Casino mogul Sheldon Adelson grabbed the spotlight in the US earlier this year for making multi-million dollar campaign contributions to Republican presidential candidates on the bet that their policies would better jibe with those of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu than with President Obama‘s.
In Israel, Mr. Adelson is better known as the force behind the five-year-old free newspaper, “Yisrael Hayom” (Israel Today), which is seen by some as the Israeli print equivalent of Fox News. Touting Israeli patriotism, it is among the most widely read newspapers in the country and has a reputation for its fiercely loyal coverage of Mr. Netanyahu – and now Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Adelson rejects accusations of bias, insisting in a previous interview that his paper is a “fair and balanced” alternative to other newspapers more critical of the government and that he is breaking rival newspaper Yediot Ahranot’s monopoly on the market. Many Israelis nonetheless see the paper as a political vehicle to support the prime minster, and now, American Republican politicians. And with other newspapers floundering financially while Adelson puts his substantial wealth behind Yisrael Hayom, some worry that he is squeezing other political ideologies out of the market.
“You can see completely biased coverage always emphasizing good news for the Republicans, or always hiding or eliminating bad news for the Republicans,” says Oren Persico, who writes a daily analysis of print news coverage for Israel’s media magazine “The Seventh Eye.” “It’s one-sided, so Israelis will stand behind Romney.”
An opinion poll conducted by Hebrew University and released yesterday showed Mr. Romney with an eight percentage point advantage over Mr. Obama among Israelis – 34 percent to 26 percent, with 20 percent undecided. Another opinion poll from earlier this month suggested that the gap was more than two to one.
While it is impossible to discern the exact role Yisrael Hayom plays in shaping those opinions, its critical take on Obama and its upbeat coverage of the Republican campaign stand out from the rest of Israeli media coverage of US politics.
For example, the day after the Romney campaign was rocked by a video of the candidate making disparaging remarks about Americans who pay no income tax, Yisrael Hayom featured a front page opinion piece alleging the US is a declining empire and accusing Obama of “voluntarily lowering the profile” of the US and fueling unrest in Arab countries. The story about the video was on page 23.
A day later, the newspaper wrote in a subhead that “commentators think the affair will help” and quoted conservative columnist Ann Coulter saying that Romney comments were on the mark. Today the newspaper acknowledged that the video is having a negative impact on public opinion of Romney, but cited “optimism from surveys” indicating that the Republican candidate remains close in the polls, despite the uproar.
Yisrael Hayom is not the only paper that comes across as promoting a particular political agenda in Israel. News coverage in the liberal newspaper Haaretz, for example, is known to be sympathetic to the US president and heavily critical of Netanyahu. But critics of Yisrael Hayom say the fact that the paper has never reported a profit is further evidence that the goal of the paper is primarily political rather than a business enterprise.
Nahum Barnea, an Israel Prize laureate columnist who works for rival newspaper Yediot Ahronot, has denounced Yisrael Hayom as a paper with no business model that serves the interest of “one man” and is undermining Israeli democracy by making it impossible for for-profit newspapers to compete.
And as Yisrael Hayom has surged in readers, other Israeli papers that need to make money in order to stay afloat have struggled – yesterday, the cash-strapped daily newspaper Ma’ariv was sold to Shlomo Ben Zvi, the owner of another right wing newspaper, who announced plans to lay off most of the staff.
“For many years, the media was dominated by left-of-center views and families supporting the Labor party,” says Mitchell Barak, an Israeli pollster. But today the paper’s sympathetic coverage of US Republicans has a natural audience in Israel, he says.
“In general, Israelis have been disappointed with the promise and hope of Obama. That’s not specific to Yisrael Hayom.”