A Fine and Fragile Balance

The slogan I inherited from Gershom Schocken - freedom of expression in a newspaper belongs to the editor and to no one else - was correct, but not complete. The editor's absolute freedom of expression exists fully only if one condition is met: that the editor is also the publisher.

Hanoch Marmari
Hanoch Marmari

These are the day's headlines: Turbulent reactions to the targeted assassination of a Palestinian leader, Abu Jihad. Three killed and 13 wounded in unrest in the territories. Total curfew in Gaza. The head of the Israel Defense Forces Central Command signs orders to forcibly open stores in East Jerusalem - the general's name: Amram Mitzna. Surprise and concern at the gains made by the far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in the first round of the presidential elections in France. According to a public opinion poll, if elections were held now in the United States, the Democratic candidate would defeat Bush - referring to Michael Dukakis and the first President Bush. The doctors are on a partial strike and will perform only urgent operations. The reforms in the fuel industry are at a standstill. The sewage being channeled into the Yarkon River in Tel Aviv is creating a smelly hazard. Israel's representative has left for the Eurovision Song Contest and hopes to do well despite a likely political vote - the singer is Yardena Arazi, the venue is Dublin.

Those were the headlines in Haaretz on Sunday, April 24, 1988, on my first day of work at the newspaper, as the deputy editor. Since then, 4,800 issues of the paper have been published, and despite the time that has passed, headlines that are not very different will greet the incoming editor-in-chief.

It was with fear and trembling that I entered the ascetic headquarters of Haaretz, on the edge of the industrial zone in South Tel Aviv: a 39-year-old, native-born, with a disorderly education, without a university degree, fluent in languages at a post-high school level, with a successful record as editor of a local weekly and as a magazine writer in a daily paper, Hadashot, with limited administrative experience, and mainly working with small teams. No sane public-sector hiring committee would have taken on a person with my record - I wouldn't have made the first cut - for the coveted position of deputy editor of Israel's most important newspaper. An appointment of this kind is feasible, if at all, only in the private sector and in a business that is completely centralized; that is, one in which the key decisions are made, for good and for ill, by one person. Amos Schocken, the publisher of Haaretz, took a wild gamble, and introduced to his father, Gustav-Gershom, 75, the person who was intended to be his successor.

Sixteen years later, by the decision of one person, Amos Schocken, the entire staff of Haaretz's economic section, with its dozens of journalists and editors, was moved to the adjacent building and effectively merged with a subsidiary that creates TheMarker, a financial Internet site and a company with autonomous goals from the point of view of the content it supplies and in terms of marketing as well, which operates under an editor who draws his authority directly from the publisher and not, as has been the custom at Haaretz since the paper's founding, from the editor-in-chief. The act of merger as such is not unusual. Units have been established, closed, divided and unified in the Haaretz Group throughout its existence. The largest-scale move of this kind was the absorption of nearly one-third of the employees of Hadashot, which was shut down in 1993, by Haaretz. In that case the move was undertaken with agreement and coordination according to which journalists and editors from Hadashot were hired in all sections of Haaretz on a personal basis, and as far as I can judge that process succeeded in every sense.

The present merger move is, in contrast, a departure from the norm. It is a departure, among other reasons, because of the fact that it was forced on the editor of Haaretz despite his vigorous opposition. The opposition to the manner of the merger of the units - not to the merger itself - developed from its initial stages, a year and a half earlier. And, as in every crisis, the personal relationship between those involved played a large role in its evolution. At the same time, it's not clear whether the close relations and the strong alliance between the publisher and the editor had a good or a bad effect. In the short term, the relations acted as potent shock-absorbers and made it possible to manage the crisis over a period of time. However, when the crisis became increasingly more acute, resentment accumulated and a gulf of mistrust opened up on the part of the editor toward the behavior of the publisher - and no less, I assume, on the part of the publisher toward his editor.

Substantively, the editor argued that the merger, as it was being implemented, was highly detrimental to the unity of the editorial board and was creating a dual system of sources of authority. A dual system of this kind is intolerable in any organization and is especially problematic in a newspaper, both as a matter of principle and in its day-to-day implications. Regarding the principle, there is a point to asking whether the merger is for the benefit of Haaretz or for the benefit of the subsidiary at the expense of Haaretz. At the day-to-day level, the merger creates a permanent line of friction over budgets, journalistic resources and, above all, content. For example, which unit is responsible for the many reporters and edits the articles on many subjects within the broad field that lies beyond pure economics and could be termed "public economics." Within this hefty area lie journalistic basics such as coverage of activity of the government, the Knesset and the other components of government, relating to economic subjects such as infrastructure, consumerism, industry and commerce, labor relations, social issues, the employment sphere and others. The editor argued that moving the economic section of Haaretz outside the central working space of the paper, the integral desk, would ultimately lead to the existence of two completely separate editorial boards, which would share only the paper of the joint product. The publisher did not accept the argument.

What happened next is well known: The publisher implored the editor to accept the plan as it was and rejected outright a proposal to effect the merger inside the Haaretz building, in the hope that this would facilitate the harmonious functioning of the two systems. The editor made it clear that he would view a unilateral implementation of the transfer a substantive blow to his authority and grounds for resignation. The publisher tried to persuade the editor that his approach was misguided, but did not budge from his original plan. The transfer took place in full and as scheduled - and the editor announced his resignation.

I am now completing 13 and a quarter years as editor-in-chief of Haaretz with mixed feelings, but fear and trembling are no longer part of them. With a sense of relief that the burden is being lifted from me and passed on; with a humble bow of the head for the trust the owner and management of the paper placed in me over the years; with a sense of satisfaction at the achievements of Haaretz in such a tumultuous and revolutionary period in the history of the press and the media, and such a dramatic one in the history of the State of Israel. I feel a sense of pride at being the representative of the large group of journalists that, in my view, is the most important journalistic community working in Israel today, and regret that I could not give them greater security in their work. I hope that by resigning I have not breached the trust that my fellow members of the editorial board placed in me, and that I have not released myself from a burden that is liable to continue to weigh on them in the period ahead. And, if so, I apologize.

I agonized a great deal over the question of what would be worse for the future of the editorial board. To accept the existing situation and stay on, while adjusting to the receding authority? To wage a ferocious battle to preserve what still remained, or to endanger the systemic stability by a resignation that would precede the transfer of editorial responsibility to the next generation, in the spirit of the publisher's aspirations? In the end, I followed my heart. I feel sorrow and not a little embarrassment at the painful and protracted conduct of the crisis between me and the publisher, at the fact that we were unable to resolve it - as we preach in our articles - by means of a solution that would be just and proper, smart and even partaking of compromise. It was an affair whose end, as in an ancient tragedy, was obvious to everyone and yet was not averted. In the final analysis, the same person that gave was the one who took away. The person who gave me this precious trust took a hefty portion of it away with his own hands and got back from me everything that was left - without, I hope, flaws, and with a fine accrual of interest. All in all, Haaretz is a newspaper that meets the test of time, and all of us - owner and salaried employees, senior and junior staff, house journalists and momentary guests - are links in a long chain.

During my years as editor-in-chief I let myself believe that unity had been forged between me and the members of the editorial board, along with a type of solid trust between the publisher and me that would stand up to every test. In turns out that the dispute over the way TheMarker was established, and afterward over the way it was merged with Haaretz, generated mutual suspicion, and the basic, deep trust was eroded and undermined in the course of the disharmonious developments of these past few years. My remarks here are part of the personal separation and severance process that I am undergoing. Disengagement from the organizational identity that I assumed during these years and a return to the dimensions of one person, one journalist, who is trying to look back at his successes and his mistakes.

To sharpen slightly the issue of relations between publisher and journalist, I will ask it as an open question, even though the answer is foreknown: Who actually possesses freedom of expression in the paper? The editor-in-chief or the publisher?

As the deputy editor to Gershom Schocken for two and a half years, and in practice his apprentice, I learned - from the person who was the editor of Haaretz for more than 50 years - several fundamental concepts in the theory of his editorship of a daily paper. One of them, perhaps the most important, is that freedom of expression in a newspaper belongs to the editor and no one else.

Schocken, as was his wont, was decisive and concise. He was not given to hairsplitting, but I will allow myself to do so in his place. As he saw it, the editor of a newspaper embodies in his judgment, policy and decisions the freedom of expression of the paper, and demarcates the scope of expression for the community of journalists, editors and other creative minds he represents. A daily paper like Haaretz is one orchestra, and each of the 350 people who hold journalistic positions on it - reporters and editors - forgoes a certain part of his personal, natural freedom of expression and entrusts it to the editor of the paper.

According to this approach, the editor, or those he delegates, can decide what is worthy of publication, and he has the direct power to change or expunge journalistic material on its way to publication, so that it will suit the limits of the freedom of collective expression as he defines them. This is a decision of judgment and values, a professional journalistic decision, but equally a creative and intellectual one.

I would like to go on quibbling. The freedom of expression of the editor of a paper - as I learned from my predecessor and as I learned from my experience and as I interpreted it throughout my years in the post - is earthly rather than divine. The editor is not committed only to the words that are published and to those that remain outside. He is committed to the very existence of the journalistic system, to its independence, to its ability to withstand external or internal pressures, and at the same time to its flourishing and growth. Accordingly, the editor is committed to the unity of the system, to the internal logic of its conduct, to the operative ethic that guides it, to the professional criteria, to the cultural space, to the stylistic range - extending all the way to the sound of the language and to how much white there is between the letters on the printed text. The editor's freedom of expression is the liberty to weigh and decide what, amid the surrounding chaos, is compatible with the values he has laid down.

Apart from the authority accruing to the editor to deal with the content itself, the most important tool in his possession is the right to choose his team of editors - those who will in practice manage the content of the paper according to the guidelines he has set. It's usually thought that the writers express the editor's choice, but it's precisely in relation to them that the editor can agree to a broad and quite free range of personalities, according to their talent, style, positions or even their status among the readers. In contrast, the editor-in-chief's right to decide which editors are fit, in his view, to serve as his emissaries is an elementary, basic right, reflecting his freedom of expression no less than the right to deal with content.

The editor is not a flying prophet. He is not an ethereal being who is free from the constraints of matter and the difficulties of reality. By virtue of his journalistic freedom he is committed to the paper's managers: to cooperate with them in regard to everything relating to the paper's existence, and at the same time to do battle with them in regard to whatever is perceived as harmful to the editorial board. The editor of the paper is the representative of the editorial board vis--vis the readers, and it is his duty to protect their rights and preserve their ties with the contents of the paper, even if this entails taking issue with the paper's managers and acting against their will. In an era of labor relations based on personal contracts, the editor is the most senior representative of the employee vis--vis the paper's management, to the chairman of the workers' committee.

The editorial board and the editor-in-chief are limited in their ability to express themselves - by budget, by human capabilities and by organizational, marketing, technological and other constraints - but freedom of expression, as a value, has no limits. According to this approach, no one can define the limits of the editor's freedom of expression other than the editor himself. On the assumption that all editors are subject to many pressures, of various kinds, there is no one but he who can decide what the red line is beyond which his freedom of expression is infringed, as the head of the editorial board and its representative. Just to remove all doubt: The editor's freedom of expression is not pure and is not personal. He hardly gives expression to himself as an individual. He acts as the representative of a journalistic organization, on behalf of the organization, in the name of its editors, and for its benefit.

This is the interpretation I am placing on the formative, curt and decisive rule laid down by Gershom Schocken, holding that the freedom of expression in a newspaper is the freedom of expression of its editor. The editor stands in judgment before his employers, his colleagues and the public. He has to explain and persuade others that his actions are reasonable; he has to behave professionally and with integrity toward his employers, his journalists, his readers - but his freedom of expression is the source of the paper's strength. It is the basis for the public's trust in the paper and its contents.

I noted that an editor is committed to his publisher. Can there be a situation in which an editor finds himself in a contradiction between what he regards as his obligation to his position and his obligation to his employers? When a dilemma presents itself, is the editor supposed to prefer the good of the person who appointed him or the good of the editorial board of which he is in charge?

The answer to that question is apparently as simple as it is painful. An editor draws his authority - and with it the source of the strength for his freedom of expression - from the publisher. The moment he encounters a situation in which he has to take a position against the publisher, he is duty-bound to return the keys to the kingdom. An editor who forgoes his freedom and does what his employers tell him in order to keep his job is betraying his responsibility.

Law and justice are not especially beneficent in regard to editors. The law stipulates explicitly that the editor is personally and vicariously responsible for offenses of libel committed by anyone on the paper. In other legislation relating to "one who publishes," the editor is an almost certain candidate to appear at the top of the list of those being sued. Yet, there is no law or regulation anchoring the editor's freedom of expression as a vested right. On the contrary: According to the court, the publisher's freedom of expression is preferential, because the owner's right of property overrides the freedom of expression of the salaried journalist.

In January 1990, Joanna Yehiel, who was then the editor of The Jerusalem Post's Friday Magazine and its daily feature pages (and who is now a Haaretz in English staffer), resigned and sued the paper's new publisher for severance pay. She argued that the fact that, upon taking over the paper, he had limited her freedom of expression drastically, was tantamount to dismissal. The Regional Labor Court, under Judge Elisheva Barak, granted her enlarged severance pay and asserted that journalists are special employees and that their right to freedom of expression and to express their opinion, even if it is contrary to that of the publisher, also carries a special weight. However, the National Labor Court overturned the spirit of the ruling. It recognized the employer's duty to award enlarged severance pay in the circumstances described in the suit, but in its ruling anchored the publisher's freedom of expression. In his judgment the president of the National Labor Court, Judge Menahem Goldberg, wrote: "Considerable weight must be given to the right of property, and in our case, to the right of the (private) owner of a media outlet, to decide which material to print and which to reject ..." This effectively emptied the editor's role of its substance. In his ruling Goldberg left the journalist with the right "not to be obliged to write things that conflict with his opinion and his conscience." What, then, can a salaried editor do when in his perception, the behavior of his publisher is restricting his professional freedom? The answer is clear. He can leave.

Haaretz has had three editors in the last 82 years. In its first three years, when it was based in Jerusalem, from 1919 to 1922, the paper was headed by a succession of people, both individuals and groups. Finally the paper was shut down for a short time due to a budgetary shortfall and was reopened at the beginning of 1923, in Tel Aviv. A public figure with experience and standing, Dr. Moshe Glickson, was appointed editor and held the post for 15 years. In 1939, following another interim period in which a committee of three ran the editorial board on behalf of the new publisher, Shlomo-Zalman Schocken, Gershom Schocken embarked on his monumental term as editor. I was appointed at the beginning of 1991.

Each of these editors realized in a similarly maximalist way the concept that defines the place of the editor on the paper - though in each the editor's status and the circumstances of his appointment were very different. Glickson was appointed as a kind of savior, after the paper became entangled in economic problems, and made his agreement to take the job conditional on a permanent monthly subsidy from the Zionist Movement. Schocken was appointed by the paper's owner - his father - who bought the paper and built it as a public institution, which was also a family asset. I was called upon by the family as continuer, preserver, renewer and transmitter of the paper to the next in line.

Glickson concluded his term after the Schocken family bought the paper and offered him a convenient retirement arrangement. Gershom Schocken died while he was still the editor of Haaretz. I am actually the first editor of Haaretz who will become part of an editorial board that will be run by a different editor-in-chief.

In its first 16 years, until Shlomo- Zalman Schocken bought the paper in 1939, ownership of Haaretz was split among a number of wealthy individuals and philanthropists, who came to the aid of the Zionist institutions and bore the burden of maintaining the paper. The editor was actually the publisher in practice, and much of his time was spent in the search for ongoing financing. The historian Dr. Ouzi Elyada, in a delightful article about the first 20 years of Haaretz that he published in the journal Kesher, describes Haaretz in that period as "a paper without capital."

The Schocken family was the first that began to manage Haaretz as an orderly business. Shlomo-Zalman Schocken viewed the newspaper as an important ideological instrument, though also as a family business that had to make money. It was from him that we learned the cardinal lesson that a paper's ideological independence is dependent on its economic independence.

The first publisher, Yitzhak Leib Goldberg, a businessman with experience in publishing newspapers and books in Russia, came to the aid of the Zionist Movement and purchased Hadashot Me'Haaretz ("News of the Land) from the British army in order to make it the newspaper of the movement. According to Elyada, Haaretz at that time was dependent on philanthropists. Ostensibly a commercial paper, it was subsidized up to the neck by the Zionist institutions it reported on.

Chief editor Glickson, like his short-term predecessor, Leib Yaffe, was effectively engaged in publishing duties and was the boss in practice, the CEO: He defined the paper's identity, set goals and determined content, raised funds and took part in political events and congresses. Glickson did not actually have an obligation to report to any board of directors.

Glickson was a centralist editor in his choice of staff and of content. He decided alone and acted alone and got rid of others who were too opinionated. Dominant and charismatic, he dictated content. The absolutism - enlightened or not - of the position of the Haaretz editor-in-chief crystallized back in his period. The "Glickson file," containing fascinating documents from the period, was made available to Elyada, and he describes the editor's summer trips to spas in Europe - from which he proceeded to Zionist gatherings - where, in addition to treating his blood pressure and enriching himself spiritually, he raised money for the paper's depleted coffers.

Glickson, Elyada says, was an overbearing fellow. He did not perceive the reader as being important, or even as a consumer, but rather as a kind of "subject." Glickson's approach to his readers was that of a patronizing educator with a "national," "responsible" approach to events, and he was contemptuous of those who viewed a newspaper as merchandise. He was especially disdainful of his competitor, the sensationalist Doar Hayom ("The Daily Mail") of Itamar Ben-Avi. In 1933, when Haaretz faced one of its most serious crises, one of the philanthropic families, that of the brothers David and Tanhum Cohen, mobilized to put the paper on a solid footing, after having already subsidized it. Haaretz began to operate as a shareholders' company. Like Goldberg, the Cohen brothers were not after mastery, but a mission.

It didn't help. The Cohen brothers' business in Europe foundered. Haaretz again looked for a buyer. If the technique of printing on T-shirts had existed then, the paper's staff would have printed the message "Schocken, buy me!" But Schocken was a tough customer. He conducted lengthy, stubborn negotiations, made the sellers' lives miserable, subdued them, and finally bought cheap and unconditionally. Schocken bought the newspaper and its assets the way he bought his commercial enterprises in Germany, and with the purchase subordinated the paper to the administrative machinery he put in place for his other businesses. In other words, Schocken did not believe in grumbling management, in begging for handouts and in postcards from European spas. From the moment he arrived, Glickson's fate was sealed. Only two years passed after Glickson's retirement until the young Gershom Schocken would re-establish Haaretz as its editor and later as its publisher as well.

The history of Haaretz shows that the editor's freedom of expression was greater as long as the publisher was weak, decentralized and institutional. History shows that Gershom Schocken, the omnipotent centralist editor-in-chief, the unquestioned boss, whose personal qualities made him great and admired, enjoyed absolute freedom of expression because he was the absolute ruler. The slogan I inherited from him was correct, but not complete. Freedom of expression belongs to the editor, as Schocken said. But the absolute freedom of expression of the editor exists fully only if one condition is met: that the editor is also the publisher.

When I was appointed editor of Haaretz, the successor to Gershom Schocken, the unity of editor-publisher that he incarnated was again divided. Amos Schocken continued his father's role as the boss, as the owner of the media and newspaper group, and I received in trust the editing track. It was a successful division that brought Haaretz a decade of prosperity. Subsequently, there was for a moment a reversal of roles in the relations between us: Suddenly the publisher became a militant ideologue on certain political issues, while I as editor found myself trying to preserve the paper's position among the broad public. However much this may shatter the conventional formulas, I suggest that this be seen precisely as an illustration of the harmony and teamwork that existed between us. But does the publisher also see it like that? Or does he expect that his ideological wishes will be fully realized by the editorial board of which he is the owner?

As long as Amos and I maintained harmoniously his father's heritage, the ethos survived. Now it is being split into its natural components. Freedom of expression has returned to the publisher, and the editor will survive in his post as long as his freedoms don't contradict the publisher's wishes.

To conclude, I want to offer a brief passage from a letter I wrote to Amos Schocken last December 13 - a rather long and frank letter, which was, in effect, an orderly request to resign. This is what I wrote: "In the past few years the limitations of a salaried editor are becoming increasingly apparent to me, and instead of acknowledging them, I tried to fight against them. That is, of course, absurd. I cannot - and should not - protect Haaretz against its owner." And later, "I am learning to understand that I overdid things and went too far. The paper is yours - and it is mine only on loan, as long as I am yours."

From a talk delivered on April 1, 2004 at a conference of the Israel Communication Association, Netanya Academic College



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