Maariv's Predictable Surprise Ending

The paper's downfall is another crack in the truly disturbing disintegration of our democratic state institutions.

There is something surprising about Maariv's collapse. Any sensible person knows that it's been a "dead man walking" for many years. Nevertheless, when the end actually arrives … surprise and shock. Two thousand people will be sent home, some without compensation. Soon, the paper will stop running. And we thought it would be here forever.

Maartiv was the paper of our childhood, the paper our parents read. For many years it was one of the country's most popular papers and now it's going to disappear. It's so predicable yet incomprehensible. 

Over the holidays, the transcripts from the Agranat Commission, which investigated government failings leading up to the Yom Kippur War, were published. Nearly forty years have passed since that surprise. But even then, the writing was on the wall. The documents reveal dozens of warnings over many months. Despite it all, denial had the upper hand.

The same could be said of the change of government in 1977. The results were announced on national television to everybody's surprise, but they were in fact inevitable. The party that brought about failure, corruption and a war lost the elections. What a shock.

We understand that change must come, but still believe that whatever will be, will be. Powers greater than us force us to stick to the status quo. Maariv is a case in point.

The larger collapse here is that of print journalism, which has lost its foundations and model of operation. Of course, there are other papers in print, still alive and kicking, but their day will come. Print journalism will slowly disappear. But Maariv is going out with a bang and raises other issues worth considering.

Maariv was born alongside the establishment of the state and was perceived as an important Zionist enterprise. Its collapse, therefore, is a symbol of the collapse of democratic, secular Israel. Maariv – just like the state of Israel – is an institution that lost its way and its founding values. 

The details of all the business and professional mistakes that led Maariv to ruin aren’t so important here.  With different management and a different business plan, we could have had a different outcome.  But these are the little mistakes.

Maariv's real collapse was internal and ideological, the result of the changing face of Israeli society. Hardly anything is left of the vision of legendary founding editor Azriel Carlebach: not its mainstream appeal, nor its modesty, professionalism, ethics or target audience.

Journalism has changed and the serious party press that aspired to autonomy as the fourth pillar of democracy has given way to tabloid entertainment, sentiment, and propaganda in the service of the wealthy.

Maariv was created – and served – as a serious state paper, and was a central public platform for clarification of policy, social and political issues. But over the years it became a tabloid, chasing after readers, pandering to them and seeking their admiration. True, Yedioth Ahronoth took a similar path, but perhaps there, they recognized the ideological and stylistic changes of the state earlier on and chose to make more intentional business decisions. 

Things were more complicated with Maariv. There was more guilt in the ethical changes. The paper sank along with its secular, mainstream subscribers and their Mapai past. It became a sort of directionless center party, and just like the Democratic Party for Change, the Center Party, Shinui, and later Kadima. The public stopped believing in the press, stopped demanding it be the watchdog of democracy – and Maariv lost its role and its audience. 

Polls show that the public doesn't trust the media when it's in need. And when the owner and managing editor of Maariv are convicted of criminal activity and sent to jail, that doesn’t help matters.  It seemed impossible to recover from that point. And if there isn't any trust or serious discussion, there's no need for a serious newspaper. You might as well consume the popular tabloids or free papers.

Some of Maariv’s writers, those entertainers or gossipers, disrupted the moral compass of the paper as well. Journalists are humans too, and they knew well which interests were best served and which weren't. The brave attempts by some editors and writers to fight corruption and criticize the government quickly came to an end because of the need to attract funding from advertisers, different owners, and credit providers. Survival became the name of the game – replacing professionalism and ethics, just like in the rest of the country. 

Maariv isn’t the only newspaper, nor the only business, that has lost its conscience and its way. But there is a clear lesson to be learned from Maariv's collapse: When the sole purpose of a newspaper is survival, there is no hope. In order to subsist we need a clear, definable goal, an external reason for existence. We need meaning.

The media has an important role in a democratic society, a role that can't only be remembered when a sword is hovering overhead. Maariv lost its purpose long ago, maybe only slightly before other mainstream institutions in our country, and its collapse should be a warning to all. 

Dr. Yuval Karniel is a law and communications expert at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.