It was 2010. Many journalists and editors at the Yedioth Ahronoth group struggled to understand what was happening around them – why the defense minister at the time, Ehud Barak, was suffering belligerent headlines every day in the newspaper and its Ynet website. They figured that as always, someone behind the scenes was giving the order to attack a politician, and all parts of the group were carrying it out. Only this time they didn’t understand what Barak had done wrong.
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Already in 2009 Barak had become persona non grata at Yedioth Ahronoth and Ynet. The man who had linked up with Benjamin Netanyahu, a prime minister the Yedioth staff despised, was attacked from all directions. Even a gossip item in rival Maariv that Barak flew first-class was covered the following week by Yedioth. But what had happened to suddenly send the flames higher?
“We discovered that Barak had made a small decision at the time – to let the newspaper Israel Hayom be distributed at army bases,” a senior journalist in the group told TheMarker about the rival tabloid, which is free. “Once we discovered that, we understood everything.”
In retrospect, this suspected reason for the attack on Barak was nothing out of the ordinary. For decades, Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Noni Mozes controlled public opinion using the newspaper and later also Ynet. This power helped him influence politicians, regulators, businesspeople and bank executives. Members of the club received glowing coverage, while enemies took fire or were ignored altogether.
Everyone knew it and maintained a warm relationship with Mozes – including Ariel Sharon and his sons, and other politicians like Haim Ramon, Ehud Olmert, Avigdor Lieberman and Tzipi Livni.
With Netanyahu it didn’t work. Already in 1996 the two sides found themselves in a world war that’s still escalating. Netanyahu may be trying to label Yedioth “leftist” in order to charm the public, but it has nothing to do with a political position; Yedioth was never left-wing and never loathed Netanyahu. The paper has supported right-wingers more extreme than Netanyahu like Naftali Bennett and especially Lieberman when they were in opposition to Netanyahu and threatened to depose him.
Still, Mozes’ power has waned, Sheldon Adelson’s Israel Hayom hasn’t disappeared despite some people’s expectations, and the events at Yedioth have been revealed in TheMarker and the Seventh Eye and Mako websites. This has stoked a wider public debate on the Yedioth group.
In recent weeks another crack has formed at Yedioth: the leaving of Ynet editor Eran Tiefenbrunn in March followed by the journalist’s comments on Facebook. This debate revived the discussion on events at Israel’s largest website.
Moving to Netanyahu’s side
Tiefenbrunn, who worked for the group for 20 years and was close to Mozes, ostensibly left over a power struggle with Yedioth Ahronoth’s editor-in-chief, Ron Yaron. But then came a surprising twist. Tiefenbrunn, who had led Ynet’s attacks on Netanyahu, began to express himself on Facebook. And this time he backed Netanyahu’s right-wing views.
On the storm over Culture Minister Miri Regev’s promo for the singer Eyal Golan, Tiefenbrunn wrote that “it encapsulates the entire story: Why Likud is in power and why the left won’t return to the government in the near future, and where Israeli society is going.”
He also wrote that “the Israeli media is largely a herd, and that’s sad. There are too few interesting voices on the right, and there's one voice on the left that’s heavy-handed and violent. To speak with one voice is fascism. Shutting mouths ultimately harms those who shut other people’s mouths.”
Tiefenbrunn repeated again and again that these had always been his views. But behind the scenes a relationship between Tiefenbrunn and Netanyahu developed.
The connection began when Tiefenbrunn was still the Ynet editor during the last election in March 2015; the connection was brokered by a Netanyahu family confidant, Nir Hefetz. Tiefenbrunn and Netanyahu discussed the Yedioth group’s coverage of the prime minister. They later met other times, and Tiefenbrunn was offered the job to head Israel’s hasbara – public diplomacy – efforts, or a senior role at Israel Hayom.
In the end, Tiefenbrunn was appointed to a senior position at the RGE group, which controls Channel 10. The public relations executive and lobbyist Rami Sadan, who is close to Netanyahu, has since been appointed head of Channel 10 News.
Items censored, refuseniks fired
In any case, Tiefenbrunn’s shift to the right and his link to Netanyahu – Mozes’ great enemy – awakened sleeping bears. Journalists who worked with him couldn’t understand how the guy who once used his Ynet staff as a death squad against Netanyahu was now praising him.
Guy Ronen, once news chief at Ynet and now a digital employee at Haaretz, recounted in a Facebook post: “There isn’t enough room to describe how many times we tried to balance the picture – we, a group of journalists, at least some of us not exactly Netanyahu groupies, against him – Noni’s chief executor.”
As Ronen put it, “We thought we were going at him too hard, at [wife] Sara even harder, that we were really out to get them, above and especially below the belt So now he’s crossed the road, opposite the ‘baboons of the left.’ Who’s right – the Eran of Noni or of Bibi? And which of them is more authentic? Eran isn’t the story. He’s just an allegory, at a time when Bibi continues to trample everywhere and gallop into the sunset.”
Ronen wrote what many others who worked at Ynet are now willing to discuss.
Ronen wrote: “So Eran was at the top, receiving phone calls or acting on his own initiative. Sometimes he bothered to explain, but usually he just instructed and reined in those who objected (most of them didn’t survive his tenure). Once he admitted that the blacklist was so long he was having a hard time remembering it.”
A former senior correspondent at Ynet explained how the coverage would change based on changing interests.
“There were blacklists. Tiefenbrunn censored items. For example, before the journalists’ organization was formed he censored items that weren’t comfortable for the then-Histadrut chief, Ofer Eini,” the correspondent said, referring to the labor federation.
“But when the organization was formed, he battled against any mention of the Histadrut. He simply buried any article relating to labor relations. When [businessman] Jacky Ben-Zaken was in trouble, Tiefenbrunn applied pressure so there would be articles defending him.”
Flip-flop on social protest
The social protest of the summer of 2011 was a pivotal moment for Israeli society. For the first time, thousands of Israelis demonstrated on socioeconomic matters. The thousands became the hundreds of thousands. Ynet supported the protest.
It was the summer, so journalistically it was the silly season, and the website’s editors saw an opportunity for a good story. Big red headlines including words like “mass protest” excited people. Tiefenbrunn was also excited, but only a few months later, former journalists say, he acted to quiet the protest voices down.
Behind the scenes, the social protest was initially supported by the tycoons. Netanyahu was enacting a pro-competition policy that included the economic concentration bill and the reform of the cellular telephone industry. The easiest way to deal with such moves was to divert public opinion against Netanyahu.
It didn’t work. The public’s attention was increasingly drawn to criticism of the super rich and the economy’s failures. The attempt to divert the fire straight at Netanyahu instead of the tycoons and big business failed. That’s when the coverage died down.
“We could see how the social protest was being blown out of proportion when the fire was aimed at the prime minister – and how it was silenced once the protest moved from the government to the rich,” Ronen wrote.
Behind the scenes Mozes – who remains an enigmatic figure – pulled the strings. He has never been interviewed and doesn’t befriend senior employees at his organization. Yet he navigates the editorial line and decides which issues the newspaper should cover and which to ignore.
He’s the one who phones senior editors and tells them what to do. Even those who try to convince him otherwise eventually realize it’s better to obey the commander. Top columnists pass on the publisher’s message.
But Tiefenbrunn took it too far, say people at the website. “He was more Noni than Noni,” says a former employee. “He’d censor items that we’d later see in Yedioth.”
As another former employee puts it, “He was obviously the long arm of somebody else. Sometimes he’d end a conversation with something like ‘You know how things work here, you know who pays your salary.’ Sometimes he’d say ‘some people should be treated favorably. You understand why.’
“It was obvious that the special attention to Netanyahu wasn’t because he thought Netanyahu was bad, but policy. He always said that Adelson had ruined the Israeli media and forced us to adapt to the situation. It had nothing to do with left or right but with Noni’s issues with businesspeople or the Histadrut.”
According to another former employee, “It was clear that there was a blacklist, but that happens at every newspaper. There’s censorship everywhere. It reaches the stage when you stop asking questions.”
The group’s workers never knew what the rules were for getting on the alleged blacklist – or the white list for that matter.
“We knew that anyone who objected to the Israel Hayom bill was automatically on the blacklist,” says a former senior figure at Ynet, referring to the bill against allowing free newspapers. “Sometimes we got weird instructions concerning certain people and didn’t understand why Noni didn’t like them.”