Turns out Sheldon Adelson, casino magnate and, as of late, Mitt Romney supporter, also owns Israel’s most popular daily newspaper, Israel HaYom. Freelance Jerusalem-based journalist Matthew Kalman says the free, aggressively pro-Netanyahu paper has quickly come to dominate the market while its competitors downsize and slash staff.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate who’s vowed to support Mitt Romney’s presidential run with as much as 100 million dollars, was at the Republican National Convention, where his wife was honored with a woman-themed pavilion. Adelson has also made news, in every sense, in the Middle East. Five years ago, using some small portion of his wealth, now estimated at about 25 billion dollars, he launched a newspaper in Israel called Israel HaYom, or Israel Today. The free paper, aggressively supportive of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is now the nation’s most popular daily, thriving, while its competitors downsize and slash jobs.
Jerusalem-based reporter Matthew Kalman wrote about Israel HaYom in the New York Daily News. Matt, welcome to the show.
MATTHEW KALMAN: Hello, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In your Daily News piece you quote a senior editor from Israel’s former leading paper, and he accuses Adelson of destroying the competition in the Israeli newspaper industry.
MATTHEW KALMAN: This is what he said. Israel Today is destroying Israeli journalism, not only at the professional level, with his embarrassing editorial conduct, but also at the economic level. So what he’s basically arguing is that by pouring money into a non-commercial operation, Adelson is simply destroying the existing business model for newspaper, and nobody else can compete.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Newspapers are a dying business, and what’s happening right now in Israel could arguably be natural attrition.
MATTHEW KALMAN: There’s no doubt at all that even before Adelson came along internet penetration into the market had already begun to cause a decline. But the, the issue is particularly sensitive here. It’s not very long, only about 30 years, since the Israeli media was completely government controlled. Since then, the press has been completely liberated from these kinds of political shackles.
So attempts to manipulate Israeli politics through the media by someone who not only doesn’t live in the country, he doesn’t even speak the language of the country, is something that Israelis find very distasteful.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There is something vaguely Murdochian about some of this. Rupert Murdoch has had an impact on American discourse through the Fox News Network. But there’s a difference between Murdoch, the head of News Corps, and how Adelson is running Israel Today.
MATTHEW KALMAN: I see a, a difference, certainly. Now, I was living in Britain when Murdoch made his large investments in his flagship newspaper then, and I very clearly recall Murdoch switching the support of his newspapers from the conservative government of John Major to the incoming Labor government of Tony Blair. And Murdoch is widely credited with helping to swing that vote that brought Tony Blair to power. Murdoch still had business interests in his mind when he was directing the editorial staff at his newspapers.
It’s impossible to imagine Adelson not supporting Benjamin Netanyahu, whatever he decides to do. And that, I think, is the difference.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the paper is devoted to the furtherance of Benjamin Netanyahu. Does it do so at the expense of the facts?
MATTHEW KALMAN: I would say that they reserve their most vicious editorial attacks for anyone who dares to disagree with or criticize Netanyahu and the government. I wouldn’t say that they do that at the expense of the truth, but the journalists who work there know that they have to tow a particular editorial line in anything that touches the government. There isn’t even a pretense of objectivity. And that makes them very, very different to any other paper in Israel. It’s known as the “Bibiton” which is Hebrew for sort of “Bibi” news and –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm, “Bibi” being Netanyahu’s nickname.
MATTHEW KALMAN: Exactly. And that’s how it’s perceived here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, Matthew, in the big scheme of things, people seek out the media that accords with their views. Over 50 percent of the country does support Netanyahu. How much of that can you really attribute to Adelson and his newspaper?
MATTHEW KALMAN: Well, let me quote Nachum Barnea, who’s an award-winning Israeli columnist. He described the paper which was launched just before the last election as “the biggest election gift ever given in Israel.” If you remember, Natanyahu was elected by a knife edge, so any slight swing in the vote there was extremely important.
The other thing about Israel is that the standard of living here is much, much lower than it is in the States, and so, an expenditure on a daily newspaper is much, much higher proportionally, since salaries are about a third of what they are in the States. If someone’s giving you a newspaper for nothing, instead of one that you have to pay for, then it’s gonna be very attractive to you. And once you start reading it, then I think there’s more than likely possibility that it’s going to start to inform your political views. I, I can’t prove that--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
MATTHEW KALMAN: --but it seems to me that in the context of Israeli politics and Israeli society, that really is a very definite possibility.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Matthew, thank you very much.
MATTHEW KALMAN: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Matthew Kalman is a freelance reporter based in Jerusalem.