Israel,  Media

Sheldon Adelson and Yisrael HaYom

The NPR program On the Media featured an interview with Jerusalem-based journalist Matthew Kalman about the free Israeli newspaper Yisrael HaYom (Israel Today), the most widely-circulated paper in the country. (Try not to cringe too much at host Brooke Gladstone’s pronunciation.)

The newspaper is owned and funded by the multi-billionaire American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson– who was the largest financial backer of Newt Gingrich‘s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination and has vowed to spend up to $100 million to help Mitt Romney defeat Barack Obama in November.

Adelson is a strong supporter of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party– which, not coincidentally, Yisrael HaYom also appears to back without much pretense of objectivity. It seems to be the Israeli print equivalent of Fox News.

Kalman argues that as a highly-subsidized free publication, Yisrael HaYom has a great advantage over other Israeli newsapers, which are bleeding circulation and cutting staff– and suggests this works to the advantage of Netanyahu over his political rivals.

Kalman recently wrote for The New York Daily News:

The iconic Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv is close to bankruptcy — and is likely to soon become an online-only publication except on weekends.

Another paper, Yedioth Ahronoth, which used to command about 60% of the Israeli market, recently laid off dozens of its staff.

Haaretz, the left-leaning intellectual broadsheet, announced 70 layoffs this month.

“Yisrael Hayom has finished Ma’ariv, and it is now finishing Ha’aretz,” a senior Yedioth Ahronoth executive told the Israeli financial daily Globes. “The fact that a billionaire has come here and pours money on to the streets, destroying newspapers like Ma’ariv and Ha’aretz is an issue that has not received sufficient discussion. Adelson has simply brought ruin to the Israeli newspaper market, and the Israeli politicians who benefit from its flattering coverage have allowed this unprecedented phenomenon to occur.”

Sensing the danger in 2009, politicians of all stripes — encouraged by Yedioth and Ma’ariv — united in a failed bid to disqualify foreigners from owning a controlling stake in an Israeli newspaper.

“I don’t know what his motives are, but he’s touching Israeli democracy’s holy of holies — he’s molding the face of Israeli society,” said Daniel Ben-Simon, a Labor Party legislator. “Personally, I feel badly that a man who made most of his money in casinos or by means of casinos, who doesn’t know a word of Hebrew and doesn’t live here, should hold such a key.”

The bill was also supported by Miri Regev, a leading member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, who said it was essential “to preserve pluralistic discourse in the media and in the public.”

I’d be interested in getting the views of our Israeli readers.