Netanyahu May Now Take Aim at TV News

Israel's prime minister overcame hostile coverage during the election and may now ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Alon Ron

We didn’t need this month’s Knesset election to understand how splintered Israeli society really is, but the election did demonstrate that the divisiveness and hatred toward those with different views were blatantly apparent in this campaign. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confounded the commentators and pollsters by managing to attract votes worth 10 additional Knesset seats from other right-wing parties. He pulled it off by stigmatizing the left wing and the Arab Israeli voter.

The election campaign was particularly traumatic for the country’s media outlets that depend on the sympathy of the public for their livelihood, and have now come to understand the extent to which the public is hostile to them. It can even be argued that the campaign revealed the one-dimensional character of the media and a sense that the media believe they know what’s best for their own audiences.

That, however, was just the beginning. The real blow sustained by print and television journalism came when they realized that the media’s capacity to influence the public agenda is eroding.

The media’s mobilization against Netanyahu was something that the prime minister not only noticed but also used to attract additional electoral support.

Well before the election on March 17, the prime minister understood that a change in the media landscape could enhance the power of the Prime Minister’s Office. He is now singling out the media as a target to be addressed by his future government. Whether the next communications minister is Yariv Levin, Zeev Elkin or Yuval Steinitz, Netanyahu is expected to install someone who is a close associate and who will toe a policy path at the ministry that he would be comfortable for him.

Even before the right-wing Knesset electoral victory, there have been those who have seen financially troubled Channel 10 television as the first and perhaps even primary victim of the changes that a new communications minister could bring about. The continued survival of the station, which has taken a hostile editorial line towards the prime minister, is dependent upon the next person at the helm of the Communications Ministry.

This week the station files a new license request in advance of the expiration of its current franchise at the end of June. Despite Netanyahu’s animosity towards the station, the chances that it would actually be shut down are small. The Second Television and Radio Authority and its public council would have a hard time providing a legal explanation for why Channel 10 should be deprived of an operating license as long as it meets its obligations. A senior official at the station said he expected that it will indeed remain on the air.

But Netanyahu and his future right-wing government have other means to weaken Channels 10 and 2 by replicating the impact Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson’s pro-Netanyahu free newspaper, Israel Hayom, has had on the printed press.

Although a law that would have barred the paper from being distributed for free failed to pass the Knesset during its last term, it did pass its first of three parliamentary votes. And immediately after that, Netanyahu put a halt to a process that would have broken up the two Channel 2 franchisees, Keshet and Reshet, which share the weekly broadcast schedule.

Curbing their power

Now that the prime minister has realized that halting the process has not altered the editorial line of Channel 2 News, he might breathe new life into the proposal and in the process also break up its strong unified news operation. And, there are many other ways to curb the power of Keshet, Reshet and Channel 10.

For example, the next communications minister could permit the country’s cable and satellite broadcast providers, Hot and Yes, to establish their own news channels. The two companies have been trying for years to get the law changed so they can enter the news sector. Hot would adopt Patrick Drahi’s i24news operation and Yes would be expected to link up with the Internet-based news operation of Walla and together set up a news station.

By coincidence or not, these two news stations tend toward the right wing of the political spectrum, so it is reasonable to assume they would provide a more comfortable alternative for Netanyahu than Channels 2 and 10. On the other hand, healthy competition among news stations would weaken the existing operations, which would have to adapt to a new reality.

If people thought the Internet would broaden the voters’ horizons and expose them to a wider range of issues, this month’s election proved the Internet actually accomplished the reverse, reinforcing tribalism in Israeli society. About 60% of Internet traffic to news websites comes through links from Facebook and Google rather than through the news websites’ home pages. Since the home pages of the news websites become less important, with users going directly to specific articles, the process also reduces the power of the editors at the news sites to influence the public agenda.

News site home pages are like the front page of a newspaper, but if readers bypass the home page of a website, because they are directed to a specific article, they decide what is important instead and where to go next. And they go to the initial article on any given news website because the content is recommended by the users’ group of friends who recommend the content on Facebook, Twitter or WhatsApp. And who are most of users’ friends? People whose views are similar to their own.