Analysis |

There's No Need for an Israeli Fox News. Its Spirit Is Already Here

Israel's media industry likes popular and cheap talk shows, and the public is the loser

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A shop worker tries to fix a TV as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen on screen addressing the U.S. Congress in a shop in the city of Netivot, March 3, 2015.Credit: AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov

After Ayala Panievsky published an op-ed in Haaretz Hebrew at the weekend called “Channel 20 is no Fox News, yet,” social media was alive with debate over whether Channel 20 – the closest television outlet Israel has to America’s Fox News – really has an impact on the public.

In recent years, Fox and its diet of Republican-friendly news and punditry has become the most-watched TV news station in the United States, with a bigger viewership than CNN and the liberal MSNBC. Its Israeli counterpart has never matched Fox in local ratings or for influence.

Channel 20 never mirrored Fox’s rise because in Israel, all TV and radio outlets are a kind of Fox News (some more so and some less so). And Israeli social media outdoes them all: it’s like Fox News on steroids.

That brings us to the real question about the Israeli media, which is how over the last several years it has come to be a tool for spreading anger, rage and polarization – and who profits from it being that way?

Some will say – if they are thinking in terms of the big media stars of the left and right – that the answer is politics: Media people have strong ideological bents that want to convince others on the rightness of their views. Amit Segal, Shimon Riklin, Erel Segal and Yinon Magal are all pro-Netanyahu and his political path; Amnon Abramovitz, Rina Mazliah and many others are on the other side.

However, this provides only a very partial answer. The real answer is that everyone is for or against Netanyahu for another more concrete reason, namely that it’s their business model. They, or more precisely those who employ them, do it for the money.

To understand why, you have to look back to the history of the U.S. media. Fox News is a relatively new phenomenon – it was launched in 1996 by the media tycoon Rupert Murdoch and led by Roger Ailes, as a competitor to CNN. But more than a decade before that, starting in 1978, the phenomenon of political talk radio had begun, mainly because the U.S. government dropped the “fairness doctrine” that required radio stations to present both sides of the political argument. Radio stations could decide to be right-wing or left-wing, so they did.

Within a decade, extreme conservatism became a major business model for the talk radio segment of U.S. radio. Taking an increasingly extreme right-wing view led to a rapid increase in listenership. It was clear there was both a big audience out there for conservative messages, delivered in anger and rage, and a host of advertisers ready to buy ad time on these shows.

Fox News was based on this model. Indeed, it recruited many radio presenters and pundits, and turned them into television stars. Some of them, such as Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, not only earned profits for Murdoch but became multimillionaires in their own right.

With its much smaller market, Israel is in the same place as the United States 20 years ago. Radio and TV broadcasters find that the best business model is to sit two or three people in a studio and tell them to be as provocative and verbally aggressive as possible.

This format has a lot of advantages.

First, to bring a bunch of people into a studio and let them shout at each other is the cheapest kind of programming to produce. You don’t have to pay the costs of sending journalists into the field; there’s no need to expend the time and money required for investigative reporting; and you don’t need to employ writers and directors. News is costly, but talk is cheap.

As a bonus, broadcasters don’t have to get involved in disputes with advertisers, as happens when journalists engage in investigative reporting or criticize powerful business interests. In politics, the rule is that everyone can say whatever they want, when they want.

Second, this kind of programming brings the highest ratings, because people like hearing their preconceived political views being confirmed on the air and being angered by those who take the opposing view. It’s the perfect broadcast model for the media industry: cheap to produce and capable of generating big ad revenues. It’s a win-win, both for the owners and talent that populate these shows.

The loser is the public. Instead of getting value-added journalism, it’s forced to consume distorted commentary that fuels anger, frustration, polarization and, ultimately, genuine hatred.

What do you get from watching these political talk shows? News? No, because these competitors aren’t bringing any. Expert analysis? Also no, because these programs deal in the kind of politics where everyone has their own agenda and interests.

So what do you get? Just opinions, propaganda and conspiracy theories.

Yossi Uzrad, who’s been involved in creating and marketing television content for over 30 years, knows the broadcast journalism business really well. This is what he wrote over the weekend: “I really don’t understand why Boaz Bismuth received a place of honor on N12 [television news]. If there’s a reason, what is it? A sloppy pundit, his positions are known in advance. He doesn’t add anything new. Another mouthpiece unable to say anything original. What does he contribute from a journalistic point of view? This whole thing is really not clear to me. Some pity for good journalists who are forced to swallow this.”

The place where this poison is the strongest, of course, is on social media. Here, too, the voices of anger and polarization are the stars. Amit Segal is not only a Channel 12 pundit but a Twitter star, with 535,000 followers. Yinon Magal, who appears on Channel 20 and Radio 103 FM, has 136,000 followers. The same has happened on the other side of the political divide: Ben Caspit, the Maariv pundit and 103 presenter, has 242,000 followers on Twitter.

All of them are passionate and fan rage and division. But it isn’t all about ideology. Their main motivation is something else: personal advancement, marketing their broadcast and print content – which is where they earn their money, lecturing opportunities and public recognition.

Social media is about titanic clashes and scorched earth, but it’s the way many young Israelis (and a few who aren’t so young) get their information these days. They don’t ever open a newspaper, listen to the radio or watch the TV news. They never engage in a real world of facts.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with self-promotion and journalists marketing their own content. But in the world of 21st-century gladiatorial combat, the media product that much of the public gets has little value added and an awful lot of rage.

Just like in the United States, on Israeli talk radio, which encompasses television, print and the internet, the left is no less guilty than the right. In America, Fox is on the right to CNN and MSNBC’s left. In Israel, the same combat exists. After all, you need at least two gladiators to have a fight.

If those who control the media wanted to, they could provide added value, offer news and investigations, present different perspectives and avoid content whose raison d’être is to create anger and polarization. But they’re a lot like the food companies who prefer to make cheaper processed foods: consumers eat and enjoy it, all while endangering their health.

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