The news in Israel has become news itself. In recent months, much hand-wringing about the narrowing (or death) of Israeli journalism has been taking place as prominent Israeli papers shutter, cut back staff, and limit resources more than ever before.
The most frequently cited culprit for this? Sheldon Adelson, whose free daily paper Israel Hayom has cornered the market by courting readers and lowering advertising prices. Hayom‘s success (40% of the market) has put long-operating Israeli papers like Maariv and Haaretz on precarious financial footing.
So what’s the big deal? Well, Israel Hayom trumpets the word of the political right wing in Israel as the paper slays its liberal competitors. The popular perception of the paper has earned it the moniker Bibi Iton or Bibi’s Newspaper among Israelis. Israel’s media, which has a tradition of openness and a reputation for lacerating its public officials, appears to be vitiating under the weight of Israel Hayom‘s success. Today, even NPR is ringing the alarm.
Earlier this month, Israel’s only broadsheet left-wing daily, Haaretz, announced it would not publish a newspaper for the first time in three decades. Maariv is currently being run by a court-appointed trustee who has been ordered to keep the paper afloat for several weeks until a decision is made on its future.
Didi Remez, a left-wing activist, says that in addition to flooding the market with a free, competitive alternative, Israel Hayom has managed to change the political landscape of the press in Israel.
“The big difference is the concept of objective reporting,” Remez says. “Newspapers have agendas and those agendas are very clear in the news pages.”
David Weinberg, a columnist for Israel Hayom, while conceding that the free distribution of the daily has influenced readers to switch, also placed the blame elsewhere. In addition to calling out other papers for their focus on soft news and celebrity obsessions, Weinberg called the subscription switches ideological. (On his site, Weinberg includes a thoughtful rebuttal from Ori Nir.)
Readers also edged away from Maariv, Yediot and Haaretz because of the deep gap that opened between the left-wing ideological viewpoint peddled by these publications and the healthy, increasingly conservative instincts of the Israeli public. These papers idolized Shimon Peres and his “new Middle East,” puffed up Yasser Arafat and promoted the Oslo process long after its failure was clear, and they lionized Ariel Sharon and pumped for Gaza disengagement while ignoring Sharon family corruption.
Yediot and Haaretz also regularly dump on Jerusalem, Israel’s largest city, as medieval and backwards while exalting Tel Aviv as cool and cultured. They sneer at Orthodox Judaism and mock religious Jews. They disparage Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with savage vehemence and fanatical constancy. Not a month goes by without Yediot conjuring up some nasty, cockamamie story about Netanyahu’s wife, Sarah. For Haaretz, Israel can do no right and the Palestinians can do no wrong.
The growing popularity of Israel Hayom, beyond the fact that it’s free, may also have something to do with the fact that the Israeli left seems to be in permanent tatter. That said, I’ve always thought that the Israeli ability to self-criticize is an incredible sign of strength, especially for a country that faces so many external threats. It’s vital that the discourse remain open.