Sunday, January 09, 2011

Survey of the Hebrew Press in Israel

If as Walter Lippmann wrote the newspaper is the bible of democracy, what are we to make of Israel's Hebrew-language dailies? For a start, they have little in common with American broadsheets or tabloids and are more in the British mold in that the demarcation between news and views is difficult to discern. Also, Israeli papers are less driven by a coherent set of views about politics then by the personal pique of their owners and brutal competition for circulation.

The paper with the most readers (35.2 percent) is the centrist Zionist Israel HaYom which burst on the scene in 2007 backed by Las Vegas businessman Sheldon Adelson. Copies are distributed free by legions of red jumpsuit-clad newsboys; a digital version is available gratis to email subscribers. Politically, the paper has been criticized for the broad support it gives to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It neither opposed his original 10-month moratorium on West Bank settlement construction nor broke with him to support its extension. And its star columnist Dan Margalit atypically puts the onus for the stalled peace process on Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

Yediot, dislodged from the top spot by Israel HaYom, now has a 34.9% share of circulation. Owner Arnon Mozes is very much involved in running the paper. To recapture the number one spot, Yediot has been discounting its cover price and distributing some editions free. While ideologically erratic, the paper is sharply, consistently and relentlessly critical of Netanyahu. The team of diplomatic correspondent Shimon Shiffer and Nahum Barnea, doyen of Israel's print punditocracy, do not disguise their loathing of Netanyahu purportedly for missing what they see as a window of opportunity to make peace with the Palestinians and Syria.

Number three in circulation is Ma'ariv whose owners, the Nimrodi family, were forced to cede operating control to businessman Zachi Rachiv as the paper struggles to climb from its 12.5% market share. Rachiv wants to deemphasize the print edition to build-up a digital readership. Ma'ariv also began distributing free or heavily discounted copies to chip away at Israel Ha Yom's lead. Its star columnist Ben Caspit despises Netanyahu no less than his colleagues at Yediot, portraying a mendacious premier prepared to reject sensible Palestinian overtures that could end the 100-year conflict out of crass political motives. Nevertheless, some media watchers discern

Ma'ariv shifting toward the political center. They cite the arrival of columnist Ben-Dror Yemini who has attracted a following by campaigning against the left's domination of Israeli academia even as he lambastes urban settlers for implanting themselves in heavily Palestinian neighborhoods in east Jerusalem.

Haaretz comes next with its 6.4% circulation share and a hugely disproportionate level of influence owning to its elite readership, the breadth of its coverage, and the inclusion of translated content from world-class foreign newspapers. Owned by the Schocken family and propped up by the German publisher M. DuMont Schauberg, critics see Haaretz as often crossing the line between unthinking criticism of Israeli policies to outright promulgation of the post-Zionist agenda. (The paper also publishes a 12-page daily English edition, mostly translated from the Hebrew, in collaboration with the global edition of The New York Times.)

Add to this mix Mekor Rishon whose original incarnation was the brainchild of Amnon Lord, a secular left-winger mugged by Oslo who targeted an expansive right-wing readership. In 2003, the paper was reconstituted under the ownership of Shlomo Ben-Tzvi, formerly a London businessman, who integrated it with the waning Orthodox Zionist HaZofeh and oriented the new product on a more hard-line religious and political path. The free weekday emailed digital edition and the Friday hardcopy paper have garnered a loyal constituency.

Any survey of the Hebrew press would be incomplete without reference to the ultra-Orthodox Hamodia (mouthpiece of the hassidic-oriented Agudat Israel party) and its competition the even more puritanical Yated Neeman, voice of "Lithuanian" ultra-Orthodoxy, and organ of the Degel Hatorah party. Neither paper has a Zionist orientation though Hamodia is more sympathetic. Sephardi ultra-Orthodox readers are served by the Shas party daily Yom L'Yom. A feature of all three papers is their policy of not covering stories at variance with "Torah values." Hence there has been no reportage in the haredi press of former president Moshe Katsav's trial and conviction of rape.

As a "bible of democracy" – and unique in the Middle East – Israeli newspapers emphatically offer a cacophony of uncensored views and news all competing to set the political agenda. As for probity, objectivity and placing the collective good over narrow interests – that is entirely another matter.


No comments:

My Archive