The Watchdogs’ Watchdog: ‘Balanced’ Journalism Is a Recipe for Corruption

The people behind media analysis website The Seventh Eye read all the newspapers and identify hidden threads between news items and interested parties behind the scenes.

Ariel Schalit

Every morning Shuki Tausig, Oren Persico, and Itamar Benzaquen read all the papers and report on their watchdoggy website how each is handling the important issues. The three disclose the web of relationships, rivalries and interests that often lie behind the editors’ decisions: Why one newspaper buries a story on Page 19, while its competitor puts it prominently on Page 1. Why a leading analyst changed his mind. Which media outlet covers a business baron tendentiously, and which is incessantly attacking him.

Their work is to expose the biases and failures of the Israeli press, and the growing number of media outlets and interests has made their work more challenging than ever.

The knowledge that the team has accumulated from years of daily analysis of journalistic texts has turned it into the most reliable barometer of the state of journalism in Israel. One of the staggering insights that emerged from the conversation we had with them is the degree to which the public is blind to those distortions that they pick up immediately.

Hidden motives

Few casual readers are aware of a paper’s errors, biases, and hidden motives, says Tausig, The Seventh Eye’s editor.

“The public is totally ignorant of the interests behind the media outlets,” he says. “A few years ago we spent a few days interviewing writers for our website. It was incredible. People applying to be writers for a website that covers the media were clueless about the most trivial things in the business.”

Our conversation also includes attorney Elad Man, legal adviser to Hatzlaha, the Consumers' Movement for the Promotion of a Fair Society and Economy, which addresses media issues, among other aspects of Israeli life. Man, who writes the legal column for The Seventh Eye, says, “In an exercise I conducted with students I showed them pictures of various media personalities. There were talents that they recognized, and in the end I showed them a picture of Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Noni Mozes. Nobody recognized him. These are the people that pull the strings, but they are hidden from the public eye.”

Nevertheless, in recent years the Seventh Eye team members have noticed a change in public sentiment toward the media. “It’s seeping in that the media is biased, at times even corrupt,” says Tausig.

Ironically, he says, what helped end of the age of innocence was Israel Hayom, a paper owned by a friend of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Sheldon Adelson, and which is widely regarded as a mouthpiece for the prime minister.

“The most slanted media outlet of all actually spurred debate on the issue,” Tausig says. “The attacks by Israel Hayom on Yedioth generated a discourse over the biases of both papers, and also exposed the name ‘Mozes’ to the general public.”

The inter-paper rivalries attracted a lot of attention in the mid-1990s, when the editors of Yedioth and Maariv were charged with bugging each other’s phones, but then things quieted down for a few years, the team members note. The current battle between Yedioth and Israel Hayom has been heating things up again.

“And as in the past, today people don’t know where to position all the players on the field, but they know that something’s going on,” says Tausig. “The innocence is gone.”

Should the readers of Israel Hayom and Yedioth Ahronoth be reading about the war between the papers in the papers themselves?

“Just as the army and politics is covered critically, it’s very important to cover the media, but there’s an intrinsic problem there,” Persico says. “Newspapers don’t cover their competitors for fear that they themselves will get [critical] coverage, or they’ll be accused of covering the competition from a position that isn’t free of interests. Still, the media is one of systems that have the greatest impact on the public consciousness and so it must be critiqued.”

To take a stand and remain fair

Many in the media, business and politics know just how corrupt some of Israel’s newspapers have become. Behind closed doors, senior officials will often speak disparagingly about newspaper publishers or about their difficult personal experiences in their encounters with journalists.

Such stories are rarely told in public, however; fear of powerful publishers is a great silencer.

In a series of videos produced by Eldad Yaniv before the last Knesset elections, the nickname “Tamnoni” (from the Hebrew word for octopus) was bestowed on Yedioth publisher Noni Mozes, who also takes criticism in reports appearing in TheMarker. But as a rule, the mass media offer almost no direct coverage of the media’s own weaknesses and failures.

In The Seventh Eye’s reviews of the daily press, one can find direct references to media outlets and pointed criticism of their conduct, including the conduct of Yedioth Ahronoth, the strongest and also most hush-hush domestic media player.

“Yedioth Ahronoth prefers to pity the poor than get tough with the rich,” The Seventh Eye wrote, in a discussion of coverage of the War on Poverty Committee report that was released in June. “One needn’t quibble to establish that Yedioth’s position [on poverty] is insincere…it’s enough to read the paper every day to see that it doesn’t deal consistently and seriously with any issue related to the problems and distress of the State of Israel’s lower deciles.”

When Yedioth criticized the prisoner release that secured the freedom of captured soldier Gilad Shalit, The Seventh Eye wrote, “This is exactly the type of piece that marks the editor of Yedioth Ahronoth, Ron Yaron, as someone who has no red lines or shame, and little respect for the reader’s memory. Yedioth had proudly led the pressure campaign on the prime minister to carry out the exchange deal, reaching bizarre heights of embarrassing propaganda.”

And what about Israel Hayom? In a piece that dealt with how the newspaper handled reports in June that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara had allegedly bought garden furniture for their private home at government expense, The Seventh Eye wrote, “The rules [at Israel Hayom] state that when unflattering information about the prime minister and his wife is revealed, the report should be relatively modest, with a headline that stresses the response of the Prime Minister’s Office and should include criticism of the interests that led to [the information’s] publication in the first place.”

You go over all the papers every day. How much of the content would you say is skewed?

“I think between 50 percent to 90 percent of the items in the media are biased in some form,” Persico says. “It doesn’t have to be a major distortion. Most of the biases are localized. For example, with regard to the struggle by [cellular operator] Partner’s employees [to unionize] you can see by the coverage that one reporter has a source in management, while a reporter in a competing paper takes the angle of the workers committee. That’s not immoral, but it’s significant from the reader’s perspective.”

Tausig: “You can take a side and remain fair, but the reader has to be aware of it.”

Man: “There’s a paper that’s been doing one-sided coverage of the reform at the Israeli Broadcasting Authority [The reference is to TheMarker]. The reporters and commentators have a position. It happens and it’s better for the reporters to have a position. But someone looking at it from the outside can see that the coverage is skewed.”

In other words, the media isn’t balanced?

“’Balanced’ is an unclean and immoral word,” says Tausig. “There’s lots of corruption in the name of balance. Who said you have to be balanced? Balanced journalism is the journalism of Yedioth Ahronoth, with its ‘for’ and ‘against’ [lists]. It’s a waste and weakens the primary objective of presenting the truth. The requisite criterion is to be fair.”

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Does Israeli journalism essentially preserve the status quo, as Noam Chomsky has claimed, or does it promote change?

“It’s rather natural for newspapers to operate as part of the status quo and to encourage its continuation,” says Persico. “It would be very strange to think that a given newspaper would spur change. In this context TheMarker is an exception.”

Tausig elaborates: “In an environment in which many newspapers have stopped being newspapers and instead deal in spokesmanship, The Marker underwent no small change. After the [global] economic crisis TheMarker adopted an activist approach that succeeded in infecting other newspapers. But even there one sees ups and downs, which one assumes are related to the economic situation and personnel changes at the top.

“You are essentially asking ‘Is Israeli journalism activist’ and the answer is, ‘first of all, be journalism,’” Tausig continues. “Today, on the most popular platforms in print and on the Web, you see an awful deterioration in journalistic work. The overwhelming percentage of content that is broadcast or printed doesn’t require journalistic work. In most Israel Hayom items you can see that quotes from press releases. It doesn’t matter if it’s a written press release that was sent to them or the verbal dictation of a communiqué.”

Benzaquen notes that media outlets have a hard time fostering change because of the economic stresses they’re under. “When you cut positions, more assignments must be made to fewer journalists, which has an impact on the journalism,” he says.

Does it go beyond topics related to a political patron?

“The minute an editor permits a journalist to do real journalism, the report is liable to find out something that will embarrass the patron,” Tausig says. “For example, at Israel Hayom the editorial framework and size of the articles was decided on in advance, so that only a minimum amount of information is required and there would be no leeway for the reporter to express his personal position.”

Benzaquen: “Although they chose the editors, the size of the articles and the slant, there is also an echelon of junior employees who consciously adopt the party line. Some of them go to leftist demonstrations, but when they get to the office they shut themselves down.”

In this context, says Tausig, Israel’s financial press often seems to be the only media outlets doing serious reporting.

“The financial papers have become the vanguard of the media. The rest of the press is becoming hollow,” he says. “Yedioth Ahronoth has turned into a kids’ paper that’s designed like a comic book. You can see how much they invest there in the position and size of the photographs, so that the text ends up looking like a burden on the page. There’s also the writing of bombastic leads. We’ve already noted that Israel Hayom is a collection of press releases. That’s why I like to run to the financial papers when I do surveys. The financial press is the infantry, while the rest are dozing off in the rear.”

Persico: “Or are aiming friendly fire at the rear.”

Interests and campaigns

It’s not easy to be a media critic. The various biases among media outlets are sometimes elusive and hard to spot with an untrained eye. Sometimes the way a story is covered changes in mid-stream, with no way of knowing whether there were journalistic reasons for this or whether it stemmed from an order from the top. Even Seventh Eye staffers can’t always immediately discern what’s behind the words or pictures.

“Ynet is an amazing example of this,” Tausig says. “Yedioth Ahronoth’s website actually launched the social justice protest in 2011. On that Thursday when Daphne Leef pitched a tent on Rothschild Boulevard, Ynet was one of the first to trumpet the event. This was not an order from on high, but came from the reporters and editors who personally identified with the protest.”

Moreover, says Tausig, Yedioth Ahronoth’s editors have it in for Netanyahu and the social-justice protests played right to that interest, further spurring Ynet’s incessant coverage of the protests.

“But then this healthy sentiment, which was really suited to the public interest and not skewed by private interests, suddenly encountered the interests of the higher-ups,” and things took a different turn, he says.

“In Netanyahu’s office and the offices of Israel Hayom, which are essentially the same office, they were trying to cope with the protests in all sorts of ways,” Tausig says. “Around two weeks after the protests began, Israel Hayom published a front page with a quote from [then Finance Minister] Yuval Steinitz saying, ‘It’s all the tycoons’ fault.’”

From then, the focus of the debate started to move from the responsibility of the government toward the role of the wealthy, Tausig says, “And at that point the people at Ynet understood that promoting the protest would undermine its source of their power, and the reporters’ desire to continue giving the protest prominent coverage was silenced from above.”

In the surveys you’ve done on the columns by Yedioth economic editor Sever Plocker you said some very harsh things, like that he denies a rise in the cost of living and “serves as a spokesman for businessmen.” What is his motivation? Is that the editorial line of Yedioth Ahronoth?

“When a commentator writes a column I don’t know who’s whispering in his ear,” Tausig says. “I only know that when I read Plocker, I identify a lot of inconsistencies that strangely enough correspond to interests that one tends to associate with Yedioth Ahronoth’s publisher. But it could also be that this is Plocker’s own opinion. The analysis positions of Yehuda Sharoni [formerly Maariv’s financial columnist] also amazingly corresponded, like a glove, to the opinion of Nochi Dankner [Maariv’s former owner]. But it could be that the salary he received from the paper had nothing to do with it.”

Man says that Sharoni himself has admitted that under Dankner there were limitations. “I, as a minority shareholder in Maariv [and who is suing its former owners], know that the picture in this instance isn’t complicated. During the Dankner era Maariv was biased, particularly its economic content. But there isn’t always an obvious direct interest. In the two large newspapers there are sections like culture and sports in which [the papers’ owners] don’t have clear-cut interests. These are the sections that provide a wrapping for the topics that are important to the publisher.”

With all your accumulated experience, can you predict how each media outlet will handle an issue that makes news?

Persico cautions that there’s a difference between an ideological stance and bias. “At Israel Hayom there is a bias toward the positions of the prime minister, Steinitz, and a very small number of other associates. At Yedioth Ahronoth it’s much more complicated. There the blacklists are much longer, and there are interests beyond politics, particularly in the fields of markets and business.”

According to Persico, the manner in which Maariv, now owned by Eli Azur, reported on the allegations raised in June that MK Meir Sheetrit had sexually harassed his housekeeper, was influenced by the fact that Sheetrit is a friend of Azur’s business partner David Weissman.

What slants do you see in the financial press?

“Globes gives more space to the position of the Histadrut than TheMarker does, but I think this has to do with the reporters, not necessarily the publishers,” says Persico.

“Globes' beat is more constrained than that of a paper not owned by a tycoon,” says Tausig. Globes is owned by businessman Eliezer Fishman.

As for Calcalist, which is published by the Yedioth Group, Persico says, “I think that today they are serving the public better than in the past. Their degree of freedom has broadened.” But in its coverage of Nohi Dankner’s business and legal troubles, he says, “they stood on the side and waited to see what would develop. Only after they understood that predictions that Dankner would survive weren’t going to be realized did they join the criticism.”

By contrast, in the battle by former Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer to force out Bank Hapoalim chairman Danny Dankner, Calcalist sided with Dankner.

“You have to remember that there are things we know now that we didn’t know then,” says Persico. “Fischer’s demand remains vague to many journalists. I think that one can attribute some of Calcalist’s coverage in that case to orders from above, but some stemmed from a desire to take a stand opposing that of TheMarker.”

And what about TheMarker?

“At TheMarker they sometimes took the struggle against overconcentration in the economy to the point of absurdity,” says Tausig. “If we’re talking about slanted coverage, the most overt bias in the press is the exaggerated campaigns. For example, there was an attempt during the social-justice demonstrations to position the entire protest as being about concentration.”

The print press is dying, and you now spend a lot of time dealing with websites. Why don’t you do critiques of television as well?

“It’s true that television has great impact, or even the greatest impact,” says Tausig. “But the scope of journalism on television is very small. Television’s very essence is anti-journalism.”

Man adds, “If we took all the investigative programs, like ‘Fact,’ ‘The Source,’ ‘The System,’ and even ‘Kolbotek,’ we wouldn’t find five investigations that deal with the heart of [Israel’s] power centers. Most of television is not investigative journalism.”

Hadar Cohen
Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Noni Mozes
Nir Keidar