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March 7, 2018 1:12 pm

What Is Missing From New York Times Coverage of Netanyahu ‘Scandals’?

avatar by Ira Stoll

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo: Reuters / Denis Balibouse.

For all the ink that the New York Times has spilled on the supposed scandals involving Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, important questions have been left unanswered.

A news article in the March 6 Times is a typical example. By Isabel Kershner, it appears under the print headline, “Legal Troubles Back Home Hound Netanyahu on Visit.”

The Times article mentions “a case alleging that Mr. Netanyahu provided favors to Israel’s largest telecommunications company, Bezeq, in exchange for fawning coverage.”

And it mentions a second case involving “back-room dealings with a local newspaper magnate in another bid for favorable press coverage.”

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Israel’s legal system will eventually sort this out, but as a former newspaper editor myself, I can tell you that if it were a crime for politicians to seek favorable press coverage, there’d be no room left over in our prisons for any genuine criminals.

The March 6 Times article provides hyperlinks to two other Times articles that provide additional context.

In the back-room dealings case, an earlier Times article acknowledged that, as the Times put it, “The meeting between Mr. Netanyahu and the publisher of Yediot Aharonot, Arnon Mozes, took place in 2014, according to Channel 2, but the discussion does not appear to have materialized into action.” In other words, what the Times breathlessly calls “a corruption scandal that threatens to end [Netanyahyu’s] career” involves, in part, the politician’s unconsummated and unsuccessful request for better press coverage?

In the Bezeq case, the March 6 Times article hyperlinked an earlier one reporting that “Bezek owns Walla, the Israeli news site that has provided lopsidedly flattering coverage of the Netanyahus for months or years.” Never mind that the Times spells Bezeq with a “q” or a “k” inconsistently from one sentence to another even in the same article. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to the Times news reporters and editors that maybe Netanyahu deserved positive coverage because he actually has done a good job. As the Times opinion columnist Bret Stephens put it in a February 24 piece, “Bibi has been, for Israelis, a pretty good prime minister.” What’s the difference between what Walla writes about Netanyahu and what the Times’ own Bret Stephens writes?

If there is some Israeli law that makes it illegal for a publication to write positive articles about a Likud Party prime minister, or even to consider doing so but not actually go through with it, the Times doesn’t tell readers about it.

Maybe the argument is that in these cases, the coverage was affected in part by actions, promised or actually carried out, by the politician. But, again, news organizations adjust coverage based on the actions, or promises, of politicians all the time, whether it is the politician giving a news organization an exclusive interview, or pursuing or pledging to pursue policies the news organization favors, or even providing tax breaks for a newspaper’s headquarters or cleaning up the neighborhood nearby.

Maybe I am missing something. But the Times coverage would be better if it directly addressed some of these questions, greeting the police investigation of Netanyahu with some skepticism rather than with hype, and explaining more clearly and carefully whether, and how, Netanyahu’s dealing with the press differs from normal, everyday back-and-forth between politicians and the press. Otherwise people might start to suspect the Times itself of having entered into some corrupt favors-for-favorable coverage deal with the Israeli police.

More of Ira Stoll’s media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.

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