A Sketch, in Black and White

Instead of a full portrait of a newspaper, the articles in this journal only give us part of the story.

"Yisrael, a Journal for the Study of Zionism and the State of Israel," No. 10 (Hebrew); special issue: "Haaretz: Portrait of a Newspaper," edited by Orit Rozin and Meir Chazan, Tel Aviv University Press, 259 pages, NIS 40

To present a portrait of a veteran newspaper, it is necessary to follow the long trajectory of its development. In recent years the trajectory of the press has become strewn with hurdles: Internet, freebies and battles over circulation. Following this race is as impossible as following a moth's dance in the face of a flame. The title of the special issue of the journal Yisrael is indeed "Haaretz: Portrait of a Newspaper," but its editors have made do with sketching its character only with respect to the paper's involvement in events that took the country by storm in the 1950s and 1960s.

In the 1980s, newspaper editors pondered the question of whether the press should be interesting or important. Three decades earlier this question was not on the table: A press that is not influential, they said at that time, is not interesting, and a newspaper that is not important is not influential. At that time Haaretz was definitely an important and influential newspaper, but - if it's possible to judge with contemporary eyes - it was less interesting than Haaretz of subsequent years.

Before independent television and before the flourishing of the mass-circulation dailies Maariv and Yedioth Ahronoth, the morning newspapers were the main source of information that was not government owned. The papers represented the ideologies of the political parties, and Haaretz, which was privately owned (like the now-defunct weekly Ha'olam Hazeh), represented the personal worldview of the editor in chief and publisher, Gershom Schocken. In the article "The Statesman, the Editor and the Newspaper," which opens the issue, Orit Rozin defines Schocken's worldview as "moderate liberalism."

According to the articles that follow, the newspaper tended to overstep its moderate liberalism from time to time, zigzagging between diplomatic aggressiveness (for example, the call for both a preemptive attack and the appointment of Moshe Dayan as defense minister on the eve of the Six-Day War) and Moshe Sharett-style moderation (the condemnation of the Qibya action, the paper's reaction to the slaughter at Kfar Qassem). Furthermore, from its very inception, apparently, "Haaretz has been disturbed by the leftward movement in the economy."

According to the articles in this journal, Haaretz saw itself as having a statesmanlike status, but in actuality it represented the Ashkenazi middle class and in its name, related critically, if not anxiously, to the immigration of Jews from North Africa. The dominant prime minister back then, David Ben-Gurion, tended to relate scornfully to the newspapers in public: "What's a newspaper?" he asked. "Someone who has money hires workers and prints what he writes. Does the statement become more important because it has been printed on paper?" Nevertheless the statement was important, because Ben-Gurion frequently availed himself of the services of the "editors committee," in which the editors in chief of the local papers received classified information from government sources and in return agreed to refrain from publishing it.

Despite the differences between Schocken's moderate liberalism and the socialist spirit inspired by Ben-Gurion, Rozin's article describes a good relationship between the prime minister and the newspaper editor. "More than Haaretz aspired to stand at Ben-Gurion's side, it wanted to recruit him ... for the fulfillment of the vision of the Haaretz editorial board," writes Rozin. The dialogue between the two men (Schocken sent Ben-Gurion books to read; Ben-Gurion was a guest at his son's bar mitzvah) was carried on in parallel to the newspaper's critical attitude toward him.

Clear stance

In its opinion pieces Haaretz took a clear stance regarding questions that aroused controversy among the public. Today the phrase "a newspaper that takes a position" seems like an anachronism; a newspaper's identification with a position is liable to distance readers who have a different one, and in an era of profitability and efforts to increase circulation, it is recommended not to do this. The main tool for expressing an opinion in a newspaper then was the editorial, or leader. Its importance was great, it was quoted on the radio (which was a powerful took in and of itself), politicians conducted polemics vis-a-vis its positions, and it shaped the newspaper's line for its readers.

Over the years the editorial line blurred and the newspaper became more pluralist. The variety of opinions that has replaced the opinion of the editorial board did not deter two of the journal's articles, which deal with Haaretz of recent years, from going back and looking for it. The articles discuss the paper and the residents of the country's peripheral areas. The first of them examines the newspaper's attitude in light of the work of four senior journalists; the second relates to the "Melah ha'aretz" ("Salt of the Earth") section that appeared in the newspaper's (Hebrew) weekly magazine (before it came back recently under a different name: "Totzeret ha'aertz" - "Made in Israel").

The two articles represent a species of academic research that relates to journalism: They examine, map, identify, dig, document and reveal findings that have already been lying for years on every household shelf. The revelation is accompanied by the familiar academic artillery - long and convoluted sentences, statistical charts, footnotes and diagrams - and all of this in order to say in the usual patronizing way that Haaretz does not address the periphery and that even on the page of clever trivia in the magazine, they write only about Tel Aviv and its environs. A discussion entitled "What They Really Want to Read in the Periphery" would no doubt have been more useful, although not in the context of this special issue.