Why would Bibi promise to shutter fawning paper run by pal Sheldon Adelson?

US billionaire Sheldon Adelson heard Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu promise to shut down all or part of his paper in a leaked audiotape, but he was probably happy about the plan [AFP]
Billionaire Sheldon Adelson heard Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu promise to shut down all or part of his paper in a leaked audiotape, but he was probably happy about the plan [AFP]
An audiotape of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, appearing to negotiate with a newspaper publisher for more favorable coverage, surfaced recently. On the tape, Netanyahu promises Arnon Mozez, the owner of Israeli paper Yedioth Ahronoth, that in exchange for favorable coverage, he could shutter parts or all of a rival paper called Israel Hayom.

Readers outside of Israel, then, might wonder how, in a democracy, Netanyahu could single out one newspaper for punishment and shut it down. The answer, however, is that Netanyahu wouldn’t have to use the force of government to accomplish this goal, and neither the police nor the courts would need to aid him. Instead, Netanyahu could probably have Israel Hayom shut down by asking its owner, his personal friend Sheldon Adelson.

Adelson founded Israel Hayom in 2007 as a free daily paper. This put it in direct competition with Yedioth Ahronoth, but not because Yedioth is also free. In fact, Adelson’s is the only free daily to cover national news in Israel. That’s not exactly fair competition, and after losing their position as Israel’s most read paper to Israel Hayom in 2010, Yedioth Ahronoth has undergone a series of lay-offs and other plans to keep costs down.

One might wonder, then, how Israel Hayom could stay profitable with even lower revenue than Yedioth Ahronoth had.

The quick answer: they didn’t. In fact, Israel Hayom lost Sheldon Adelson $190 million as of 2014, according to a new report from Haaretz.

Whether Israel Hayom is even intended to make money has been a subject of debate in Israel for a number of years. For instance, a report from 2014 said that its advertising prices were lower than those of its competitors, which seems especially odd for the most-read paper in the country. 

Adelson made his money as a casino tycoon, so he’s not exactly known for risky investments. Why has he sunk so much money into this failing business?

The answer, likely, is to help Netanyahu, as Israel Hayom’s coverage of the prime minister has been extremely flattering relative to other papers, such as Yedioth Ahronoth, earning it the nickname “Bibi-ton,” combining Netanhayu’s nickname with the Hebrew word for “newspaper.” Even members of Netanyahu’s own cabinet have referred disparagingly to the prime minister’s connection to the paper, with Naftali Bennet calling it “a mouthpiece of one man” and Avigdor Lieberman comparing it to Pravda, which was the official propaganda paper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Given comments like that, it is fair to say that Israel Hayom has brought Netanyahu some bad press along with lots of good headlines. In fact, the paper’s existence led to the Freedom House saying last year that Israel had only a “partially free” press. Starting in late 2014, Knesset members even debated whether to ban free circulars entirely, and while Adelson’s paper wasn’t named specifically in legislation, it was the law’s clear target.

All of this is important context for understanding not only how Netanyahu could shut down the country’s biggest paper but why he would want to, given how favorable its coverage of him has been. 

No matter what agreement Netanyahu could reach with Mozez, coverage of him in Yedioth Ahronoth would likely never be as positive as his current coverage from Israel Hayom, which seems to function less to make money than to proselytize Adelson’s right-wing agenda. However, everyone in Israel understands that Israel Hayom is unnaturally biased toward Netanyahu, so positive coverage from Yedioth Ahronoth would be more worthwhile, since it’s considered to be more independent.  As for Adelson, given how much money he loses on Israel Hayom, and the fact that loses have been rising in recent years, he’d probably be more than happy to cut his loses.

The deal, then, would have been a win for everyone involved. Netanyahu would get good coverage from his most popular critical; Arnon Mozez would eliminate a competitor that it was frankly impossible to compete with; and Adelson would save money while continuing to help a conservative in power.

The only loser would have been the Israeli people, who’d have been charged for their Likud propaganda instead of getting it for free, as they do now.

01/10/2017 4:59 PM by David Kinzer

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