Favoring Politicians, Backing Tycoons? Staff Reveal Inside Story of Scandal-hit Israeli Newspaper

Publisher Arnon Mozes is at the center of a police investigation involving his Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Ex-employees claim the daily and its sister website have long danced to the tune of their owner.

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The Yedioth Ahronoth offices in Rishon Letzion, January 11, 2017.
The Yedioth Ahronoth offices in Rishon Letzion, January 11, 2017.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The revelations that emerged last week of secret negotiations between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes came as a shock to both the public and staffers at the popular daily’s offices in Rishon Letzion.

Yet many of those who were once part of the Yedioth Ahronoth group admit they were not surprised by the actual modus operandi, after Netanyahu and Mozes were heard negotiating over the premier receiving more favorable coverage in exchange for curtailing Yedioth’s chief rival, Israel Hayom. Politicians receive positive, and negative, treatment from the Yedioth media empire according to Mozes’ varied interests, former staffers told Haaretz.

Alongside the suspicions arising from the disclosures against Netanyahu, the affair (dubbed “Case 2000” by the police, complementing its concurrent “Case 1000” into suspicions that Netanyahu received expensive, undeclared gifts from businessmen) reveals a glimpse into the way Israel’s most influential newspaper and its sister website, Ynet, are managed.

Yedioth’s advertising slogan is “The Nation’s Newspaper,” and it employs some of the country’s best-known journalists. In the past, it has published investigative reports that have rocked the country. Now, though, the writers are being painted in a rather unflattering light.

A senior editor in the Yedioth group described the moment last Sunday when the identity of the mystery “businessman” with whom Netanyahu had been negotiating was revealed to be Mozes. “In our new building there are lots of televisions, and everyone was glued to them,” he said. “People didn’t know what to say; it was a very unpleasant moment.”

Mozes himself “wandered around the newsroom; it didn’t look like anything had happened,” continued the editor. “It was business as usual – at least that was what he was trying to project.” Since then, there has been an uncomfortable atmosphere in the newsroom, the editor noted.

Journalists who used to work for Yedioth say Mozes and his own interests – business and personal – are a very important part of decisions that are meant to be made on purely professional grounds. Sometimes it even reaches the level of cooperating with the subject of the article over writing the headline, alleged one former employee.

“I edited an article on a certain senior politician and I was in the final stages of laying out the page with the graphic artists,” said D., who worked for Yedioth for many years. “A senior editor stood next to me and said, ‘Your headline is right, but it’s not the headline we agreed to with [the politician].’”

Yedioth fiercely denied the possibility that it would coordinate headlines with a politician, and some employees also expressed doubt: “There is no way that such a sentence would have been said,” stated one employee.

But many other sources who worked in the newsrooms of both Yedioth and Ynet say outside interests routinely dictate the news agenda of the outlets the company publishes. A former senior Ynet employee said, “We had a joke that if the main headline contains something that is not supposed to be there and we didn’t get a telephone call, then Noni [Mozes’ nickname] must be in the bathroom.”

A number of former editors, for example, described a strange phenomenon: The file with an article they had worked on was “locked by an anonymous user.” This was not one of their supervisors, whose names appeared on the screen when they edited the file. The article would then be returned to the editors after major revisions had been made, with the journalistic justification for those changes unclear, said the former editors.

“There were cases of sensitive articles – mostly on political matters – where the article was locked by this same anonymous person and came back completely different,” they added.

‘Pampering’ politicians

Many employees tell of how well-connected politicians were “pampered,” in a style similar to what Mozes allegedly offered Netanyahu in their private conversations.

Zionist Union MK Shelly Yacimovich during a Knesset Education Committee meeting, December 2015. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

A former Yedioth group staffer said that, often, a spokesman, media adviser or even the politicians themselves would bypass the reporter and contact senior editors directly, who would agree to their requests about an article. But less favored politicians were not to be touched, said former employees. MK Shelly Yacimovich (Zionist Union, and former leader of the Labor Party), for instance, was considered a red flag in the Yedioth group, and her picture never appeared on the pages of the newspaper or its website. “We didn’t know why she had been ‘burnt,’ but every time we put her picture on the homepage, the [then-] editor-in-chief [of Ynet, Jon Feder] called to ask to take it down,” said one of the employees, adding, “It was always for professional reasons. They never said why they asked for something or other, but we understood.”

One of those receiving preferential treatment was former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is currently serving a 19-month prison sentence for bribery and obstruction of justice.

Some Yedioth staffers said they only saw Mozes in the newsroom a few times. One of those times, said D., was on the day the Winograd Commission report into the Second Lebanon War was published in January 2008. “If you compare the coverage of the [Second] Lebanon [War] to the coverage of Operation Protective Edge [in Gaza in 2014] – in Protective Edge, from the beginning everything was a failure and bad, to depress the people, compared to the Lebanon [war], where everything was good,” said D.

P., who worked for Yedioth for two years, said: “I edited a report on the Olmert trial and they told me it needed to go upstairs for approval. You understand that Noni, or someone on his behalf, needed to see it. You prayed they wouldn’t drop some Olmert job on you. You knew then that they would yell at you or be mad at you.”

Journalists who worked in various positions at Ynet spoke of daily telephone calls in this same spirit, but stressed that they never received an explicit order to take down an article, change an image or alter a quote based on the relationship between Mozes and the subject of the article. The instructions were often explained based on professional reasons, seemingly journalistic.

“Not once did they say explicitly to take down a story that harmed [Mozes’ friends],” said A., who worked for both Yedioth and Ynet over five years. “There was simply a telephone call from the editor-in-chief Eran [Tiefenbrunn, who replaced Feder at Ynet in 2013] or his deputy, Amnon Meranda,” said A.

Another employee said she never received a direct order in such matters – but noted that “there was no need” because the spirit of the owner’s wishes was clear.

A. explained that the issue regarding the publisher’s interests had always existed at Yedioth: “It was his business, and he needed to make a profit.” This translated into “lists” of friends and foes, with the coverage slanted accordingly. “It changed all the time, without any apparent reason,” said A. “Nothing was ever written down, but you understood it was something systematic.”

Even though these lists were never committed to paper, the newsrooms understood who was on each list. “If you were there for a long-enough time, you knew who his friends were and weren’t. Everyone knew,” said A.

Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, one of the two sponsors of the so-called Facebook bill, on Dec. 12, 2016.Credit: Emil Salman

Journalists had no problem naming those close to Mozes: “Haim Ramon was a friend; Arik [Ariel] Sharon was a friend,” said A. Another journalist said: “Gideon Sa’ar was powerful, [Avigdor] Lieberman, and now Ayelet Shaked and [Naftali] Bennett.”

The Israel Hayom factor

Despite the claims of many former Yedioth and Ynet journalists, some senior employees in the Yedioth group try to paint a more complex picture. “No one walked around with lists. Whoever gave us good stories, we would treat them well,” one staffer told Haaretz. He said that no editor, and certainly not Mozes, ever told him to publish or not publish something: “I never ran into that. Stories that were not what you would have expected from the approach of Yedioth were published, too. If anything, the problem is the advertising content – but that’s the direction journalism is going in,” he added.

The unbalanced reporting reached its peak during the last election campaign of 2015, when the Yedioth group came out strongly against Netanyahu. A. recalled that on the news desk throughout that time, “We said people would no longer believe us after the election because of the coverage – that we were sawing off the branch we were sitting on.

“The requests – which it was clear to both sides were not from journalistic considerations – multiplied during the election campaign; there were a few phone calls a day,” added A. “On the day after the election, there was complete shock. They suddenly announced that they would give the Judaism section more space, in an attempt to bring in a part of society that Ynet realized was not with it.”

Various journalists said a key reason for placing politicians on a blacklist was their connection to the freebie newspaper Israel Hayom, which is owned by billionaire Sheldon Adelson. The daily is the biggest rival and threat to Yedioth, and is often dubbed a mouthpiece for Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is good friends with the U.S. tycoon. But the journalists stressed that the rivalry between the papers is not ideological but purely financial.

One journalist told Haaretz that the pressure on Yedioth increased only gradually after Israel Hayom’s launch. “When Israel Hayom came out [in 2007, published daily from Sunday-Thursday], at first we didn’t get too excited. But when the weekend edition came out [in 2009], it was general hysteria – an emergency atmosphere,” he recalled. Yedioth and Ynet started to attack Netanyahu “and his wife Sara. It was insane. It was hard for me, and I’m not pro-Bibi – it caused me to feel sorry for him,” he added, referring to the prime minister by his nickname. “It’s not right or left politics – evacuating the territories does not interest Noni.”

The Yedioth group attacked Netanyahu hard, assuming that if he was no longer prime minister, Israel Hayom would have no reason to continue and would disappear, noted the journalist.

D. concurred: “Anyone who thinks Yedioth Ahronoth is a newspaper driven by considerations of the left or right is wrong – it is motivated by completely personal considerations.”

Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev. Her picture would allegedly appear even in small articles.Credit: GALI TIBBON/AFP

This give-and-take approach dictated not just the general policy of the newspaper and website, but also touched on the “smallest things too,” said P – such as the images appearing in short articles that mentioned Knesset members. Unlike those being “blacklisted,” such as Yacimovich, “We knew that we must have images of such people as Miri Regev, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked,” a Yedioth group journalist explained. “It depended who our friends were at the time,” she added.

A different journalist recounted an experiment conducted in the newsroom: “I put a picture of Sara Netanyahu in a positive context. After a few minutes I got a phone call from an executive, who asked if I was leaving that picture. Nothing was business-like on these issues.”

Favoritism for the wealthy

Preferential treatment wasn’t the sole preserve of politicians, said former employees: the wealthy also benefited.

“The social-justice protest [in the summer of 2011, when hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets] was the classic case,” said a former Yedioth staffer. “The minute it moved from Bibi to the tycoons, Yedioth silenced it – as if someone just turned off the lights.” Yedioth and Ynet initially led the coverage, he said, publishing the number of protesters based on the demonstrators’ claims. “But after the approach changed, we adopted the police’s numbers,” he added.

The journalist said the reason he was given was that “it is already less interesting.” But a former senior staffer described crystal-clear instructions: “When I tried to find out what was happening, they told me explicitly that they had stopped covering [the protests]. It was so blatant,” he added, noting how the subject went from lead story to a secondary one.

Israelis attending a social justice protest in Afula, August 13, 2011. Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

A senior Ynet employee described this gradual deterioration, with the senior editorial team ultimately not even trying to hide attempts to match their coverage with Mozes’ interests: “Jon [Feder] tried to justify it professionally, saying, ‘It’s not a [main] headline, we have already written about it.’ With Eran [Tiefenbrunn], it was already more aggressive, in the face: ‘This is a directive from above.’”

The staffers quickly internalized the rules. “We knew what to write and what to highlight,” said a former senior Ynet editor. Another admitted that at “some stage, you start self-censorship.”

This journalistic approach also harmed the end product. “There were reporters who told me more than once, ‘I don’t recognize my own writing,’” said a former editor, adding: “It happened to me a few times that I came in in the morning and didn’t recognize what I had edited.”

“That’s what hurts,” added A. “There are great news reporters and excellent editors at Yedioth, but everything is wrapped up in covering interests.”

Getting worse

MK Miki Rosenthal (Zionist Union) worked at Yedioth Ahronoth from 1986 to 1999. He also said that the situation had become worse over time. “There was always intervention: Yedioth Ahronoth is a commercial newspaper. But we didn’t dare do the things they do today,” he noted.

MK Miki Rosenthal. Worked at Yedioth Ahronoth for nearly 15 years, has seen the decline.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The lawmaker admitted that during his time, too, the tendency to curry favor with politicians whom the publisher wanted to cultivate was clear. “There were, for example, communications ministers, all of whom were geniuses – every one an Einstein, it wasn’t important how stupid they were. Every one was brownnosed in a disgusting manner,” recalled Rosenthal.

But he believes three things have changed dramatically since his day. “One is the resilience. People think that organized labor means wage increases, but it is first of all about maintaining professional norms. If Noni had told me ‘I will get rid of you,’ I would have laughed and contacted the union. Today, everyone has their own personal contract; their ability to stand firm is insignificant. Second, Yedioth Ahronoth has become thinner. The advertising has shrunk, its influence has shrunk. And third, Yedioth’s structure was two-headed: There was Noni’s father [Noah Mozes, the newspaper’s editor and publisher until his death in 1985] and Dov Yudkovsky [editor with Noah Mozes, and then editor-in-chief from 1986-1989]; there was a sort of balance between them. No one had as many [Yedioth] shares as Noni has. He threw everyone out and became the sole ruler,” observed Rosenthal.

In response, Yedioth Ahronoth called this article “a tiring combination of old, recycled claims, mistaken interpretations and fairy tales that have no basis in reality. The editor-in-chief of Yedioth Ahronoth is present every night until the closing [of the newspaper]. It is the editor-in-chief’s job. He approves the pages of the newspaper and sometimes makes comments, changes wording and asks to change images. Not only do we not have anything to hide, we are proud of this policy.

“At Yedioth Ahronoth, as in most of the free press, the copy undergoes rewriting and editing. Every evening, a double-digit number of journalists are on the news desk – that is their job, and for that they receive a salary: rewriting and editing copy written by reporters. A newspaper is not a Facebook page or tweet on Twitter – it is edited.”

Yedioth rejected the anecdote about a headline being changed because it wasn’t the one agreed with a politician, insisting that “it never happened.”

It added: “Many changes occur during the work on the newspaper. Stories grow and shrink, headlines change, images are replaced, stories come into the paper and others drop out and are left on the editor’s desk. And all of this for one purpose: to print at night and distribute (another) excellent edition in the morning: The newest, most up-to-date, in-depth and exciting. This is how Yedioth Ahronoth has been doing it for 77 years, and will continue to do so in the future.”

The Yedioth Ahronoth staffers mentioned here chose not to comment for this article.

The Yedioth Ahronoth offices in Rishon Letzion, January 11, 2017.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

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