The Man Behind Israel's Press Crisis

The Israeli press is struggling. This crisis is partly due to mismanagement and technological advancement, but that's not the only reason, writes Nahum Barnea. The free daily Israel Hayom, owned by the billionaire Sheldon Adelson, is slowly killing all its competitors and enabling the prime minister to gain control over the media.

This is a tale about a couple who one day, upon learning about an obscure clause in the penal code, was struck with fear. The clause is 174b, and it reads as follows: “Anyone accepting or agreeing to accept money, or monetary value or any other material gain in exchange for a promise to convert or to make another person convert shall be sentenced to three years in prison or fined 300,000 Israeli Pounds [by now an obsolete currency since 1980].” Pondering their actions, the couple concluded that they were offenders. Day in day out, missionary material lands at their doorstep, yet they do nothing to stop it from entering their abode. They don’t have any Israeli Pounds. They can’t even remember what the pound looks like. If someone rats them out, they will end up in prison.

They called up Israel Hayom [owned by Sheldon Adelson], requesting that the delivery of the free daily to their home be discontinued. No can do, said the voice on the other end of the line. The computer’s down. Call back later. They tried again, but the computer was insistent. All the keys were working, except the “delete” button. “If we’re in over our head, we can explain to the judge that we’re a normal family,” the wife consoled her husband. “We’ll say that we opened that thing just for the crossword puzzle.” But the husband would not be consoled. “They’ll convict us on the Sudoku alone.”

But have no fear: No one who gets the freebie will be convicted of collaborating with the missionary, even though it’s a outright missionary venture. The only punishment that is meted out against those who bring the product home is a sense of guilt for making a small contribution to the destruction of Israeli democracy with their own bare hands.

The Israeli media is in a dire financial crisis, and the reasons for it are common knowledge. Technological advancements have given rise to new media outlets which demand their share of the advertising pie, the signs of recession and the social protest [which caused a crisis in the advertising industry] have added their share to the hemorrhage and mismanagement and pointless wars between media outlets have only exacerbated the damage. Given this state of affairs, downsizing is unavoidable. It’s questionable whether the market can sustain three commercial TV stations, three general newspapers and three business dailies. It’s questionable whether the market can provide a living to all the sector’s workers.

The crisis comes with issues in which the general public is less interested. A journalist who loses his job is no different from a worker of Phoenicia or Pri Galil [Israeli factories that are shutting down]. This is a heartrending situation, and the injustice that person suffers is aggravating. Yet his salvation won’t be coming from the prime minister’s merciful heart. Fighting layoffs needs to be done from within the home.

But when long-standing, highly-accomplished media institutions such as Ma’ariv and Ha’aretz, as well as the younger but significant player Channel 10, are hanging by a thread, that is a problem that ought to concern Israeli society as a whole. The crisis beleaguering these bodies — and to a lesser degree Yedioth Ahronoth and Channel 2 — was not created by the freebie, even if it has worsened it significantly. Let me explain.

There are successful freebies in the Western world dished out at public transportation stations. A newspaper that is delivered free of charge to people’s homes has no business model. The distribution cost is too exorbitant. Freebies that are delivered to homes exist here and there, and are established only as a political investment.

When there’s no business model, competition becomes irrelevant. A real newspaper will die if it isn’t sold for money. A freebie will continue to exist for as long as it enjoys the infinite resources of a billionaire.

But wanting much more, the freebie also offers advertising space at dumping prices, which have sent the rest of the market rock-bottom. Inundating households with the free dailies has injured the newspapers; the reduction of ad prices made sure they were dead. That is the Sheldon Effect.

All that remains is to ask where everyone is. Where are the government regulators, whose job it is is to prevent the market from being taken over by dumping? Where are the Knesset Members who see how one media outlet, which serves a single person [the writer refers to PM Netanyahu] — ‎not an idea or a party, but a single person — ‎has castrated public discourse, but barely make a peep?

It’s not only Knesset Members, but journalists too. Some of them have voiced the truth about this phenomenon from day one. Others, due to personal rivalry or some fly-by-night business ventures, due to cannibalism, meanness or sheer opportunism, preferred to stick their heads in the sand. Some of the most prominent journalists in public broadcasting also fall into this category. A “newspaper war” is what they cynically called the existential fight for a free press. Now when they’re being silenced too; the penny has finally dropped.

The National theater Habima has put on a new production of Dürrenmatt’s The Visit of the Old Lady. The play tells the story of a millionaire who returns to her hometown, buying off all the residents with her money, forcing them to wear yellow shoes and making them murder her beloved man who had betrayed her. If my memory serves me right, the prime minister and Mrs. Netanyahu honored the play with their presence. It is doubtful that they realized that the play had been written about them. The shoes they wear are yellow, while they believe they are the shoes of heroes.

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Found in: us, press, netanyahu, media, journalism, israeli politics, israel hayom, israel, crisis, benjamin netanyahu, barnea, adelson
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