Commentary Magazine


Topic: Israel Hayom

Friedman’s Adelson Derangement Syndrome and Democracy

Regular readers of Thomas Friedman’s column in the New York Times are aware of the fact that he doesn’t like the fact that a bipartisan pro-Israel coalition predominates in the U.S. Congress. Friedman is stuck in the conspiratorial world of the Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” thesis that falsely alleges that backing for the Jewish state is purchased by the cash of pro-Israel donors. And the most conspicuous of those donors is casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who seems to be occupying a rather large space in Friedman’s head these days. Last week after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, Friedman repeated the slurs against the pro-Israel community and Adelson that he first lobbed in 2011. That he doubled down on those charges in today’s column is of little interest. But what is worth noting is Friedman’s attack on Israel Hayom, the Israeli newspaper Adelson owns. According to the columnist, the paper is subverting Israeli democracy in the manner that Adelson and other donors are supposedly undermining American foreign policy. But what we really learn from this piece is that Friedman likes neither democracy nor freedom of the press.

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Regular readers of Thomas Friedman’s column in the New York Times are aware of the fact that he doesn’t like the fact that a bipartisan pro-Israel coalition predominates in the U.S. Congress. Friedman is stuck in the conspiratorial world of the Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” thesis that falsely alleges that backing for the Jewish state is purchased by the cash of pro-Israel donors. And the most conspicuous of those donors is casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who seems to be occupying a rather large space in Friedman’s head these days. Last week after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, Friedman repeated the slurs against the pro-Israel community and Adelson that he first lobbed in 2011. That he doubled down on those charges in today’s column is of little interest. But what is worth noting is Friedman’s attack on Israel Hayom, the Israeli newspaper Adelson owns. According to the columnist, the paper is subverting Israeli democracy in the manner that Adelson and other donors are supposedly undermining American foreign policy. But what we really learn from this piece is that Friedman likes neither democracy nor freedom of the press.

Friedman believes the ovations Netanyahu received from Congress in 2011 and last week were “bought and paid for by the Israel Lobby.” This is a profound misunderstanding of the way American democracy works. Members of Congress are pleased to accept contributions from pro-Israel donors, but those relationships help solidify the alliance. If that stand were not popular with the overwhelming majority of Americans, of whom more than 98 percent of are not Jewish, no amount of money could purchase it. That doesn’t please liberals like Friedman who would like Congress to be more like President Obama when it comes to a predilection for unreasonable pressure on Israel and support for détente with Iran. But the fault lies not so much with Adelson as with the basic sympathy of most Americans for Israel and their skepticism about the Palestinians and Islamist regimes like that in Iran.

But, as Friedman notes, stringent Israeli campaign-finance laws prevent Adelson or anyone like him from having much say in their elections. That those laws, like the attempts of American liberals to impose campaign-finance rules on our elections, are aimed at suppressing political speech rather than enhancing democracy is an argument for another day. But Adelson is not voiceless in Israel. He owns Israel Hayom, the largest circulation paper in a country that is addicted to newspapers.

Like many on the Israeli left, Friedman thinks there’s something wrong with this. He believes Israel Hayom isn’t kosher because it is a free circulation paper. But what he really hates about it is its pro-Netanyahu bias.

Friedman is right about Israel Hayom favoring the prime minister and also right when he says it is putting financial pressure on the mass circulation Yediot Aharonoth and the hard-left Haaretz (which dubs itself Israel’s New York Times, though all the two papers have in common is bias against the Jewish state). But the reason for this isn’t because it’s free.

It has often been said of Fox News that its success is due to the fact that its founders sought to fill an underserved niche of the news market. But that audience for that niche happened to consist of approximately half of the American public, making it the most watched cable news network. That a recent poll found it to be the most trusted television news source might strike its left-wing critics as absurd but it’s actually quite logical. Unlike its liberal mainstream media competitors, Fox doesn’t pretend to be objective. Therefore no one is deceived by either its generally outstanding straight news coverage or its successful opinion shows.

The same might be said of Israel Hayom. Though Friedman thinks it’s not fair that Yediot and Haaretz’s main competitor these days is pro-Netanyahu, the reason why so many people read it is because it provides a rare antidote to the uniformly anti-Netanyahu and pro-left wing party coverage in the rest of the Israeli media. Like Rupert Murdoch’s Fox, Adelson found an underserved market that made up a large percentage of the Israeli electorate. As Israel Hayom pointed out in a study they published, Yediot is every bit as biased against the prime minister as Adelson’s paper is on the other side. Of course, it goes without saying that if Friedman really disliked biased newspapers, especially with regard to Israel, he’d have to denounce his own New York Times in every column.

Just as Friedman would like to shut up and shut down pro-Israel activists like Adelson and marginalize AIPAC, so, too, would he and his left-wing Israeli friends like to do the same to Israel Hayom. They may well succeed too if Labor wins the upcoming election as it is pledged to support a bill that would seek to put Adelson’s paper out of business by burdening it with regulations. Israel’s lack of First Amendment protections for the press—something that Friedman would rightly fight to the death to protect here—may make this possible.

Adelson’s money couldn’t buy his friend Newt Gingrich the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 any more than it helped Mitt Romney to defeat Barack Obama in the general election. Nor will the bully pulpit of Israel Hayom ensure that Netanyahu wins reelection. Money helps, but it doesn’t guarantee any results in a democracy. But what foes of Israel like Friedman are really against isn’t so much money in politics as its use on behalf of causes or candidates they dislike. Which is to say, his problem, like that of many liberals, isn’t just a bad case of Adelson derangement syndrome, but with the democratic system in both countries.

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Newseum and Freedom House Smear Israel

Freedom House released its annual report on press freedom throughout the world today at an event sponsored by the Newseum in Washington. But along with the usual and appropriate condemnations of dictatorships and totalitarian states, the group decided to slam the one democracy in the Middle East as well as one of the few states in the region where press freedom actually exists: Israel.

Karin Karleklar, the organization’s project direct for monitoring press freedom, told an audience at the Newseum streamed live over the Internet this morning that Israel’s status was being downgraded from “free” to “partly free.” This is astonishing by itself, but the bizarre nature of this judgment is only made clear when one hears the reasons. Two of the reasons stated by Karleklar—the indictment of a journalist for possessing stolen classified materials and the problems that one television station has had in getting its license renewed—are hardly violations of freedom but do speak to issues that could be misinterpreted as tyrannical if they were discussing a country where there wasn’t a vibrant free press. But the third is so absurd as to call into question not merely the judgment but the impartiality of the entire report.

The report claims that the appearance on the scene of Israel Hayom, a relatively new Israeli newspaper, is a threat to press freedom because it is a success that has hurt the business prospects of its competitors. No, you didn’t misread that sentence. Freedom House is taking the position that the fact that Israel Hayom has claimed an impressive share of the hyper-competitive newspaper market is undermining the freedom of the press. The justification for this ridiculous claim is that Sheldon Adelson, the casino mogul and well-known contributor to Republican candidates, has “subsidized” the paper and that its editorial line favors Prime Minister Netanyahu. The paper, which is distributed free of charge, is now the most-read paper in Israel, a state of affairs which Freedom House not unreasonably connects to the demise of Maariv, a longtime mainstay of the Hebrew daily press. But the question readers of this report have to ask is what in the name of Joseph Pulitzer does the ability of Adelson’s paper to succeed where many other print papers are failing have to do with freedom of the press?

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Freedom House released its annual report on press freedom throughout the world today at an event sponsored by the Newseum in Washington. But along with the usual and appropriate condemnations of dictatorships and totalitarian states, the group decided to slam the one democracy in the Middle East as well as one of the few states in the region where press freedom actually exists: Israel.

Karin Karleklar, the organization’s project direct for monitoring press freedom, told an audience at the Newseum streamed live over the Internet this morning that Israel’s status was being downgraded from “free” to “partly free.” This is astonishing by itself, but the bizarre nature of this judgment is only made clear when one hears the reasons. Two of the reasons stated by Karleklar—the indictment of a journalist for possessing stolen classified materials and the problems that one television station has had in getting its license renewed—are hardly violations of freedom but do speak to issues that could be misinterpreted as tyrannical if they were discussing a country where there wasn’t a vibrant free press. But the third is so absurd as to call into question not merely the judgment but the impartiality of the entire report.

The report claims that the appearance on the scene of Israel Hayom, a relatively new Israeli newspaper, is a threat to press freedom because it is a success that has hurt the business prospects of its competitors. No, you didn’t misread that sentence. Freedom House is taking the position that the fact that Israel Hayom has claimed an impressive share of the hyper-competitive newspaper market is undermining the freedom of the press. The justification for this ridiculous claim is that Sheldon Adelson, the casino mogul and well-known contributor to Republican candidates, has “subsidized” the paper and that its editorial line favors Prime Minister Netanyahu. The paper, which is distributed free of charge, is now the most-read paper in Israel, a state of affairs which Freedom House not unreasonably connects to the demise of Maariv, a longtime mainstay of the Hebrew daily press. But the question readers of this report have to ask is what in the name of Joseph Pulitzer does the ability of Adelson’s paper to succeed where many other print papers are failing have to do with freedom of the press?

The implication of the report is that there is something sinister in the way Israel Hayom has conducted its business and that its backing of Netanyahu creates a quasi-official press organ. But that is specious reasoning that bears no relation to either truth or the realities of the publishing business.

Newspapers that are distributed free of charge are not exactly an innovation. Many local sheets are run in that manner all across the United States. Moreover, the Metro papers that are available in a number of major urban markets including New York are operated in the same fashion without anyone—other than their competitors or critics of their superficial content—crying foul.

If Israel Hayom has won the affection of a plurality of Israeli readers in a country where people are, as Freedom House notes, avid consumers of newspapers in a fashion that is no longer the case in places like the United States, it is not because of a supposedly unfair advantage but because readers prefer it. And that is something that relates directly to the false implications of Freedom House’s report that tries to allege that its appearance is an attempt to suppress opposition views.

It will come as little surprise to Americans who are aware of the way their own press tilts to the left that this is even more true in Israel. The Hebrew press in Israel has always had a strong left-wing tilt with a particular bias against Netanyahu’s Likud Party and its predecessors. If there was any criticism to be made of the press in Israel in the past it was the lack of ideological diversity, a situation that was admittedly troubling in the era before the first Likud government was elected in 1977, when government ownership of the few broadcast outlets as well as its interests in the press allowed little room for dissent from the Labor Party.

But, like the appearance of Fox News and talk radio in the United States, Israel Hayom has helped rectify a historical imbalance. Its rivals may decry its success, but the fact that it has thrived is testimony to Israeli freedom, not its absence. If more people prefer its columns to that of, say, Haaretz, which enjoys an undeserved reputation for excellence abroad, it is due to the fact that the latter regularly attacks not just Netanyahu but the entire idea of a Jewish state. Like Murdoch, Adelson’s paper has captured an underserved niche that happens to consist of approximately half of the Israeli public.

As for the other two complaints against Israel, they are easily dismissed.

One concerns the indictment of Haaretz’s Uri Blau for possession of state secrets. It may be unusual for governments in free countries to prosecute journalists who obtain classified documents in addition to the leakers. But it should be remembered that Israel remains a nation at war, besieged by real enemies who shoot rockets and launch terrorist attacks against it as well as threatening it with extinction. That military censorship of security-related stories still exists is regrettable but necessary. When one considers that the documents that he received dealt with actual operational details of the Israeli military rather than outdated items that didn’t deserve a classified rating, the seriousness of the crime can’t be underestimated.

As it happens, Blau got off rather lightly for trafficking in stolen top-secret documents when he received four months of community service for an offense with troubling implications for the country’s ability to defend itself. Suffice it to say that if any American journalist had behaved similarly during a war when our own survival was at stake, as in World War II, they would not have received such merciful treatment.

The third black mark against Israel concerned the licensing of Channel 10, an independent television channel that had broadcast highly critical reports about Netanyahu. Its license was held up leading to charges that the Likud had retaliated against Channel 10. But even the Freedom House report admits that the real problem with the network is that it was deeply in debt and couldn’t pay its bills. But rather than suppressing a hostile news outlet, the government actually stepped in and helped the channel repay its debts over an extended period allowing it to keep its license. Any idea that this represents the heavy hand of government repression is simply contradicted by the facts.

It boggles the mind how any of this could possibly be interpreted by an impartial evaluator as proof that Israel’s lively press is less free. As muddled as Freedom House’s views on the Blau and Channel 10 cases might be, their arguments are within the bounds of reasonable opinion. But for the group to treat the success of a news organization that has actually made the mainstream press in Israel more diverse as a blow to freedom is not reasonable. In fact, it betrays an ideological bias that undermines the credibility of their report.

The focus of any attempt to defend freedom of the press ought to be on the efforts of governments throughout the globe to repress dissent and to threaten and imprison journalists, not to defend the hegemony of liberals in democracies. Israel remains a bulwark of liberty in a region where despotism is the rule, including a nation like Egypt which recently replaced an authoritarian dictator with a theocratic tyranny. Freedom House ought to be ashamed of tarnishing its impressive brand in this manner. They need to retract the attack on Israel Hayom and restore the Jewish state’s rating to “free.”

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