardly dedicated yourself to it, but were completely immersed in the negotiations [with the Palestinians], and rightly so....”
Livni appeared also on Reshet’s Channel 2 political humor program The State of the Union and had this to say about Prime Minister Netanyahu: “The truth is that Bibi said we are going to the electorate because of the Zero VAT law, and I thought, there is a zero in this story but it’s not the VAT law.” She continued: “Stop talking about this business called ‘right wing’: it is extreme right-wing, you have to learn to say ‘extreme’ right.” She ended the show by calling upon the electorate to know not to vote for those “busy only with themselves.”
The next day (Sunday) she was roundly criticized. On Army Radio, even Haaretz commentator Barak Ravid commented that Livni’s appearance on the show was embarrassing.
Army Radio’s political commentator Il’il Shachar quoted Minister Yuval Steinitz’s response to her appearance: “My recommendation to Ms. Livni is to stop using low language, even in jest.”
So what have we got? A series of commentators who aggressively attack the union between Herzog and Livni, and journalists who parrot the prime minister’s claim that the media is against him. Of course, Haaretz and Yediot Aharonot are not pro-Netanyahu, but Israel Hayom and Makor Rishon are. So can the prime minister truly assert that “the media” is out to get him? We believe not. At this point in time, the increasing pluralism in Israel’s media has created a situation whereby no one has a monopoly on public opinion. Professional journalism does call for asking the difficult questions of all, irrespective of their political affiliation.
If this past week is a harbinger of things to come, then it was a very positive one. Our media is finally showing signs of maturity. Will this welcome trend continue throughout the electoral campaign?
The authors are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (