Israel's newsstands are looking noticeably less crowded these days, as a crisis in the Israeli press threatens several of the country's oldest publications. Media experts in Israel say that market competition and a tendency to buy political influence through media ownership have crippled Israel's once-thriving newspaper market.
And many want to put the blame on one man: Sheldon Adelson, the U.S. casino mogul who launched a free newspaper in Israel in 2007 and has close ties with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The effects of Adelson's free paper are being felt acutely by Maariv, one of the country's oldest newspapers.
Earlier this month, dozens of striking journalists gathered outside the newspaper's Tel Aviv offices. They chanted slogans against Netanyahu, claiming that he is destroying Israel's free press.
"Maariv is fighting for its life, like many other newspapers around the world," says Matan Drori, the newspaper's foreign editor. "But there are some special circumstances in this country."
The Adelson Factor
In a matter of weeks, Maariv could be shut down or auctioned off to the highest bidder. It's not the only newspaper in Israel facing financial woes, but it may be the first to capitulate to them. Drori believes Adelson is at the root of the problems in Israel's news industry.
Adelson's newspaper, Israel Hayom — or Israel Today — is handed out free of charge along bus routes and metro lines. It is also placed in front of many buildings and homes across Israel. In five years, it has taken over nearly 40 percent of the market. Drori says it's a fierce competitor.
"It is a quality newspaper that does match with our content. In addition to that, he lowered the advertisement prices, which basically crashed the market," Drori explains. "So Maariv and Haaretz, which is also a very prominent newspaper in Israel, are suffering severely along with other media outlets."
Earlier this month, Israel's only broadsheet left-wing daily, Haaretz, announced it would not publish a newspaper for the first time in three decades. Maariv is currently being run by a court-appointed trustee who has been ordered to keep the paper afloat for several weeks until a decision is made on its future.
Didi Remez, a left-wing activist, says that in addition to flooding the market with a free, competitive alternative, Israel Hayom has managed to change the political landscape of the press in Israel.
"The big difference is the concept of objective reporting," Remez says. "Newspapers have agendas and those agendas are very clear in the news pages."
Regarded As Netanyahu's Paper
In the U.S., Adelson's support for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and other Republican politicians is well-known. Earlier this year, he vowed to spend $100 million to help defeat President Obama. In Israel, Adelson is a well-known advocate and supporter of Netanyahu.
"Newspaper in Hebrew is iton and Netanyahu's nickname is Bibi. So for a while now, Israel Hayom has been called Bibi Iton," Remez says.
Remez points to several examples of what he describes as the close relationship between Israel Hayom and Netanyahu's office.
According to a report in Haaretz, Dror Eydar, a senior columnist at Israel Hayom, receives an additional salary from the prime minister's office. And Netanyahu adviser Nathan 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.
A spokesperson for Israel Hayom refused to speak to NPR or answer questions about the paper's ties to Adelson and Netanyahu.
Earlier this month, Netanyahu announced that he was calling early elections, sending Israel — and its press — into a frenzy of polling data and predictions about the next Israeli government.
Perech Malka, a 43-year-old secretary from Tel Aviv, had just started her commute on a recent day when she picked up a copy of Israel Hayom to learn that Netanyahu is way ahead in the polls.
She says she knows it's Netanyahu's paper. And now that it's election season, she says, it will be the "complete Bibi edition."
NPR's Peter Kenyon contributed to this report.
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