Romney backer Sheldon Adelson drawing fire over plight of Israeli newspapers


McClatchy Newspapers

The economic crisis that’s hit the newspaper industry in the United States and elsewhere is threatening some of Israel’s most influential publications and could soon leave the country with virtually no liberal-leaning printed newspapers.

Haaretz, Israel’s most prominent left-wing daily, didn’t publish a print edition Thursday for the first time in three decades as layoffs threatened much of the staff. Maariv, one of the country’s largest newspapers, has announced that it might switch soon to Web-only distribution with a weekend print version; the alternative, the paper has said, is closing.

Unlike in the U.S., where most news outlets strive for objectivity, Israeli papers take political stands in their news pages.

Publishers say that competition with the Internet, as in the rest of the world, is one reason for their decline. But they say a far bigger influence has been the cost of competing with Israel Hayom, a free-distribution newspaper that American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson founded five years ago.

Adelson, whose personal fortune has been estimated at more than $20 billion, is a staunch supporter of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud bloc. He’s poured millions into the paper, whose often-fawning articles about Netanyahu have earned it the sobriquet “Bibi Press,” a reference to the prime minister’s nickname.

As an example of the close relationship between the paper and Netanyahu’s office, media analysts point to Netanyahu adviser Nathan Eshel. Eshel left his job in the prime minister’s office to work at Israel Hayom during its launch, only to rejoin Netanyahu’s staff last year.

“Are Israelis aware that they are reading a paper that is practically in Netanyahu’s pocket? Sure they are,” said Didi Remez, a left-wing Israeli political activist. “But I’m not sure they care when they make the decision to pick up the free paper.”

Adelson, 79, whose money comes from casinos in Nevada and Pennsylvania, as well as China and Singapore, also is a major donor to Mitt Romney’s presidential political campaign and reportedly gave $10 million over the summer to a pro-Romney political action committee, Restore Our Future.

Other newspapers, including the popular Yediot Ahronot, say they’ve suffered financial losses from competing with a free paper with “enormous pockets.”

“The sheer amount of money that Israel Hayom has behind it makes it difficult for others to compete,” Remez said.

Israel Hayom and Adelson’s office in Tel Aviv declined to comment. There was no response to an email sent to Adelson’s office in the United States.

Maariv may still find a way forward. Shlomo Ben-Zvi, an Israeli who publishes the right-leaning newspaper Makor Rishon, has put in a bid for the paper. Even if Maariv’s court-appointed trustees approve that sale, however, the paper will retain only 300 of its 2,000 employees.

Meanwhile, Israel’s Channel 10 news, one of the country’s most popular television-news stations, also has announced that it might close because of a lack of funding.

Channel 10 traces its problems to an expose it broadcast last year over luxurious trips taken by Netanyahu and paid for by wealthy donors. Netanyahu, who filed a million-dollar libel suit against Channel 10, added to its financial problems after a parliamentary committee controlled by the prime minister’s Likud Party voted not to postpone the station’s debt for a year.

The development has many Israeli journalists complaining that the nature of the country’s news media, famous over the decades for its contentiousness, is at risk.

“We are watching a death blow to the free press in Israel,” said Sharon Avishay, a former journalist with Maariv. “A free and vibrant press should be of the utmost importance in a country like Israel. Instead, politicians and businessmen have done everything in their power to shut us down.”

Popular Israeli columnist Ben Caspit wrote Friday in Maariv that outside forces were driving Israeli media outlets out of business.

"An enormous power, uncontrollable and unstoppable, arrives from outside and destroys the local forces one after another, like in a futuristic film. The local forces are us: Maariv, Haaretz, Channel 10, Globes, afterwards it’s Channel 2’s turn and in the end also Yediot Ahronot. No one of these has enough power to even tickle Sheldon Adelson,” he wrote.

“I think not so long from now we will all understand that we are in one boat. That they are taking over our country. That this is a war. . . . We need to unite and to explain to Bibi, so that he’ll understand, that he must not continue with this campaign to make democracy extinct."

Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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