The Israeli media wound up with a pair of black eyes by the time the 2015 election was over. The first was the result of the failure of many media organizations to disguise whose side they were on, leading them to engage in unethical and often ugly journalism.
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The second punch was delivered on Wednesday morning when the final results came in, and it became glaringly evident that the journalists had badly misread the political climate. No one predicted the huge victory Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party would win.
There was a huge gap between the political situation portrayed by the media and the actual political reality. The best of Israel’s political commentators missed what the public was thinking and conjured up a separate reality that existed on TV screens and the front pages of newspapers but not on the street.
The sharpest discrepency between the media portrayal and reality was the opinion polls. Now Israel’s television broadcasters are examining how they all called the election so badly, with surveys giving the Zionist Union an edge of as much as four Knesset seats over Likud. In particular they want to know how even exit polls showed the two parties neck and neck or with a slight advantage to Likud.
“There’s no denying it, we erred badly,” said one TV executive, who asked not to be identified. “Only late at night did we realize a gap was developing. We examined it and saw there was a difference of 5% to 6% between the exit polling and the actual vote in the same polling place. What that means is that people were going in to cast a vote in the exit poll and lying. The pollsters need to do some house cleaning.”
Raviv Drucker, the Channel 10 television commentator, blamed the discrepency on over–reliance on the pollsters.
“We erred, I erred, big time. We live for the surveys and tend to ignore what’s happening in the field,” he said.
He conceded that based on the surveys, which showed similar results, many people had already given up on any prospect of a Netanyahu victory. “Even the prime minster himself told his advisers on the afternoon of Election Day that he was going to lose,” said Drucker.
“He didn’t believe those who told him that by evening the situation would turn around. Likud minsters were saying it was hopeless, that people [activists] didn’t want to work. The results came in like a thunderclap. It could be that the polls on Friday [before the election] that showed a victory for the Zionist Union moved nine or 10 mandates in three days. If so, that would be half of Netanyahu’s strength. Maybe there was a trend that we simply didn’t see. Maybe we live in la-la land,” said Drucker.
At 1 A.M. Wednesday morning when the first real results began trickling in, the media began to see voting patterns at variance with their surveys. Channel 2 updated viewers that Likud won another mandate before it ended broadcasts for the night and Channel 10 admitted that Likud now had the edge. But only at 6 A.M. was the extent of Likud’s victory apparent.
“No way did we think there would be a difference of six mandates,” said Drucker. "We simply misread the political situation. Even so, the next election we’ll also live by the polls because there is no other tool.”
Israel’s elections are supposed to be races between parties, but this one in particular was about personalities – or specifically two personalities, Netanyahu and his wife Sara. It started with the expose of the bottle deposits and inflated household expenses at the prime minister’s residence and the first couple’s personal behavior. It went on to encompass sharp criticism of Likud campaign videos.
Likud officials now point to the campaign they mounted as the game changer. They say it had three stages – the first to warm the public to Netanyahu as a personality, the second to warn voters about Iran through Netanyahu’s congressional address and finally to have the prime minister give a series of interviews in the final days on the campaign.
“In the course of the campaign we controlled the agenda and the tone,” said one senior Likud campaign manager, who asked not to be named. "The videos brought Netanyahu closer to the nation and solved the problem of his disconnectedness.”
Likud officials said the V15 campaign — with the motto "anyone but Bibi" — was so negative that it put off voters. In the final stretch, Likud’s focus on security and the supposed threat of a left-wing–Arab coalition went into play.
“We were very focused on these messages to the relevant voters – religious-national and the ideological right – in order to shift the direction of the election from the economy to security,” said one official. “In the final week we succeeded in getting people to vote on the basis of right and left and not on the basis of socio-economic platforms.”
On the other side of the coin was the weak campaign of the Zionist Union, which was led by Reuven Adler, who has been widely regarded as a political magician. “At the end of the day Bibi bit harder and was more aggressive,” admitted one senior Zionist Union official.
The turning point, he asserted, was the brief televised debate between Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog and Netanyahu on Channel 2's “Meet the Press” program.
“The debate made Herzog look like a nice but geeky boy, compared to Netanyahu who came to fight dirty. The nation wants its leader to fight dirty when he’s confronting our enemies,” said the Zionist Union official.
The print media were no less at fault than the broadcast media. Israel Hayom, the freebie daily financed by Netanyahu’s patron, the American billionaire Sheldon Adelson, was filled with headlines that repeated Likud campaign themes and generous quotes by Netanyahu while heaping abuse on the other parties.
Israel Hayom’s role as a Netanyahu cheerleader is well-established in the public mind – and was even the subject of appeals to the Elections Commission and High Court of Justice for allegedly violating campaign finance laws – but Yediot Aharonot and its Ynet news website emerged as just as adamantly anti-Netanyahu during the campaign.
As the election got underway, Yediot publisher Noni Mozes’ media outlets began to focus on the plight of Israel’s poor and struggling middle class, targeting Netanyahu where he was perceived to be the most vulnerable. At the same time, its coverage of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and the Zionist Union became warm and friendly. The day before the election, Yediot’s lead headline was a quote from Herzog, “I will be everyone’s prime minster.”
“Yediot and Israel Hayom broke every record for repulsive and hurtful journalism,” said Raviv. “There was a torrent of one-sided, biased reality. Netanyahu was smart enough to translate this revulsion into votes.”
Drucker says he doesn’t know how much Israel Hayom helped Netanyahu, but noted that it is the most widely distributed newspaper in Israel.
Nor does he believe either newspaper will change its bias. “Adelson and Amos Regev [its editor in chief] won’t give up and neither with Noni Mozes."
Political strategist Eyal Arad, who led an anti-Netanyhau campaign in the election, said the battling newspapers created a more level media playing field for the first time since Likud came to power in 1977.
“In most of the elections since 1977 the media were for the left and against the right,” he said. “If you were to put a polling station in [the Tel Aviv journalist union headquarter] Beit Sokolov, Meretz would be the ruling party. That’s nothing new. In virtually every democracy the media tend toward the liberal left. In this election there was someone on Netanyahu’s side, so some balance was created.”