Updated: Jul 17, 2020
For years we have been hearing that the Israeli press is biased to the left. The press has therefore consequently found itself targeted by the campaign against the foundations of our democracy, along with civil society, the judicial system, the gatekeepers and the public sector.
All these, claim some on the right, are part of the “deep state” of the old, leftist elites, in an effort to preserve their power in defiance of the voter and of public will.
Like other components of this conspiracy theory, the charge regarding the press is a form of fake news.
The press customarily distinguishes between views and news. It is, of course, difficult to make a dichotomous separation in practice, but the aspiration is part of journalistic professionalism.
The claim may have a point, in that many columnists and opinion writers in Israel lean left, but many analysts and journalists from the right have joined the veteran news groups, beyond those working with the “Yisrael Hayom” free newspaper which supports the Netanyahu government, and the purely right-wing Channel 20 television network.
Furthermore, contrary to conventional wisdom, opinion writers influence the public much less than the news does, and news coverage in Israel leans clearly to the right. Many of us correctly assume that opinion writers have a firm agenda and choose to read those whose viewpoints we find more comfortable. On the other hand, we assume that news reports are factual, unbiased by the writer’s position.
There are two main reasons why news reports in recent years have leaned rightward. First, most writers are influenced by their sources and depend on them. The sources are mostly officials, who possess abundant resources to tell their story and are very active in providing accessibility to the official line and in framing the news for writers. When writers base their stories on official sources, the information is depicted the way the government wants it to be (a Palestinian who injures a soldier will be presented as a terrorist, and a settler who injures a Palestinian will be depicted as a citizen defending himself). They influence the language – do they use the words occupation, the West Bank, or Judea and Samaria? In that, they also influence the branding and marketing of the narrative.
Thus, many journalists wind up treating resolutions by the UN and other international institutions as anti-Israeli and sometimes also antisemitic, even if these resolutions are led by countries friendly to Israel, and even if the position reflected in the decision matches that of many Israelis.
For instance, when the European Union decided, as part of its trade deal with Israel, to require consumers to be informed if a product was made over the Green Line, the Israeli press called the decision a boycott, even the resolution was neither about a boycott or about Israel. The decision sought, without pre-judgment, to allow EU consumers to decide for themselves whether or not to buy products from the settlements. Moreover, it did not involve Israel but rather disputed areas that Europe, and even Israeli law, deem to be beyond Israeli sovereignty.
A second reason why news reports lean rightward is that many media groups depend on decisions by regulators and politicians therefore e often forced to bend toward those whose decision will impact their livelihood and their ability to do their jobs. The result is that the public, which is not well-versed in these issues, accepts the right-skewed news as is. In contrast to the way the reader relates to opinion pieces, the reader accepts the news as facts.
What we can do is to carefully assess whether news presented to us as factual, actually is. Based on my close familiarity with foreign policy issues, I can attest that news coverage is often significantly slanted toward the position of the current Israeli government and its political agenda. Also, the ludicrousness of the claim that the press is leftist obliges us, at the very least, to cast doubt on the pervasive conspiracy theories about the alleged leftist leanings of the judicial authority, the public sector and others.
Nadav Tamir is a board member of Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies and served as diplomatic adviser to President Shimon Peres. He also served as Consul general to New England at the Israeli consulate in Boston.