Opinion |

Readers of Israeli Press Should Know: This Isn’t Reality

The scandal involving Netanyahu and Yedioth publisher Noni Mozes tells Israelis everything they need to know about their country’s 'vibrant' news media.

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Handing out newspapers in Tel Aviv.
Handing out newspapers in Tel Aviv. Credit: Moti Kimche
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

Israel owes a debt of gratitude to Ari Harow, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s former chief of staff. Because of his recordings, the country has learned the naked truth about its mass journalism.

Now every Israeli newspaper reader knows how the paper he’s holding came into being. What it’s been stuffed with, and why. That behind much of what he reads are hidden motives, some of them dark. That he has fallen victim on a daily basis to cynical manipulations and systematic brainwashing and diversionary tactics that are practically unrivaled in the free world.

Shimon Peres liked to quote David Ben-Gurion: If you want to know the quality of an encyclopedia, look up something you know and judge the whole encyclopedia by that entry. Israelis have now been exposed to an entry called “Bibi-Noni: Government-Press Relations in Israel.”

Will they extrapolate from that to other areas? When the publisher and executive editor promises a prime minister favorable treatment, and even offers to let him handpick the journalists who will write about him; when a prime minister vows to reduce the distribution of a rival paper; and when neither of them says a word about ideology or worldviews, but only about power and money – the whole encyclopedia is rotten. It didn’t start with Harow’s recordings, and the coverage of the prime minister is not the only area that’s tainted. The Israeli press is tainted. Well, there is still one real newspaper, with a relatively small circulation.

In his typically convoluted, evasive style, star writer Nahum Barnea tried to argue in Yedioth Ahronoth that “We’ve all been made suspects,” so as to obscure the guilt of his newspaper, to blur and muddy it, as President Ephraim Katzir tried to do after the Yom Kippur War (“We’re all to blame”). Barnea tried to shift the guilt onto Israel Hayom, as if there is any essential difference between that paper and his paper. Now that we’ve learned that the coverage of Benjamin Netanyahu was subject to negotiations over matters of power and money, it’s clear that this is the language these newspapers speak in every field.

Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon (Noni) Mozes and PM Benjamin NetanyahuCredit: Eran Wolkowski

Every reader of the Hebrew press should know: A large part of what is relayed to him in the newspaper is not reality. It’s a fiction that helps the newspaper sell more. The reader and his feelings are being toyed with. He is being led astray. They are trading in his anxieties and fanning his hatreds to sell more. Inciting and diverting. Being careful not to anger the reader too much, to make sure he keeps on buying.

These newspapers often resemble the worst editions of the army magazine Bamahaneh, with all the militarization, bereavement and fabricated heroes of the moment. They incite against Arabs and against the illegal immigrant “infiltrators,” spreading lies about them, demonizing and delegitimizing them, because that’s what the people want.

The gravity of this breach of trust cannot be overstated. It is shaping public opinion – not on the opinion pages, but with the flow of planted information. Much of the nationalism and racism that has been spreading in Israel can be traced to the country’s mass media. In the control rooms and television studios, they’ve trained Israelis to fear and hate.

This is where the message came from that Elor Azaria is a hero; that MK Basel Ghattas is a terrorist; and that the Arabs are to blame for all the fires. That the Palestinians don’t love their children, and that because of them there is no peace. That Israel waged a courageous war in Gaza, and its multitude of victims is to blame for their own deaths and for the destruction of their homes. That what’s okay for Israel is not okay for the Palestinians.

The press tells Israelis how just their country is and how moral their army is, how pitiable Israel is and how dangerous the Palestinians are. Because that’s what’s nice to read. The press hasn’t been coopted – it’s doing the coopting, in service of the narrative, to which all is subordinate. It doesn’t tell people what the occupation really looks like and how it’s related to terrorism. Generations of journalists have been convinced that their whole job is to quote the statements of spokespeople and publicists.

Israel has freedom of the press, and the press loathes it. It has some good journalists, and a rotten, corrupt press.

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