How Nochi Dankner Exposed Israeli Journalism's Ailments

Though unintended, the embattled businessman exposed a failure in the mainstream press to report on the economic issues affecting average readers.

Last week, a bunch of local politicians met in support of embattled IDB conglomerate owner Nochi Dankner.

“Our residents are people who know how to say thank you," said Shlomo Bohbot, chairman of the Union of Local Authorities. "We are here to honor Nochi Dankner.”

Bohbot and his colleagues are right – Israelis should say thanks to Dankner, though not for the reasons given by the mayors. Dankner is one of the people largely responsible for exposing a serious illness in Israeli journalism.

It has always been the case that some journalists chose their agendas according to their bosses’ commercial needs and not out of an impartial commitment to their readers. The desire among traditional journalists to bring about change in Israel's current situation, even if this change is for the public good, has never been huge.

Indeed, up until 2011, few dared to reveal the built-in conflicts of interest between business interests and the press. The sick soul of some of the newspapers was kept a secret and only came to light in a very few extreme cases, when things reached the courts.

However, in the summer of 2011, even before the wave of protest erupted, there was a turning point. In June of 2011, Dankner bought control of the mainstream daily Maariv. Glimmerings of his future troubles were already beginning to appear and he hoped to influence public opinion through the newspaper. Though he cloaked himself in the rhetoric of “safeguarding democracy,” his intentions were utterly transparent: Dankner had entered the world of journalism to advance his businesses and consolidate his control over them.

Where's the proof? The editor-in-chief he appointed, Nir Hefetz, is at his side today in court, where proceedings are underway that may ultimately wrest control of IDB away from him.

The moment Dankner entered the world of journalism, Maariv became a tool and Dankner became an economy-wide problem. Later that same summer, at his daughter’s wedding, Dankner hosted the top execs from the major daily Yedioth Aharonoth, including its publisher Noni Mozes. There, the opportunistic alliance between the two was revealed and can be seen today in the forgiving coverage of Dankner in the pages of Yedioth.

That summer the public received additional proof that the mainstream press isn't interested in being a watchdog on behalf of average Israelis. Following years of an inactive press that ignored the issues concerning its readers, namely the high cost of living, Israelis became fed up and launched the social justice protests without it.

Only a few newspapers analyzed the economic problems burdening Israelis before the issue blew up in the media's face. The two large dailies were motivated at the time by their attitudes toward the prime minister – one against him and the other supporting him. Television has never dictated the agenda on these issues; it only joins in when it has no choice. Many interests have been safeguarded by the press but not necessarily those of readers and viewers.

The recommendations formulated by the Knesset Research and Information Center merit careful examination by legislators, but these measures will not be implemented if Israeli citizens remain unaware.

Change will be neither easy nor rapid, since the major media organizations will resist with all their might. Readers are the only ones who can spur the change, using social media and the alternative press that isn't directly connected to the economic interests that have too much invested in the status quo.

The fate of these recommendations depends on the Knesset members’ courage to stand up to the strongest forces in the Israeli economy. But when the finance minister is a former journalist himself who rode to his current position on the shoulders of those targeted by the legislation, the chances of addressing the problem in a substantive way are rather small.

Pages for a newspaper are fed through a printing press.Credit: Bloomberg
Nochi Dankner.Credit: Michal Fattal

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