The Media Today

Ruth Margalit on Netanyahu and the press

March 31, 2023
Art by Karen Caldicott

When Benjamin Netanyahu returned to office at the end of last year, he entered his sixth term as prime minister of Israel, leading the most far-right coalition in the history of the country. Within days, his government announced a plan to overhaul the judiciary, one that would dramatically diminish Israel’s separation of powers and hand greater authority off to him. (You can read more about the plan here.) Protests erupted; they have continued since. Many Israelis object to the fact that Netanyahu is angling to control the very judges who are presiding over a trial in which he has been charged with corruption.

Netanyahu was indicted in 2019 for breach of trust, bribery, and fraud—in cases directly related to the media. He was forced to relinquish some of his posts—Netanhayu had, for example, annexed the role of communications minister—though he held on, for the time being, as prime minister. The ground wouldn’t hold. “When the charges were announced,” Ruth Margalit wrote for CJR soon after, “it was the first time since Netanyahu’s ascent that his power fell into doubt.” By 2021, he was ousted as prime minister. Cue the comeback and the shedding of democratic norms.

Margalit traced Netanyahu’s predicament to an obsession with the press, which he developed over the course of his career. In 1999, when he experienced his first election loss, Margalit noted, “Netanyahu regarded his defeat as a travesty tied directly to negative coverage.” He told his associates, “I need my own media.” His friend Ronald Lauder, the American cosmetics tycoon, bought a majority stake in Israel’s Channel 10. That helped, but it wasn’t the personal megaphone he craved. In 2007, Sheldon Adelson—the American casino mogul and a longtime benefactor of Netanyahu’s—founded Israel Hayom, a free tabloid, which became Netanyahu’s voice in print. From then on, Netanyahu was able to avoid confrontations with the press and drain the resources of legitimate outlets, as they chased stories that Israel Hayom claimed “the mainstream” ignored. Israel Hayom became the most widely read daily in Israel, Margalit wrote, though it never gained the prestige of major papers. As for TV, Netanyahu “refused to sit for a television interview with any network at all, except for a little-known outlet called the Heritage Channel, or Channel 20,” which “saw itself as an Israeli version of Fox News” and received an unusual degree of government support.

The media meddling that ultimately landed Netanyahu in trouble involved two cases in particular: one concerning interference with Walla News, in Tel Aviv, and another alleging that Netanyahu offered the publisher of Yediot Ahronot a deal to curb the circulation of Israel Hayom, its main competitor, in return for favorable coverage and “help” in his election. (Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing.) The charges against him highlight a paradox of Israeli media, Margalit observed: “a story of government intervention, manipulation, and moneyed interests on the one hand, but also one of a vigorous, challenging, and confrontational press on the other—as one veteran journalist described it to me, a ‘biting’ press.”

Even now, Netanyahu’s government has not backed down from trying to control the press. Early this year, Boaz Bismuth—formerly the editor of Israel Hayom, now a lawmaker—introduced legislation that, per Haaretz, aimed “to block publication of an embarrassing recording.” What counts as an “embarrassing recording” could include, for instance, the sound of a politician calling Netanyahu a “lying son of a liar,” which happened last fall. (Recently, that phrase has appeared on stickers worn by protestors.) The law would also ban the use of recordings that have been released to the media during Netanyahu’s corruption trial. As Haaretz reported, “These include his conversations with Sara Netanyahu and senior officials in the Prime Minister’s Office, some of which have been broadcast on the investigative news program Hamakor.”

In March, Israeli authorities banned Voice of Palestine, a radio station; according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, after the order was issued, police officers showed up at the station and brought five Palestinian journalists in for questioning. And Shlomo Karhi, the new communications minister, announced his intention to close the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation and replace it with a new supervisory body. As Haaretz observed, “Netanyahu is trying to complete his mission to silence the media.”

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This past Sunday, Netanyahu went so far as to fire his defense minister, who had dared to remark that the protests against the judiciary plan were putting Israeli security in jeopardy; army reservists were refusing to show up—among them Barak Ravid, a correspondent for Walla News and Axios. The next day, Israel held a nationwide work stoppage. (Margalit wrote about the protests this week for The New Yorker.) Netanyahu has since announced that he will delay the overhaul—but there’s little indication, as ever, that he will relent. You can read Margalit’s piece here.

Some news from the home front:
We have rescheduled a forum to answer questions about the series by reporter Jeff Gerth on Russia and Trump, after an earlier planned discussion had to be rescheduled due to the moderator’s illness. It will now take place on April 4. Here are the full details:

A CJR Forum: The president and the press 

Earlier this year, CJR published a series by reporter Jeff Gerth critiquing the coverage of Russian attempts to intervene in the 2016 election and the subsequent Trump presidency. We knew at the time that the articles would elicit strong responses. But we also believe that CJR’s role is to air a range of views about the strengths, challenges, and failings of contemporary media. It is in that spirit that we are organizing this town hall. We will answer questions, respond to criticism, and explain our approach to these stories, applying to ourselves the same transparency and accountability that we seek from the institutions CJR covers. The content of the discussion will be guided entirely by the event’s outside, independent moderator. For more than 60 years, the Columbia Journalism Review has stood for clarity and integrity in news. We continue that tradition and invite you to participate in this discussion. —Jelani Cobb, dean, Columbia Journalism School


* Reporter Jeff Gerth

* CJR Editor and Publisher Kyle Pope

* Columbia Journalism School Dean Jelani Cobb

Moderated by Geeta Anand, dean, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism


Tuesday, April 4, 1 pm to 2:15 pm ET via livestream at this link.

RSVPs required. (If you registered for the February 27 event, you need to re-register.) Questions for the moderator can be submitted in advance via this link. (Questions submitted earlier don’t need to be resubmitted.)

Other notable stories:

ICYMI: When is a library not a library? When it’s online, apparently.

Betsy Morais is the managing editor of CJR.