In a harshly worded speech in April, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the media “an industry of despair.” According to the premier, “The media does not reflect what the public feels. Where they see unemployment, I see full employment. Where they see a ruined economy, I see a flourishing economy. Where they see traffic jams, I see junctions, trains, bridges. Where they see hesitation and lack of confidence, I see firmness and extraordinary intensity, which radiates to our entire vicinity,” he declared.
A visit to various places across Israel reveals that the message has got through almost in its entirety. During Netanyahu’s time, the media’s image has become one of incitement, discrimination, vengeance and slander. And as for that harsh reality the media portrays? Even people experiencing hard times don’t like to be reminded of their situation.
It’s lunchtime on Herzl Street in Rehovot. Ilan, wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses on his stubbled face, rolls a cigarette and doesn’t bother to hide his anger. And all I did was ask him to what extent the public considers the media credible. “The media is all garbage! I don’t believe anything I hear on the news. The only thing I believe are images I see with my own eyes on the screen,” he declares.
Ilan’s “parliament,” a group of about six men, calms him down. I decide to let him cool off and turn to the next table, where three men in their fifties and sixties are seated. They are calmer, but their message is the same.
“I don’t believe 99 percent of what I see on the news,” says Victor, who sits facing the street. “Look at all the corruption cases the media reports. An investigation just gets started and the media judges the politician or the businessman and decides their fate. I don’t believe any newspaper or institution these days.”
Victor mentions supermarket mogul Rami Levy, who was recently questioned by the police. “Follow up in a few days and you’ll see that nothing happened,” notes Victor. “Why does the media immediately say he’s under arrest? This country just doesn’t like people who succeed.”
Netanyahu didn’t invent hostility toward the media, but opposition and suspicion against the media seem to have broken new records in his time. A Panels Research Institute survey found that only 42 percent of 300 respondents said the news reported by the media represented reality; 43 percent said it represented reality to some extent; and 15 percent said it barely represented reality.
The main reason respondents said they did not believe the media was its desire for a scoop (79 percent). Of these, 72 percent said this was because they believed the media was politically biased, while 56 percent said the media was only looking for negative news.
“I’ll tell you why I’m mad at the media,” says Ilan, returning to the conversation. “You get up in the morning and you read, ‘This one committed murder, that one raped, that one committed some crime.’ Instead, give me a news channel with good news. In my normal daily life I hear about people who get run over or killed. I have friends who died; I don’t need it on the news too.
"When I turn on the television, I want to feel good. Let them report, ‘This person found a [cure] for cancer.’ Right now, the most I get is some item at the end of the show about something good that happened,” adds Ilan.
I hear a similar story from Malka (not her real name), while she waits for the bus in Carmiel, northern Israel. “I don’t believe the news. Journalists don’t lie on purpose, but they exaggerate reality terribly,” she says. “Where in the world do you have a news broadcast every day of the week at 8 P.M. that only talks about one thing: submarines?” she asks, referring to the submarine corruption scandal involving former naval officers and an ex-national security adviser.
It’s noon in downtown Carmiel. We came to town only 90 minutes after Netanyahu and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz departed after inaugurating a new train line to the city. But nobody here knew about it. The government’s PR efforts didn’t reach them. What did reach them, though, is the media criticism.
“The media should be objective and not judge reality. It seems the media has only one goal: to bring down Bibi [Netanyahu] at any cost,” says Yaakov, who is waiting for the bus. “And because they want it so much, he gets stronger every time they attack him.”
“I don’t care about the corruption affairs,” declares Malka. “After all, everybody before [Netanyahu] was corrupt too. Do you see how they crucify him? And his wife?
“The media is not objective,’ she continues. “This country needs to be saner. Have you been to the airport? Have you seen what’s going on there? What poverty are they talking about? This is the land of milk and honey! Everybody has national insurance. Go to India to see what poverty is.” Yaakov agrees, just before they both run for their bus.
We find Sami and Sa’ad nearby. Sami is from Deir al-Asad and Sa’ad from Majdal Krum, both Arab towns in the Galilee. “Not everything the prime minister says in the media is true,” says Sa’ad. “After all, he wants to stay in office. Sometimes I believe what they say in the news and sometimes not.”
“Most of what I hear in the news goes in one ear and out the other, says Sami. “Whatever will happen happens, no matter what they say on the news,” he adds.
But even media criticism of U.S. President Donald Trump, the inventor of the term “fake news,” is greeted with skepticism.
“What do I care about the U.S. president? What difference does it make if the world heats up or explodes?” Malka asks.
Victor provides an example: “I read in our papers that Donald Trump needs psychiatric hospitalization. Some journalist in Israel sits down and declares that Trump needs hospitalization. You get it? Just like they say Bibi hates Jews and warned against a political tsunami if he gets elected. Where exactly is that tsunami today?”
Back in Carmiel, not far from Sami and Sa’ad, a group of young male immigrants from the former Soviet Union sits, wearing work clothes. Only two of them, Eli and Eddy, agree to talk to us. “I listen to the news and if it sounds logical, I take it seriously,” explains Eli.
“I don’t believe anyone and I don’t watch the news,” chips in Eddy. Asked where he gets his information from, Eddy responds, “From rumors and, you’ll be surprised to hear, Al Jazeera. They might be totally biased about Israel, but they’re objective about the world,” he explains.
Albert, a middle-aged man sitting at a lottery booth in Carmiel, is another Al Jazeera fan. He also gets his news from the French news channel, “and that’s how I know what’s going on in the world. Here, the local news is just Bibi. The media doesn’t understand that I don’t care what he did or didn’t do. I’m sick of hearing about him all day long.”
In the Old City of Acre, we find Baba’allah sitting with his friend Jamal, 79, among dozens of men playing cards and drinking mint tea or black coffee. “If Bibi says the media is lying, he’s lying himself,” says Jamal. Referring to Netanyahu’s statement before the 2015 election about “droves” of Arabs headed to the polls, he said: “That was a lie. He almost lost, and then he realized he had to lie to stay in office. Leaders didn’t used to lie like that. Leaders used to have dignity. [Former Prime Minister] Menachem Begin, as extreme as he was, didn’t lie like that.”
Arin, a restaurant owner in Acre, says she thinks there’s too much information to take in. “I come from the world of food. Today, anybody can post about food on YouTube and I’ll watch it and think it’s good and nourishing. I believe the news, but at the same time I take everything with a grain of salt. It’s all relative. When you write something, you do it from your own personal point of view. I watch and then evaluate the information for myself. There’s too much – you can’t know what’s true and what isn’t.”