Analysis

The Fake News of Trump and Netanyahu’s War on the Media

Trump, Nixon and Netanyahu share a common thread that may explain their hostility to elites in general and the media in particular

U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deliver remarks before a dinner at Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem, May 22, 2017.
\ POOL/REUTERS

The late Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir used to read newspapers from left to right. He’d start his morning with Al Hamishmar, the newspaper of the socialist left, move on to Davar, which reflected the views of the once dominant Mapai, go on from there to Haaretz, which was left on peace but right on the economy, and only then would he glance at the populist Yedioth Ahronoth and Maariv, where he had the most supporters. Having grown up in a world of overarching ideological confrontations, Shamir preferred his critics’ policy critiques to his fans’ inane flattery. He would be upset when he thought he was being attacked personally and unfairly but he never viewed the media as the enemy.

Shamir was confident of himself and his beliefs. As a former leader of the pre-state Lehi underground and later as an operative for the Mossad, he’d survived greater threats than a nasty article or commentary in the newspaper. And he maintained a modest and honest way of life, which compelled the media, even if was hostile, to deal with him in the arena of policy and performance alone.

Benjamin Netanyahu, on the other hand, does not come to his war on the media with clean hands. The journalists did not invent the suspicions he is being investigated for. Even if there were no police investigations and no weekly demonstrations urging the attorney general to expedite the investigations against him, Netanyahu’s conduct unbecoming was worthy of exposure, criticism and even condemnation. Maybe it’s kosher to accept cigars and pink champagne worth hundreds of thousands of shekels from tycoons with business interests, but it certainly stinks to high heaven. Perhaps Netanyahu’s secret talks with Yedioth publisher Noni Mozes didn’t cross the line into criminality, but they were undoubtedly reprehensible. And maybe the police will reach the unreasonable conclusion that Netanyahu had no idea that his personal lawyer and close friend and relative David Shimron stood to make millions from a submarine deal that Netanyahu was inexplicably trying to advance, but the corruption built in to the situation is visible from miles away.

In many countries in the democratic world, there would be no need for the police or attorney general to intervene. What is already known about Netanyahu would suffice to send political leaders packing. Iceland’s Prime Minister Sigmundur Daví Gunnlaugsson resigned last year when the Panama Papers revealed his policies may have helped a company set up with his wife in the British Virgin Islands; Hungarian President Pál Schmitt resigned in 2012 for plagiarizing material for his doctorate; German President Christian Wulff left office after it emerged he had taken a loan from a business friend; Czech Prime Minister Stanislav Gross resigned in 2005 for similar reasons. Japanese leader Yukio Hatoyama even had the gall to resign because he didn’t keep a campaign promise to close down a U.S. base in Okinawa.

Rabin's example

And then there was Yitzhak Rabin, who resigned in 1977 over his wife’s technical offense of maintaining a then-prohibited bank account in Washington, D.C., for several years after he’d stopped serving as ambassador. Unlike Netanyahu, Rabin didn’t publicly savage Dan Margalit, the journalist who uncovered the account, and he didn’t try to influence Aharon Barak, the attorney general who handled the case. He proved his love for his wife Leah by standing by her side and accepting responsibility for her actions and felt no need to proclaim his love publicly, grotesquely, in front of thousands of hotheaded admirers, as Netanyahu did in Tel Aviv this week.

Netanyahu has already survived scandals that could have toppled others in his place but he and his wife feel persecuted and victimized nonetheless. Instead of apologizing for accepting lavish gifts he was too cheap to pay for; rather than feel ashamed for having secretly colluded with a newspaper publisher he publicly described as the devil incarnate; and instead of groveling for forgiveness for allowing his two lawyer friends and confidantes, David Shimron and Yitzhak Molho, to make millions out of their access to the prime minister, Netanyahu accuses his critics, his investigators and mostly the media and the fake news it is supposedly manufacturing. His cup of poison runneth over, and his fervent fans lap it up enthusiastically.

Netanyahu didn’t invent the procedure, of course. Rulers have been killing the messenger ever since Armenian King Tigranes beheaded the bearer of grim tidings in 69 B.C.E. about the advance of Roman Consul Lucullus’ army, after which he heard only good news before his army was vanquished. Fomenting mass hate for political gain to divert attention from domestic failures is also a time-tested tactic, chillingly portrayed in George Orwell’s “1984.” The citizens of Oceania underwent Two Minutes of Hate every day, in which their anger towards the enemy from within was whipped up to a frenzy, ending in collective screams – I’m not making this up – “B-B, B-B,” in honor of Big Brother. For the hard right in Israel, the U.S. and around the world, the leftist-liberal media fulfills the same role as 1984’s arch-villain Emmanuel Goldstein, who may have been invented by the authorities.

But as with Donald Trump and Richard Nixon, the tactic of attacking the media eventually developed into an obsession. Nixon used Vice President Spiro Agnew to savage the “nattering nabobs of negativism” in the media for its criticism of his policies in Vietnam during his first term in office, but then sank into paranoia and hate when the media doggedly pursed his Watergate cover-up in his second term. Trump, who saw himself as part of the media clique when he was a brash New York real estate developer and reality star, attacked it at first to curry favor with the hard right but then started hating it for real when journalists exposed his myriad misdeeds. Netanyahu, even though he knew he had barely escaped criminal prosecution in 1997 in the Bar-On Hebron affair, lashed out at those who had exposed his misdeeds, describing them as people who “can’t accept the voters’ decision and are trying to undermine the legitimacy of the government.” Twenty years later he has managed to convince himself that this assertion is true and that he is the innocent victim of a multi-armed monster. And if he ever doubts himself, he can always read or listen to the legions of right-wing journalists and pundits who, as in America, believe that their main purpose in life is to shoot their professional colleagues on the left, rather than scrutinize, or even praise, the government in power.

Even though they are radically different from each other and come from totally different backgrounds, Trump, Nixon and Netanyahu share a common thread that may explain their hostility to elites in general and the media in particular. All three of them grew up as outsiders, out of the mainstream. All three felt rejected and denied before they became popular. Netanyahu grew up in the shadow of a disgruntled Revisionist father in the elitist, Mapai-oriented Jerusalem neighborhood of Rehavia, before his father whisked him away to America. Nixon, who grew up as a Quaker in far flung Whittier in Southern California and graduated from Whittier College, never got over his resentment of Harvard- and Yale-educated East Coast liberals, even when he came to the White House. And while Trump was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, it was in Queens, across the East River from Manhattan, where the brash loudmouth real estate wheeler dealer was never truly accepted, despite the billions he made.

Ambition plus inferiority complex

The combination of boundless ambition and a deep inferiority complex pushed the three leaders to overcome those who belittled them, but their success yielded even greater rage and frustration when it emerged that the same leftist-liberal snobs continued to berate them and look down on them despite their success, as if nothing had happened. Small wonder that in their fit of pique, their own crimes and misdemeanors diminished in their own eyes while criticism of their actions was inflated a thousand times over.

Trump is different in one significant way, however: He can’t survive long without media exposure. He has to be in the spotlight constantly. He prefers negative reports to the media ignoring him completely. If there’s a lull in coverage, he will supply the next sensation, good or bad. Whether it’s by outrageous insult, such as berating John McCain, unconscionable positions, such as banning Muslims or transgenders, or some crazy policy statement, which he can produce daily or even hourly, Trump needs media attention like a junkie needs a fix. By producing scandal after controversy after sensation, he keeps his name in the headlines and also wears out his critics, jades them to his antics, lowers their expectations of him to the point that statements that would have rocked previous presidents are greeted with tired nods. As with the allegations against Netanyahu, the more Trump’s misdeeds accumulate on a case-by-case basis, the less they reverberate as a whole.

This week, for example, it seemed as if Trump was using one of the greatest natural disasters of the modern era – when a deluge of truly biblical proportions overwhelmed America’s fourth largest city, when thousands of citizens were heroically evacuated and rescued and hundreds of thousands were left homeless – as a prop for his own aggrandizement. He boasted that he wanted to use the high ratings of the flood to focus attention on his scandalous pardon of Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio; he described the flood itself as if it was his own production, constantly remarking on how big and great and how unprecedented it was; and he made himself look good by crowing about a few hundred flood-weary Texans who happened to hear him when he came to visit.

All this, as the media refuted Trump’s repeated denials of business interests in Russia by exposing the fact that while he was lavishing praise on Vladimir Putin as an up and coming presidential candidate, his representatives were seeking Kremlin approval for a new Trump Tower in Moscow. And after Republican lawmakers lost their fear of Trump, his cabinet officers are now following suit, with Rex Tillerson and Gary Cohn distancing themselves publicly from his statements on Charlottesville, and James Mattis more or less sidelining Trump’s directive to ban transgenders from the military. And all these, believe it or not, did not prevent pundits and commentators from asserting that Trump had a pretty good week, considering, certainly better than most of his others. In a few hours, when Trump gives the media good reason to go on the warpath once again, he will get back to accusing it of fake news and working against the American people.

Perhaps Trump and Netanyahu can form a tag team and take turns attacking the media. Perhaps in retrospect they will be viewed as the Muppet duo Statler and Waldorf, harmless old codgers who don’t have a good word to say about anyone. Until then, they are playing with fire, as the head of the UN’s Human Rights Council, Jordanian Prince Zaid Raad al-Husseini warned on Thursday. They could inspire someone to harm or even kill journalists. His words will be dismissed, of course, but even if al-Husseini’s warning comes true, Netanyahu will always be able to guide Trump on how to get out of such situations. He has experience, after all.

First you give the impression you’re feeling contrite, then you ignore it for a while, then you contend that implying that your speeches may have precipitated violence – or the assassination of a prime minister – is incitement in and of itself, and of a far more vile kind. Then you organize a mass rally of your most ardent and gullible fans, portray yourself as an innocent victim being hounded for no good reason and renew your attacks on the vicious liberal media and its fake news.