There is one subject journalists have difficulty dealing with: the press. For understandable reasons, newspapers and journalists who know how to critically look at the government, security, law and economics do not know how to deal with the media in the same way. Now there is no choice. The crisis in the Israeli media in 2010 requires public discourse and perhaps even public action. Newspapers and journalists no longer have the right to remain silent when it comes to the goings-on in their own backyard. They have to get rid of the skeletons in their closets, which are threatening the future of a free press in Israel.
Fundamentally, the crisis is global. In the United States and in Europe, the best and the strongest of media outlets are in danger. The Internet and the attention deficits of young people have caused the traditional press to lose paying readers at a murderous rate. Advertising is shrinking as a result. The business structure that allowed the existence of free, high-quality, privately funded media in the 20th century is no longer a valid model for the 21st century. One after the other, leading newspapers are closing, while the survivors are shriveling and becoming yellow and foolish.
In Israel, the global crisis has a unique dimension. Two and a half years ago the Jewish American billionaire Sheldon Adelson launched the free newspaper Israel Hayom, now distributed daily, with a circulation of about 250,000. In the short run, the appearance of this giant from Las Vegas in the local arena was good for the Haaretz Group, which cooperates in printing and distribution. However, from the point of view of the other two Hebrew dailies, Israel Hayom is an existential threat. Yedioth Ahronoth is bleeding and losing its hegemony. Maariv may fold in less than a year.
The result is all-out war. Yedioth Ahronoth and Maariv are trying to silence Israel Hayom through a bill prohibiting foreign ownership of newspapers. Other bills are now in the pipeline. Meanwhile, in an amazing coincidence, the two newspapers are furiously assailing those perceived as Adelson's proteges: Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu. Bibi's immediate ouster is not only a political aspiration, but now also an essential business interest of the two veteran afternoon papers. However, Adelson is made of strong enough stuff that threats do not deter him. On the contrary, he is upping distribution of his free paper to defeat, once and for all, Yedioth Ahronoth and its owner, Arnon Mozes.
In the short term, the Adelson-Mozes struggle is welcome. For too many years, too many Israelis have lived with the feeling that Noni Mozes is the strongest man in Israel. Politicians, businesspeople and journalists did not dare oppose him. Therefore, the fact that Adelson is undermining this hidden autocracy contributes to making Israeli society freer.
However, in the long term, this struggle of the titans is dangerous. If Maariv closes, it will be a serious blow to the Israeli press. If Haaretz has difficulties later on, it would be a disaster in terms of culture and values. Israel will be a different country. Even a very weak Yedioth Ahronoth is a serious problem. In the end, Israel could find itself in a situation in which total domination by one media giant is exchanged for total domination by another media giant.
The situation is clear: Israel's media are failing, and market forces alone are not enough to save them. The only solution is artificial intervention. Just as the American government saved the banks, the Israeli government should save the newspapers. Nicolas Sarkozy already did so in France. He granted the print media extensive tax breaks, distributed free subscriptions to young people and increased public advertising. At a cost of 600 million euros, he managed to implement an emergency program to save the press without interfering in its content and without impairing its freedom. A similar plan is now needed in Israel.
Israeli democracy needs Yedioth Ahronoth, Maariv, Haaretz and Israel Hayom. It must act with determination and creativity to ensure the future of a free press.
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