Nahum Barnea on Adelson’s adventures in Israeli politics
Sheldon Adelson, an American billionaire casino tycoon, has long been trading money for political influence in the Israeli sphere. He’s the underwriter of the Shalem Center, for example, Israel’s neoconservative nexus. It numbers among its alumni many of the senior staffers at the current Prime Minister’s Office, including Ron Dermer a leader of the ongoing campaign to suppress Israeli human rights groups, and Israel’s Ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, who recently boycotted the J Street conference.
A few years ago, Adelson went one step further, and established a newspaper, Israel Hayom. Obviously not for profit, the new venture was quickly dubbed the “Bibiton”, Hebrew for “Netanyahu paper”. The November 25 edition of Firma, Globes’s monthly media magazine, ran its annual list of the hundred most influential players in the Israeli media arena. Netanyahu was awarded third place, with his good media performance (compared to his previous stint as Prime Minister) explained by
he [Netanyahu] apparently fell into a [wet] dream of a media reality in print journalism. A very nonaggressive line by Yedioth, back to a nationalist right-wing line by Maariv, and of course a whole newspaper, in a quarter million copies and for free, which automatically praises his political goods.
The magazine ranked Yediot’s Nahum Barnea, an Israel Prize laureate, in the 11th place and interviewed him for the cover. When questioned on Israel Hayom and Adelson’s impact on Israeli democracy, Barnea’s answers were blunt
What do you think of Sheldon Adelson’s intentions for the media market and his possible influence on the Israeli public?
“I read everything I could about him and I also learned a lot about him from other people. The Adelson phenomenon is not healthy for Israeli society and Israeli democracy. There is a very interesting standard all over the world. Free newspapers succeeded in places where they built their business model on public transportation. On people picking up the newspaper on their way into the train or the bus, reading it and disposing of it. That is fine.
“In several cases free newspapers came out for different motives. I know one case in Washington and one in Israel. How do you judge that the motives were different? Because they offered to go to the subscriber’s house for free. There is no way to profit from that. In the US a right-wing billionaire [Philip Anshutz, RD] wanted to gain influence in Washington. He thought the Washington Post was too left-wing and he bought a free local newspaper and used it to start a free newspaper that was distributed free to households in the area. Here, the casino magnate Adelson also started a newspaper that offers to be sent to the subscriber’s house to anyone who is interested. The motive is political. It is the biggest election gift ever given in Israel. And completely legal. That newspaper is in its contents so devoted, loyal, vested in personal interests for Netanyahu.”
As a free newspaper how much can it influence public opinion?
“Influence is not the only index, there are other things. What bothers me is that in the choice between free or paying money for a newspaper, a lot of people choose free. In the end it could push all print journalism to opt for free. We don’t have an Adelson to support us and in order to survive we will invest even less in reporters and in investigations than we do today. He depletes the rest of the media by his very existence and educates people to expect the newspaper to be free like the Internet. So that this gift becomes a “Meada’s gift.” When you talk about the money-power nexus, this is money and power. His goal is to make a political investment. He purchased influence.”
Do you follow the newspaper? Examine its style? It seems dry and doesn’t have too much of an agenda except Netanyahu.
“It could be. I don’t follow it every day. Its writing standards are very low because they took people who aren’t good writers. I don’t think it is an exceptionally poor newspaper but I will give you an example. Netanyahu had a very bad US trip and meeting with Obama. If I’m not mistaken, Israel Today’s headline said something about Netanyahu, in his modesty, not exposing the success he had there. I am sure even Netanyahu laughed when he saw that headline.
“Israel Today is in a sense a parody of the party newspapers of yore. I could see the pros and cons of the public press of those days. It was a mouthpiece, not a newspaper. But a mouthpiece of who? Of what? Of a person. By the way, Netanyahu does not give instructions to Israel Today, they understand by themselves. In that sense there is perfect harmony. I don’t understand Netanyahu sometimes, but they do (smiles).”