"Freedom of the press is precious and important to all of us, and I say this with all sincerity, without a hint of cynicism," Danny Dankner said, referring to Haaretz, before adding: "I believe unreservedly in competition and in a free exchange of ideas and beliefs. But what does this freedom have to do with the method we are seeing, the willingness to completely jump on the bandwagon and the slanted reporting, the feeling of missionary work that emanates from the writing in the opinions and editorials? When I see all this, I cannot help but wonder what their agenda is."
Indeed, Haaretz is a newspaper with a certain philosophy, an agenda, and, one can say without shame, a mission. This is how it has always been, and not only in the section of the paper to which Dankner referred. This does not adversely affect the accuracy and fairness of the reporting, but it can have an impact on the choice of topics covered.
I referred back to 32 articles, opinion pieces, and commentaries concerning Bank Hapoalim and its management, published by Haaretz between January and December of 2008. There is a good amount of criticism against board head Dankner, then-CEO Zvi Ziv, the bank's investments, its write-offs, the wages it pays to its executives and the functioning of its board of directors. The articles fall within the realm of relevant public discourse for investors, account holders, and anyone else connected to the bank. Upon reading the articles, questions arise as to why the supervisor of banks did not act sooner, and how it was that Shari Arison, Hapoalim's controlling shareholder, ignored what was written.
Dankner's views on the role of journalists can be deciphered by observing the sharp reduction in Bank Hapoalim advertisements in Haaretz as early as the last quarter of 2008 and into 2009. The bank bought ad space in newspapers that supported Dankner and whittled down to zero the number of ads it bought in Haaretz.
The affair revealed the saddening decline of Israeli press. A claim made by a piece in Maariv stated that Haaretz supports the banks supervisor due to Hapoalim's refusal to advertise in the paper. Journalistic legwork would have exposed Maariv to the fact that the boycott did not precede the criticism, but that the criticism preceded the boycott.
In February 1990, I penned a piece in Haaretz in which I wrote of the advertising boycott being waged by Clal against Maariv. "It is in the public's interest that Maariv have the opportunity, without pressure from an economic boycott, to write critically of the heads of Clal, and the only panacea that Clal executives legitimately have at their disposal is to let the truth see the light or even a libel suit. The tonic which they chose for themselves, attempting to silence and to punish by refusing to run advertising is thus contrary to the public interest." Clal's boycott against Maariv was in response to critical coverage of Clal's chief executive officer, Aharon Dovrat, which was reflected in the reportage of Maariv writer Yoav Yitzhak.
The decline is indicative in the position taken by Globes, Calcalist, Maariv, Yoav Yitzhak and his Web site, and Yedioth Ahronoth, all of whom lined up against the banks supervisor and in against Bank Hapoalim's vested interest. The true representative of that interest is the banks supervisor, as was proven by his demand that the bank undertake reforms which eventually prevented heavy losses.
In an interview he gave earlier this month for the Friday editions, Sever Plotzker of Yedioth said: "Today there is no alternative the supervisor of banks cannot yield. If the Bank of Israel proves to be a paper tiger, this will be a disaster for the banking system, simply a disaster." After that weekend, Plotzker underwent a re-education, and that next Sunday he immediately ran a remarkable piece which stated: "I have written on more than one occasion that the much publicized battle can only end to the satisfaction of the Bank of Israel yet the concept of 'satisfaction' is flexible and open to interpretation. For example, will Arison's agreement to name a new deputy chairman who is authoritative and acceptable to everyone completely satisfy [Bank of Israel] Governor Stanley Fischer? Perhaps the Bank of Israel's appetite will be whetted by Arison's willingness to add other investors to her controlling interest and to put chairman Dankner's future in the hands of a new board of directors before his term completely expires in a year and a half? Such an investor could very well be the government of Israel."
Dankner did not name the newspapers supporting him nor did he express appreciation for their professionalism and ethics. He focused on the newspaper that has been critical of him and backed the banks supervisor. Dankner's idea of a free press does not allow for even one newspaper that does not think as he does. Yet it is precisely the supervisor's position and Haaretz's criticism that was intended to strengthen Bank Hapoalim. Dankner and the board of directors tried to link themselves to the bank's interest. Yet, in this case, the reality is quite different.
On the one hand, you have the supervisor, who is clearly representing the interests of the bank's shareholders and depositors, a public servant whose salary totals just five percent of that of Dankner's. On the other hand is the board of directors of the largest bank in the country, high-powered financial advisors, a chairman who earns millions annually, a controlling shareholder who is a billionaire, and a group of people who understand that they are better off on their side rather than that of the supervisor and the public he represents.
If journalism is a public service, it must not become a mouthpiece for those who denounce the supervisor's conduct. Yet, in its shoddy state, the press has neglected its public duty, and the supervisor did not receive his due backing. Instead, he was criticized and slandered. Dankner's attempt to harm a newspaper simply fulfilling its public role is reflective of a clear and present danger: a weakening of the regulatory system, or the elimination of such a system altogether.
And what to make of the active support extended to Dankner by his cousin, Nochi? Perhaps the motive for his support is familial, or perhaps he is looking to maintain his influence over the bank's top management, an influence problematic in and of itself given that he does not hold an official title at the bank nor does he own a controlling interest. Nochi Dankner controls massive advertising budgets, and there are those convinced that every newspaper would do well to develop friendly relations with him. Yet what if such behavior comes at the expense of public interest, which the press is tasked with representing? This is where Haaretz draws the line.
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