Israel's Media Watchdog Is Snoring

The collapse of Maariv should lead all journalists to ask themselves if the owners of their papers are in it for the journalism or merely to promote their businesses and friends.

Journalists are great at pointing out what everyone else should repent for. The truth is we journalists should spend the entire year repenting for our shoddy content, which is never thorough or gripping enough. We do try though.

This Yom Kippur, not a few Israeli newspapers should have been asking for forgiveness for concealing the hidden interests of certain large media groups from the public.

Maariv, for example, did not stumble into trouble in recent months or even in the last year. Maariv, a publicly listed company that publishes financial statements every quarter, has been finished for some five or seven years now.

In the early 2000s, before Internet was a real factor in the advertising market, Maariv was already losing money. Come 2007, before Israel Hayom and Yedioth Ahronoth began flooding the market with free newspapers, Maariv ran an operating loss of almost NIS 100 million.

All serious economic analyses of Maariv in recent years concluded that it was finished, a business with zero or negative value. Maariv's reporters can read; they were privy to the information and saw how the company was run from the inside. They knew the business was rotten.

Some knew. Others guessed that the willingness of parent company Israel Land Development Corporation, creditor Bank Hapoalim and the IDB group, which bought the controlling interest in Maariv from ILDC, had hidden reasons – not economic and certainly not journalistic ones – to inject hundreds of millions of shekels into the company. A sharp eye could have seen as much in Maariv over the years – and not just in the business section.

The willingness of publicly-listed corporate pyramids and banks to finance Maariv's losses using public money over the last decade demonstrates the collapse of corporate governance in Israel and the loss of integrity in the business and finance sectors.

The directors and managers who agreed to pour piles of money into Maariv were mostly passive. They didn't want, or were afraid, to ask hard questions. They thought of their narrow personal interests or the perks they'd get from the paper down the line, or from the owners of the big business groups and their cronies.

The collapse of Maariv isn't a story about Internet or technology. It's a story of bad management and corrupt ties between the press and the members of the Israeli economic concentration club. In the story of Maariv, more is hidden than known.

Is it a coincidence that the IDB group decided to buy Maariv after the government set up a commission to look at economic concentration in Israel and the communications minister began pushing reform in the cellular market?

 Is it a coincidence that the bank funding Maariv was the one that works most with IDB? This is all too late for Maariv’s employees, of course, a majority of whom face the sack even after the paper's sale to yet another party, Shlomo Ben-Zvi, publisher of the right-leaning daily Makor Rishon.

The rest of Israel’s journalists still have an opportunity to open their eyes, look around and ask themselves if their superiors – the senior editorial staff, the managers or the owners – are playing a completely different game of interests in which they, the journalists, are nothing but puppets.

Do the owners of their newspaper really see the paper as a journalistic vehicle, or do they see it as a means to promote their businesses and friends?

Until the collapse of Maariv, most journalists in Israel wanted to believe that this type of journalism, these types of business models, could go on forever. We would ignore them or serve their ulterior motives, and in exchange we would be able to do what we loved: journalism.

Now everybody got a stinging slap in the face. Will people wake up, or will each keep thinking – as some of Maariv’s reporters did until last week – that he will always be a member of the centralized cadre of tycoons, politicians and media moguls that ran the country undisturbed until a year ago?