Opinion

Why Noni Met Bibi: Desperation, Not Greed

The meeting of the PM and the media baron was not one of equals: Netanyahu would have achieved real gains, Mozes would have just survived.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Noni Mozes.
Atef Safadi/AP and Moti Kimche

So Benjamin Netanyahu met with the press baron Arnon Mozes and haggled ferociously over a deal. Noni would promise favorable coverage of the prime minister by his media outlets and Bibi would back legislation that would effectively put his house organ, Israel Hayom, out of business.

The quid pro quo never happened, but there's a lot to be said about it  not least that it exposes the prime minister, after a long history of brushes with the law, to actual criminal charges.

On the other hand, there are a lot of things that the alleged Bibi-Noni deal is not about.

The story is not about a cabal of oligarchs and politicians. The story as reported so far is that two men, who are first and foremost enemies, tried and failed to reach a mutually beneficial cease-fire. The rich and the powerful aren’t a club that pulls the strings in a single coordinated action to enrich themselves – they have competing interests and rivalries.

The story isn't about the power of the press, either. The media has been anti-Netanyahu nearly wall to wall since the start of his political career three decades ago, but that hasn't stopped him from ascending the political ladder and serving 11 years as prime minister. The fact that Bibi tried to make a deal with Yedioth Ahronoth says more about his irrational fears than about the media’s influence.

If anything, to a degree, the Bibi-Noni deal is about freedom of the press.

Toothless guardians

In effect, Mozes and his Yedioth Ahronoth publishing group were being bludgeoned into supporting Netanyahu, by the prime minister and his billionaire ally Sheldon Adelson, who has badly hurt Yedioth’s business with his give-away newspaper, Israel Hayom.

Mozes wasn't anti-Bibi for the purest of motives, but as much as journalists hate hearing it, choosing a media outlet’s political line is a publisher’s prerogative. Freedom of the press belongs to whoever owns one.

But the most important thing that the affair exposes is the weakness of the press.

The idealistic among us like to think of the media as a guardian of democracy, critic of the rich and powerful, exposer of corruption and wrongdoing and setter of the public agenda. But the fact is, media is a business like any other. It needs eyeballs to generate income from advertising. The calculations behind the news agenda are less about what’s important and more about what creates buzz.

There can be an overlap between journalistic ideals and the media business, like attacking the rich and powerful, which is popular with readers. But a lot of things don’t fall into that sweet spot.

Here’s one small example: The most critical issue facing the Israeli economy is productivity, but you’ll almost never hear about it. The media won't go there because readers (and plenty of journalists) don’t really know what it is and don't care. Unlike tycoons, you can't attack productivity for outrageous behavior. Unlike inflation, unemployment or GDP, changes in productivity don’t happen frequently or dramatically.

Hungry for bread

What with fake news, the public’s low opinion of the media, the growing power of social media and the declining standards of reporting and writing, journalism itself is in a bad state. And the Israeli media business is even worse. Case in point: Ad spending was flat in 2016, and for newspapers it was down 12%, and for television down 2%.

This isn’t some kind of hiccup. Ad spending in Israel has been stagnant for the last decade even as the economy has enjoyed steady growth and consumers have been spending like mad. Newspaper advertising was just 708 million shekels last year, compared with 1.6 billion 10 years ago.

Digital advertising has been growing – it jumped 15% last year – but that's little comfort to the Israeli media because much of it goes overseas to Facebook, Google and Instagram. Ynet and Walla have to compete with 15-year-olds from Kiryat Ono with their own YouTube channels.

But Israeli newspapers have their own special problem above and beyond the problem of print going the way of the horseshoe. Adelson's free daily Israel Hayom has pulled the rug out from under Yedioth and the other print media, including Haaretz, by giving away newspapers and charging rock bottom ad rates.

An estimate in Haaretz this week puts the cost to Adelson at $190 million in red ink over the last decade. That’s chump change for him, but life and death for the media industry in a tiny market.

When Bibi met Noni, it was no meeting of equals. Had that happened, the swap would have been a victory for the prime minister. He would have gotten the coverage he wanted, and his crony Adelson would have been spared the cost of keeping the perpetual propaganda machine Israel Hayom afloat. Noni  would have escaped with his life, barely, and nothing more.