Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

26 Iyar 5763 - May 28, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








High-Pressure Elections

by Arye Zissman

Unlike every other Israeli election over the last two decades not a single article on press coverage of the campaign appeared after the last election at the end of January. Material was certainly not lacking. Evidently the fast pace of events--particularly mobilization for the war in Iraq and then the war itself that soon followed--diverted attention away from the elections very quickly.

The collapse of the Left and the fragmentation of the Labor Party into little pieces were attention-grabbers that left very little interest in surveying the election campaign, particularly since the Likud victory proved so decisive. Had it been a tighter race maybe behind-the-scenes looks at media coverage of the campaign would have appeared in the press. In any case they did not appear and that is not because there was nothing to write.

Following Netanyahu's victory over Peres eight years ago and Barak's victory over Netanyahu four years ago, newspapers ran numerous articles on the central role played by the media.

When Netanyahu faced off against Peres the media backed Peres almost openly. After their debate, for instance, although Netanyahu clearly won, reporters deceived themselves (which they admitted after Election Day) by writing that the debate had ended in a draw. Some even had the gall to lie blatantly by determining Peres to be the winner.

In the debate between Barak and Netanyahu the media sided with Barak. Netanyahu took an above-board approach and lost support. His "they're-scared" speech drove media fence sitters over to Barak's side. Ehud Barak sensed the media's fondness for him. When he met with reporters, Barak would tell them that sometimes they should disregard their duty as reporters and act as citizens instead. The hint was perfectly clear. The media also involved itself in the race between Barak and Sharon, but this time evenly, divulging unpleasant facts about both sides, especially Barak's various apparently illegal campaign organizations (though legal proceedings on them are still in process).

After all past elections, newspapers came out with articles summarizing the campaign, including reporters' admissions and revelations. Yet this time such articles never saw the light of day. Has the media changed? Could it be that this time around candidates did not pressure reporters and editors? The report below paints a very different picture of abundant pressure.

The Agitated Editor

The only press source that did not hesitate to reveal the various pressures applied during the election campaign was HaAyin HaShvi'it, published by the Israeli Institute for Democracy and subscribed to by many Israeli journalists. For many of them the article by journalist Eran Libio in the recent edition undoubtedly held few surprises. Though no names were mentioned, they probably had no trouble identifying who was mentioned in the text of the article.

Under the headline, "A Dark Period," the journal revealed shocking stories about how various political figures conducted themselves during the past campaign and how they exerted their influence to torpedo unflattering articles. Although in some cases these politicians and their staffers were unsuccessful in blocking the reports, the pressure had a considerable effect on editors.

"Editor Moshe Vardi was very agitated throughout the elections campaign," said a reporter working under him on Yediot Achronot's news desk. Vardi would shout that he was sick and tired of constantly receiving calls from the Prime Minister's Office. He recalled, "At work we always had a feeling we shouldn't do too much, we shouldn't irritate the Likud too much, because we were locked in their sights. All of the pressure came from there and all of the problematic stories were about them."

He says his job became much more difficult because he and his colleagues still tried to place the unwanted material, writing somewhat vague stories to avoid angering the editor. "Our overall sense was that the fewer investigative reports the better."

This approach reached its peak when Ha'aretz published an investigative piece on Cyril Kern and his ties with Sharon and his sons. "Everyone at the paper laughed," recalls the Yediot reporter. "Everyone talked about how Vardi, the editor in the field, was happy it was not published by us."

He says none of the reporters received instructions from the editors not to work on certain stories, but based on the way the articles were written the conclusion was obvious. "If we saw that a story related to the Likud was not published or was cut and cut pitifully, and we also knew the editor of the newspaper had leanings regarding the story, it was easy to put two and two together and to reach the [obvious] conclusions."

The Steinitz Law

Libio opens his fascinating investigation with a clear and resolute conclusion. The majority of domestic journalists involved in covering the Knesset elections agreed on one matter: never had there been a campaign in which so much heavy pressure had been applied on editorial boards, journalists and editors.

Yet there has been a slight shift. "If during Binyamin Netanyahu's term as Prime Minister the attack on the media was openly declared, Ariel Sharon's [staff] was far more sophisticated," writes Libio. "Except for a few exceptions in which the Prime Minister's advisors openly attacked the media harshly, most of this campaign was run quietly and behind the scenes: by applying constant pressure, by issuing implied threats against reporters and editors and by trying to influence as much as possible both broadcasting contents and the manning of posts in public broadcasting."

Of particular concern is that in many cases the pressure bore fruit and had a direct effect on professional decisions in various news rooms. This outcome later had many journalists worried. Summing up the campaign, a high-ranking figure at one of the main media outlets told HaAyin HaShvi'it, "In my view this was a black period for Israeli journalism, a period darker than any I can recall."

Most of the action took place at the largest and most widely circulated newspaper in the country, Yediot Achronot. Its wide circulation, coupled with the fact that many of the investigative reports it runs deal with corruption among high- ranking politicians, made it a target for constant pressure.

Yediot did have cause for concern. Its critics were constantly reminding the paper of the Steinitz Law, which relates to abrogating monopolies and cartels in control of the media. The bill is slated to return to the dock of the Knesset Finance Committee in the future. One of its paragraphs requires any newspaper that commands a market share of more than 50 percent -- which Yediot does -- to split up.

If the bill passes Yediot Achronot will have no alternative other than to divide into two. According to HaAyin HaShvi'it, the staff of the Prime Minister's Office did not miss any opportunity to remind Yediot Achronot that various moves could influence the Likud's position vis-a-vis the bill.

Thus the Steinitz Law dangles over the head of the country's largest newspaper like a sword and played a part in its reporting during the election campaign. Steinitz himself is known as a very fair man (from Haifa) who would certainly be highly displeased to find out how the law bearing his name is being used to apply political pressure.

Some Specifics

The HaAyin HaShvi'it article discussed two occasions on which the Steinitz Law was mentioned to Yediot Achronot reporters. "The first time one of Ariel Sharon's advisors told the newspaper's reporter after the elections he would have to decide whether he wanted to work for `Yediot' or `Achronot,' an implicit reference to the possibility the newspaper would not remain in its present configuration and would be split into two as per the Steinitz Law. The use of the terms, `Yediot' and `Achronot,' was not coined by that advisor. This type of talk had been heard previously during Finance Committee discussions about the bill.

"The second time was when Director Lior Chorev, director of the Likud Publicity Bureau, explained to a reporter that an uneasy feeling prevailed in the party since they `smelled a problem' and they knew how to solve it. When the reporter inquired whether the intention was punishment by promoting Steinitz' bill Chorev responded by saying it was not a punishment, but he too, as a staunch opponent of the legislation, had come to the conclusion there is no escaping it.

"Later in the exchange mention was made of a conversation Sharon's strategic advisor, Ayal Arad, held with that same reporter in which the possibility was raised of the Likud transforming the bill into a government-sponsored bill, rather than an individually- sponsored bill as it had been until then, based on a sense that Yediot Achronot had made a decision to work toward Sharon's downfall."

After clearly suggesting Yediot Achronot submitted to the dictates of the Prime Minister's Office, the HaAyin HaShvi'it article suddenly hastens to point out that the vast majority of Yediot reporters and editors did not surrender to various efforts to apply political pressure. In fact alongside Ha'aretz, Yediot led the media in uncovering corruption scandals.

Yediot published two of the biggest exclusives that emerged during the election campaign: the contract between David Appel and Gilad Sharon in the Greek island affair and the "zman shechor" project, which documented a long list of problematic ties between individuals with large capital holdings, criminal figures and the political elite.

Any newspaper would have been proud to publish such exposes. But Yediot was not so pleased. Based on conversations between Libio and various Yediot staff members, high- ranking figures at the paper-- particularly Editor-in-Chief Moshe Vardi and Publisher Arnon who, as professional newsmen, should have been thrilled over these scoops--gave the impression the numerous investigative reports and exposes troubled them.

Stomping on the Brakes

Yediot Achronot workers described the leading editors' conduct as capitulating to pressure from various figures at the Prime Minister's Office, especially intimations that a reckoning would be made with the newspaper after the elections. "There was very heavy pressure on the heads of the editorial board and they acquiesced overwhelmingly," said one ranking employee.

Another worker preferred to moderate his remarks saying, "It cannot be said that they did not publish stories, but there were definitely many cases in which we had to jam on the brakes with stories that were published.

"The pressure came in two forms. At the upper level, direct talks were held between high-ranking staff members from the Prime Minister's Office, including Ariel Sharon himself and the editor, Vardi, and the publisher, Moses. The frequency of these talks was not set, but according to high-ranking figures at the paper, at critical junctures in the election campaign the talks were held very often.

"At the lower level, talks were held between reporters and the Prime Minister's strategic staff, particularly Ayal Arad and Lior Chorev. The two of them split the work, playing good- cop and bad-cop. Arad was suave, sophisticated and pensive while Chorev would shout, get excited and make harsh remarks. Nevertheless they conveyed a similar message: Let no man at Yediot forget that Ariel Sharon would be Prime Minister after the elections as well, otherwise he and his staff would know how to reward reporters who had written satisfactory reports before the elections and how to punish those who had written damaging stories.

"At a certain stage during the election campaign the editor issued a sweeping directive not to publish any stories related to the Likud in which the primary source is not identified by name. Some of the reporters tried to argue against the directive, but the assistant editor made clear the decision was unequivocal and not open to debate. The official reason given for the directive was that the lack of a [named] source detracts from the credibility of a story, but it should be noted that the directive applied only to reports dealing with the Likud.

"This argument is simply ridiculous. First of all, in an election campaign it's obvious and normal for stories to come in without the name behind the remarks, and what is important is whether the facts are true or not. And second, it's silly to say a story is not credible only if it applies to the Likud. Stories about Labor or Shinui are okay without a source and only stories about the Likud are not?"

It Was a Small Price to Pay

One incident stands out as the most memorable event in media coverage of the last election campaign: the press conference Sharon called where he attacked the media, accusing it of tendentiousness in covering the Cyril Kern Affair. This press conference was a turning point that brought to many people's attention Sharon's big victory over Mitzna. Apparently the public likes to see the media take a beating.

Yediot Achronot workers told HaAyin HaShvi'it that immediately following that packed press conference they sensed the newspaper demanded they moderate the nature of their coverage demonstrably. This new moderation did not escape the eyes of the Prime Minister's advisors. A few days later one of the advisors boasted to a reporter, "We got the best of your paper."

The leading editors also tried to make their views more amenable to the Likud by emphasizing reports that put Sharon in a favorable light as if to balance the negative reports, thereby deflecting claims that Yediot's coverage was slanted against the Likud. The editorial board maintained that on several occasions articles by political writer Shimon Schiffer, who was in charge of covering the Prime Minister's Office, presented a very positive image.

Thus several reporters noted that an article about how Sharon planned to eliminate five government ministries after the elections--essentially a routine campaign pledge by Sharon-- received extraordinary prominence as part of efforts to improve relations with his office. "It was a small price to pay to get them to calm down a bit," says one Yediot worker, referring to the staff at the Prime Minister's Office. Schiffer denies pressure of any kind was applied to him by the Prime Minister's Office or the newspaper.

As a publication faithful to journalistic ethics HaAyin HaShvi'it gave the people quoted in the article an opportunity to comment. Ayal Arad acknowledged holding daily conversations with reporters since this was part of his job. He said Yediot Achronot and Ha'aretz had a disproportionately high enthusiasm over Likud affairs due to historical precedents and a lack of elementary professionalism. "Our task was to point out that these precedents lacked any basis in fact, but most of the press was uninterested in our explanations."

Arad also commented on articles in other newspapers, saying Ma'ariv tried very hard to be balanced by searching for stories on various parties, while the rest of the media focused primarily on the Likud. "I did not speak even once with any of the editors of Yediot Achronot, including Moshe Vardi, who is a personal friend of mine. I do not contact newspaper editors, and I am not aware of anyone from our staff who does so."

On the threat posed by the Steinitz Law, Arad said he vaguely recalls that once the topic came up during the course of a conversation. "I think the reporter asked about it, but I do not remember the precise context. I have never concealed my opinion that this is an important law that should be promoted. The claims of alleged threats we made are ludicrous: it's the press that threatens the politicians, not the other way around. My only threat is the ability to sue reporters for libel in the case of false reports. I do not threaten and in fact I cannot threaten."

Sympathy for Sharon, Lapid and Shas

Lior Chorev also issued a statement to HaAyin HaShvi'it regarding the accusations of political pressure lodged against him and against Sharon's office. He says claims of pressure on reporters is nonsense. "Our aim is to bring about balanced coverage, but in the age of pluralistic and competitive communications our ability to influence or punish reporters is very slight. While it's true that in the election campaign Yediot Achronot ran a line of judging and condemning public figures in advance and due to its immensity it raised the question of whether it has too much power, but I myself am not alarmed by this."

Chorev maintains he never said a word to anyone about the Steinitz Law. "Personally I do not support this law at all, so it would be very strange for me to say such a thing."

HaAyin HaShvi'it also found political pressure was exerted on Ma'ariv, but rather than threatening to advance the Steinitz Law (which is not a threat to it) Ma'ariv faced ideological threats. According to claims by the newspaper's staff members Ma'ariv showed sympathy for three contenders: Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Shinui and Shas.

A source at the newspaper's editorial board said some of Ma'ariv's more significant articles during the campaign were drawn from ideas the Prime Minister's advisors suggested to newspaper staffers. One such suggestion was to run a survey showing that under Peres' leadership the Labor Party would win 29 mandates. According to this source the idea came directly from Sharon's end and was intended to harm Mitzna. The newspaper pounced on the idea and conducted the survey despite the fact that everyone knew this was an entirely unrealistic scenario. Only Peres still believed (and continues to believe) he had the ability to overcome Sharon.

The goal of publishing the survey was both to further weaken Mitzna by portraying him as a failure and at the same time to boost Yosef Lapid. Later, sources at Yediot said they had also received proposals to perform a survey on Peres' chances of success, but the newspaper rejected the idea. Yediot also rejected a proposal to do an investigative report on Mitzna and the Haifa Foundation. Eventually such an investigation was published by Ma'ariv writer Kalman Liebskind and the article served as the newspaper's answer to the investigative reports published by the other two dailies.

Likud Voters and Ha'aretz

Ma'ariv claims it successfully withstood political pressure, particularly the Left's last-minute efforts to save Mitzna, which managed to make their way into the other papers. Ma'ariv sources said Mitzna's staff dealt with the paper much the same way Sharon's staff dealt with Yediot, namely threats not to pass on certain material, preferential treatment for reporters from Yediot and Ha'aretz and constant complaints alleging Ma'ariv was backing Sharon.

According to Ma'ariv sources, the decision to run the Peres survey was made in a professional manner based on the results of numerous private surveys sent to the editorial office via Mitzna's rival. In all of these surveys the other candidates' chances against Sharon are higher than Mitzna's. Peres' name was inserted into the surveys at the beginning of the election campaign, but only towards the end, when Left voters suddenly voiced a dramatic shift in opinion if Mitzna were replaced, did Ma'ariv decide to publish the survey results.

"The survey at Ma'ariv was not slanted for or against anyone," said Ma'ariv Editor Amnon Dankner. "I cannot and do not want to respond to anonymous claims that appear to be nonsense and are insulting to Ma'ariv workers who carried out their tasks faithfully. Claims about a survey dealing with Peres are wholly unfounded. Specifically, the idea of conducted a survey on Labor's chances under Peres was raised by Chemi Shalav independently, and to the best of my knowledge he is not among Ariel Sharon's advisory staff."

Dankner added that the pressure applied during the campaign was not particularly strenuous. "News desk veterans tell me [the pressure] was actually lighter than in previous election campaigns. This, I assume, was based on the fact that there was little suspense over the question of who would win in these elections."

Unlike Yediot and Ma'ariv the pressure applied to Ha'aretz was minimal. The Likud correctly assumed that the majority of Ha'aretz readers were not among its voters anyway. Their efforts focused on minimizing the damage caused by Ha'aretz articles rather than on the paper's staff.

Immediately following the report by Baruch Kara on millionaire Cyril Kern's loans, the Prime Minister's advisory staff convened a meeting to discuss effective ways to deal with the affair. Several possible plans of action were suggested, including a head-on attack against the police and the Prosecutor's Office, ignoring the matter, accusing Ha'aretz and its reporters of trying to depose the Prime Minister and placing a spin that would de-emphasize alleged acts of corruption under investigation, stressing instead efforts to locate the person who leaked information of their existence. Eventually, although the response included elements from all of these possibilities, a decision was reached to focus on attacking the paper, specifically reporter Baruch Kara, and demanding that the leak be investigated.

Indeed, following the exposure of the affair, Ayal Arad launched a severe attack against Ha'aretz and Kara, demanding that Attorney-General Eliakim Rubinstein conduct an investigation of the leak. Judging by Rubinstein's decisions and the election results, apparently the strategies adopted by the Likud were even more successful than anticipated.

Electoral Pressure

At Ha'aretz the investigation under advisement of reporter Baruch Kara was seen as an act of political pressure since the Attorney-General, who ordered the investigation, has a vested interest in appeasing the government in order to receive an appointment to the High Court.

Ha'aretz reporters told HaAyin HaShvi'it about the frequent conversations with the Prime Minister's advisors. Most of them describe the conversations, particularly with Ayal Arad, as harsh and extremely unpleasant, but are wary about calling them illegitimate. "He was always telling us to be careful with what we publish, warning us of libel suits and attacking us for wanting to bring down the Prime Minister," recounts one of the reporters. "But it should be taken into account that this was just a part of very regular dialogue with interested parties. This is considered something within the rules of the game."

Besides the three major dailies, pressure was also applied on the electronic media, especially the Broadcasting Authority. Journalists there are glad to expose these and other acts of pressure frequently, and they did so after the elections as well. They say Sharon's staff did not pressure them directly, but that Director-General Yosef Brall did face such pressure.

For example, regular programming was interrupted to air a live broadcast of a speech by the Prime Minister at a conference in Herzliya, to cover a ceremony to name Sharon an honorary citizen of the City of Ramat Gan and to cover an Israel Police affair attended by Sharon. The Broadcasting Authority also agreed to a request by the Prime Minister's Office to interview Sharon on the Arabic-language news, issued a sweeping injunction against interviewing politicians on Kol Yisrael before the elections and covered Robby Rivlin's visit to Channel One's sealed television studio.

High-ranking figures at Channel One said that two days before the elections the Director-General forbade running politics stories in the news magazine. On another occasion he was compelled to broadcast a story about Ariel Sharon and instructed not to play a Shas jingle against Yosef Lapid.

Channel Two also admits to political pressure during the election campaign, but the network maintains all such attempts were repelled by news company managing director, Shalom Kitel, well before they reached the reporters and editors. Channel Two reporters say pressure was exerted by both the staff of the Prime Minister's Office and MKs who were not pleased with the media coverage they received, but in most cases they heard about these attempts to influence the news only after the fact. Therefore such efforts had no impact on their work.

They also describe other types of pressure intended to moderate their coverage of corruption scandals. Still they acknowledge the extent of the pressure exerted was slight compared to pressure exerted on their colleagues at the daily papers.

And, of Course, the Chareidi Angle

This writer, who covered United Torah Jewry's information campaign leading up to the past elections, personally witnessed unusual forms of pressure on the media, but from a different direction. One incident took place following a press conference at Beit Sokolov intended to bring exposure to Chulia, a secular group that backed UTJ. Modi'in Illit City Council Head Rabbi Yaakov Guterman was responsible for organizing the team of activists and providing them with media exposure.

To bring them the exposure, Betzalel Kahn, serving as party spokesman during the elections, was asked to organize the press conference. His task was to invite the reporters to the event and indeed they arrived. During the press conference the reporters wrote down everything that was said, asked questions, taped and filmed and in general showed considerable interest. Yet the next day, even later that same day, not a word was heard on the subject.

The newspapers that did cover the event, which was an interesting story and made good copy according to all opinions, chose to devote just a few lines of news space. "I contacted one of the reporters and asked him why the event had marginalized so much," said Betzalel Kahn. "`Those were our editors' instructions,' came the reply."

Kahn did not give up and went to the editors themselves, but there too he was rebuffed. "It was clear to me this was a different type of pressure campaign, a display of disinterest in order to avoid playing to UTJ's publicity apparatus."

Yet the matter did not end at this point. Today, as the chareidi sector and its leaders set out to launch a fierce battle against government's decrees, again the mainstream media is showing no interest, choosing instead to cover the fight by the Histadrut, pensioners, the handicapped and the hapless, while knowingly ignoring the chareidim.

Once again leading figures from the chareidi press tried to pique the mainstream media's interest in the struggle, but returned empty-handed. "We received instructions from our editors not to emphasize your struggle," they were told.

Is this another instance of Bolshevik-style pressure from the Establishment? Were it not for all of the facts presented in detail above, one might have thought this to be merely a flight of the imagination, but after exposing the pressure campaign waged by Sharon's staff during the elections, who knows?


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