“Journalism is Sacred”

Among the many current investigations into corruption by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one issue stands out: the blatant compromise of media independence and journalistic ethics by backroom deals over news coverage. In one case, recordings demonstrate that the prime minister discussed his willingness to weaken the free newspaper Israel HaYom, published by his patron Sheldon Adelson, in exchange for better coverage from Israel’s largest paper, Yediot Ahronot. In another, the prime minister seems to have facilitated the takeover by telecommunications giant Bezeq of the YES cable channel, again in exchange for more favorable coverage from Bezeq’s online news site, Walla.

The two cases are symptomatic of the prime minister’s apparent longstanding obsession with Israeli media and with the coverage he receives. Until recently, he served as his own communications minister, until pressure from the courts forced him to appoint a Likud loyalist to the position. And, like President Trump, Netanyahu has frequently accused Israel’s mainstream media, and some foreign outlets like the New York Times of blatant “leftist” and politicized opposition to him and his policies.

With Prime Minister Netanyahu in Washington meeting with President Trump, we asked Shuki Tausig, executive director of Israel’s foremost media watchdog The Seventh Eye about the recent revelations of corrupt relationships between the Israeli government and mainstream media. The Seventh Eye founded many years ago as part of the Israel Democracy Institute, went independent three years ago and is supported by the New Israel Fund.

Here’s what he had to say:

Both Netanyahu and Trump have made attacks on the mainstream media part of their message. Are you at all surprised about revelations about backroom deals and corruption?

I think that contrary to what the media loves to sell, Netanyahu and Trump are the biggest media-lovers. They are built by the media and depend on fighting with it and the constant coverage of these fights. Both of them owe their rise to the media and maybe also their future fall. Another myth is that Netanyahu is the great corrupter of Israeli media, while in fact he only shows us the true face of it.

The fact is that former Prime Ministers Ehud Olmert and Ariel Sharon also manipulated the media and had unethical relationships with journalists and publishers. Israeli mainstream media wants us to think that journalistic corruption started with Israel Hayom, but this is a blatant lie. The latest revelations show us that journalists in the highest positions don’t work for the public, but for their own good and for the publishers.

What about the Bezeq takeover of satellite television provider YES? Is part of the problem that Israeli media has become so consolidated that there are only a few powerful owners?

Yes, it is true that Israeli media is too consolidated. In the past, Yediot and Channel 2 dominated TV and the public stations dominated radio. Now it’s different and all are less powerful because of the general weakness of the media in terms of business. Still now on the Internet, which supposedly democratized the media, you have Ynet and Walla, two sites that dominate the daily online news. So maybe now it’s even more concentrated.

What would you prescribe for improving the media landscape? What would you do if you were prime minister?

First, if I was a prime minister that wanted clean media, I would stop making corrupt deals with it. After that I would regulate the media in the proper way for 2018. Our regulation is stuck in the ’90s. No regulation on the Internet, the regulation of the broadcast media doesn’t work, and even the public [government-sponsored] media, which underwent a big reform, is still not working well. The reason all of that doesn’t work is that Bibi and the prime ministers before him wanted weak regulations because they use this weakness to try and control the media by themselves.

Committee after committee reported recommendations to reform the media, but the politicians assassinated any significant reform. You need to terminate the Communications Ministry and adopt regulations like in other Western countries, you need a professional independent body of regulators who deals with issues from privacy to public right-to-know. Not political appointees, but rather professionally trained regulators, with professional norms.

But media will still be corrupt, because except for [Haaretz publisher] Amos Schocken, is seems you can’t find a publisher that is in the journalism business because he loves journalism and wants to serve the public. People who own media outlets in Israel are business men who want to use the media in their business portfolio to benefit other businesses they have, legally or illegally.

How much of the problem is because of the journalists themselves, and how they are trained?

The professional training and supporting institutions for journalists in Israel are dead or dying. In the past there were strong unions (which are now rising once again) and significant schools of journalism that are now weak or gone. Students don’t major in journalism, they all want to go into PR.

If you are a young journalist in Israel – and our journalists are young because the pay is bad and you work in a newsroom at Ynet or Walla or anywhere, and your editor comes and says, take this article off the home page about whomever – any influential politician or business man – what is that journalist going to do?

What will make the “no” effective? Only if the journalist sitting next to him will also say “no.” And the one sits next to him. Only if the general atmosphere will be one in which journalism is sacred. In that situation, even the most corrupt publisher couldn’t exercise his will. He can’t write all the paper by himself. And the journalists will say “no” in this situation when they have an environment that supports them. That’s what we do in Seventh Eye, but we also need support from unions and professional organizations and institutions that will define and uphold professional norms.

What does the attack on the credibility of the media from both Bibi and Trump mean in the long run for democracy and civil society?

Bibi will leave behind a great deal of damage to democracy, especially his cutting off of good people in the civil service and public institutions. But his legacy to the media is that he did us a big favor in his clumsy way, he exposed the things we have been writing about for ten or fifteen years as true. He showed us that the watchdogs like The Seventh Eye were right, and that the corruption is even bigger than we thought.

This is an important legacy, because only if you see the wound will we begin to be able to heal it. Now we are sure that Israeli media outlets and journalists are for sale to political interests, we should keep in mind that this legacy is not just Bibi and will not end with him.

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March 2018