Journalist One Day - Politician the Next. The Trendiest Career Change in Israel Raises Some Disturbing Questions

Yinon Magal, editor-in-chief of popular news website Walla, is just the latest example of journalists-cum-politicos. Good or bad for politics, the trend is definitely bad for journalism.

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Shelly Yachimovich, Merav Michaeli, Daniel Ben-Simon, Uri Orbach, Nitzan Horowitz,  Yinon Magal, Yair Lapid.
Shelly Yachimovich, Merav Michaeli, Daniel Ben-Simon, Uri Orbach, Nitzan Horowitz, Yinon Magal, Yair Lapid.Credit: guli cohen, Ofer Vaknin, Tomer Appelbaum, Emil Salman, Michal Fattal

Is it the terribly depressing state of journalism as a career path or the attraction of political power and public life? Or do Israeli journalists truly believe that they are uniquely equipped to lead the nation in these troubled times?

Whatever the reason, the march of Israeli reporters, editors, pundits and television interviewers into the political arena continues unabated. The number of former scribes and talking heads in the last Knesset passed double digits. As the 2015 Israeli elections approach, a whole new group have announced their intentions to vie for a seat.

One case in particular has grabbed attention and rocked the close knit and gossipy world of politicians and journalists. Yinon Magal, editor-in-chief of the popular Walla news website and a former radio and television reporter and anchor officially joined the Jewish Home party this week and will likely take his place in a coveted reserved spot on the list of the party led by Naftali Bennett.

Magal’s move to political life isn’t as dramatic as Yair Lapid’s leap from the TV screen onto the political stage in the lead-up to elections two years ago - after all, he isn’t founding a party and heading its list.

Yet his decision has stood out and made headlines for a number of reasons.

First - his political orientation. Nearly all of the politically inclined journalists of Magal’s generation and pedigree - graduates of the Army Radio who moved into mainstream Israeli media head for center to left-wing parties - the Yesh Atid, Labor, or Meretz. There are a few former journalists in Likud, though they left the profession many years ago. But most of them confirmed the general stereotype of the mainstream media being left-wing.

Magal not only broke that mold, but he seems to be using it as a selling point - spinning a message that he has discovered that he loves his country too much to be a journalist.

He made a splash doing so in the YouTube video making his political debut on Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett’s Facebook page. The video opens comically, as a spoof of a television news show with host introducing a bold, brave and handsome leader - and having a puffed-up Bennett quickly disappointed that the hero being described wasn’t him but Magal.

On camera, Magal brags about the fact that during Operation Protective Edge, eyebrows were raised when “I said I was first and foremost a Jew, after that an Israeli, and only after that, a journalist.”

He then declares: “They have demanded of me that I be objective, but it can’t be helped: When our soldiers are deep in enemy territory I am not objective, and when millions of Israel are going down into the shelters I am not objective. if its not clear to anyone, even as a senior journalist during a war between Israel and her enemies, I am for Israel. I’m not the UN, I’m not CNN, I’m Israel. I’m not ashamed that I love this country, I’m not ashamed that I am moved by the national anthem, “I don’t feel any need to apologize for supporting our soldiers. It doesn’t matter whether I am secular, religious or traditional. I love the land of Israel, the nation of Israel and the Torah of Israel. And I’m really not ashamed of it.”

Bennett, apparently recovered from his ego blow - shakes Magal’s hand and tells him “Welcome home” as if he has returned to the warm hearth of patriotism after his cold lonely journey in the land of the traitorous media.

Magal’s recruitment fits in with Bennett’s successful marketing transformation of “Jewish Home” from a boring religious party into one that makes it cool to be right-wing. Following the Magal announcement, the thousands of new members signing up crashed the Jewish Home’s server - or so the party claims.

(Magal might be a little too “cool” for some of the conservative religious Jewish Home members. Since the announcement, a shapely female thong-clad rear end Magal posted on Instagram has been making the rounds on social media. He also immediately let it be known, that yes, he had smoked marijuana “fairly recently.”)

So what to make of the ongoing invasion of politics by media personalities? Clearly a famous face and good communication skills are a huge advantage in national politics- after all, these were the skills that first vaulted Benjamin Netanyahu into prominence.

When Bibi emerged on the political scene, the country’s top leaders were military hero generals and slick young “princes” without military backgrounds - businessmen and lawyers like Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Olmert were viewed as upstarts lacking real leadership ability- just as the journalists are viewed now. And so far, though figures like Lapid and Labor’s Shely Yacimovitch have certainly made an impact on the political map, none has yet emerged as a real contender for Prime Minister.

The jury may be out as to whether the trend is good or bad for politics - but it’s pretty clear that it is bad for journalism.

The ethics of these sudden leaps are disturbing. In the case of Magal, who wasn’t a mere reporter or pundit - but a news executive. One day, Magal was setting the agenda of an influential website which Israelis relied on to report news of the election, including the news of the Jewish Home party and it’s “Stop Apologizing” campaign recruiting new members. The next, he was a central part of it - with Bennett posting a video trumpeting Magal’s combat soldier background.

One can’t help watching the news these days and wondering whether the people bringing it to us might be positioning themselves to replace the politicians they are reporting on. 

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