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Sorry, ‘New York Times,’ But Israel’s Press Is Doing Just Fine

Another day, another ridiculous opinion piece in the paper of record

Liel Leibovitz
August 01, 2016
Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures during a press conference on February 16, 2016 in Berlin. Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images
Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures during a press conference on February 16, 2016 in Berlin. Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images

Did you hear the one about the Middle Eastern country that really cracked down on its freedom of the press? Not Turkey, where 42 journalists were arrested last week in the latest assault on the tenets of democracy; I’m talking, of course, about Israel, the subject of yet another grim opinion piece this weekend in The New York Times.

In case you’re the sort who doesn’t read much past the headline, the Times made sure you would not walk away confused: The lengthy dirge, written by New York-based Israeli reporter Ruth Margalit, was titled “How Benjamin Netanyahu is Crushing Israel’s Free Press.”

How indeed? You would hardly believe the depraved things Jerusalem’s demonic despot would do to solidify his grasp on power. Bibi, Margalit solemnly informs us, appoints people who agree with him politically to key positions in government. Shocked yet? Get this: He also has his office call newspapers and websites and try to spin the news in his favor.

If such benighted moves fail to shake you to the core, if you still don’t feel the chill of fascism’s shadow, Margalit has one last bit of damning evidence for you. Take a deep breath: To crush the precious freedom flower that is Israel’s press, Bibi, that monster, is opening up the media market to more competition.

“All three of Israel’s main television news channels—Channel 2, Channel 10, and the Israel Broadcasting Authority—are now in danger of being fragmented, shut down, or overhauled, respectively,” Margalit wrote. “The government’s official reason behind these moves is to open up the communications industry to more competition. But there seems to be a double standard: On other issues, like natural gas, the prime minister has been loath to take a stand against monopolies. As Ilana Dayan, a leading investigative journalist for Channel 2, told me: ‘Sometimes competition is the refuge of the antidemocrat.’”

Because I know Margalit a little bit and respect her more than that, I’ll say little about the glaring inanity of comparing a scarce and finite natural resource like gas to the media market, which, in the age of the internet, is a superabundant field. I’ll similarly resist the urge to inquire just what sort of worldview one ought to have to see the proliferation of diverse voices as somehow antithetical to democracy. Nor will I ask why, if indeed the tyrant is unleashing his own version of Game of Thrones, coming at his competitors with swords and bloodlust, do so many senior Israeli journalists feel so giddy to share their jeremiads with Margalit; you infrequently see Erdogan’s foes so loose-tongued, which, to all but the reporters and editors of the Times, should have served as yet another indication that headlines warning of the free press being crushed are perhaps a tad immature.

Instead of raising these obvious objections, I’ll do something Margalit and her editors didn’t bother doing and offer both facts and analysis. Rather than dignify the assertion that Israel’s press is under assault—an uproarious proposition to anyone who actually consumes the Israeli press and knows it to be largely dedicated to fierce criticism of the prime minister, his cabinet, his worldview, and anything associated therewith—I’ll try and consider why so many of Israel’s reporters, enjoying robust liberties as they do, still nonetheless imagine themselves under attack.

First, the figures: In a seminal study released in 2010, Israeli communications scholar Avi Gur researched the publicly expressed opinions of 38,887 people over 124,879 minutes of broadcast and in 8,324 opinion pieces in the print media during the years 1996 to 1999—then, as now, Netanyahu was prime minister—in order to ascertain whether or not the Israeli press was indeed ideologically left-leaning. His conclusion is stark: Yediot Aharonot, for example, the nation’s most widely read and influential media organ, favored left-wing positions an overwhelming 83.5 percent of the time, and others weren’t too far behind. Not that any senior of the media was contesting Gur’s findings: Raviv Drucker, for example, one of Israel’s leading investigative reporters and a man who has made a fine career dogging Netanyahu with the tenacity of a blue tick coonhound smelling a critter stirring in the distance, wrote a piece some years ago and admitted that 80 percent or more of his colleagues across the board were committed lefties.

This, in part, helps explain why blatant ideological impositions on the free press are just dandy when they come from the left, like when Amos Schocken, the publisher of the radically liberal Haaretz admitted to strongly and enthusiastically supporting the Obama administration’s position on the Iran deal against the stated policy of the Israeli government. When the smart and sensible folks take a stand, it’s time to applaud their courage; when the primates on the right attempt to express their views, it’s time to alert the Times that democracy is dying.

This myopic and morally corrupt approach would be maddening if it weren’t so comical, and if it didn’t cost the Israeli left more or less everything, electorally speaking. Out of ideas, out of time, and out of touch with reality, the small cabal that huddles in Tel Aviv’s newsrooms can hardly believe that the unwashed masses could be so impudent as to demand media that faithfully reflect reality, or that at least offer more the singular and approved and rigid point of view. With no one left to listen in Israel, they turn to the Times, which, to paraphrase Margalit’s piece, is quickly becoming the refuge of the blame-Israel-only crowd. It’s sad to see a reporter who should’ve known better abandon any attempt at insight or nuance and turn instead to the Times for the most banal sort of affirmation, and it’s sad to see the Times continue to publish such drivel without attempting any real depth or understanding. Nevermind, and godspeed: Keep your opinion pages, which, like your opinions, are but sound and fury, signifying absolutely nothing.


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Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.