In Exclusive Interview, Former Ha’aretz Editor Traces Paper’s Decline

Those who regularly read CAMERA or our Hebrew site, Presspectiva, know that a large portion of our criticism of Israeli media is focused on the Israeli daily, Ha’aretz, published in both Hebrew and English. In the last eight years, CAMERA has detailed numerous inaccuracies and errors that appeared in Ha’aretz, and Presspectiva has likewise done so in Hebrew since its launch in the summer of 2010. Some were subsequently corrected following efforts by CAMERA/Presspectiva. Ha’aretz has reached a nadir in recent months, publishing two erroneous page-one headlines within five weeks, which editors were compelled to correct. In addition, the English edition continues to distort headlines and news items when translating from the original Hebrew version, providing less informed foreign readers with inaccurate coverage inconsistent with the facts reported in Hebrew.

Are these phenomena part of a deeper process taking place at Ha’aretz in recent years? Presspectiva posed this question to Hanoch Marmari, the editor of the Seventh Eye, a prestigious Hebrew journalism review, and the editor of Ha’aretz until eight years ago.

Sixteen years earlier, he was named deputy editor of Ha’aretz under Gershom Schocken, who for nearly 50 years was owner and editor-in-chief of the paper. Gershom received the paper as a wedding present from his father, Zalman Schocken, the paper’s founder. Marmari served as deputy editor for around two and a half years, until the death of editor/publisher Gershom Schocken, at which point he was named editor-in-chief, a position he held for nearly 14 additional years, until 2004. He left the paper following disagreements with the new publisher, Amos Schocken.

This biography underscores the fact that Marmari is the last Editor of Ha’aretz, with a capital E. And this is for three main reasons: First, on his watch, the paper became a fixture in the eyes of many readers. Second, since his departure, there has been a steady turnover of successors – three editors in eight years. Third, the paper has changed in many ways (beyond its decline) in the last eight years.

The Ha’aretz of Gershom Schocken and Chanoch Marmari and the Ha’aretz of the last eight years are not the same newspaper. Marmari, with his deep and broad perspective of the newspaper, sat down with Presspectiva to discuss in Hebrew the differences and their reasons, and to explain the main factors that contributed to what he sees as the paper’s weakening and the loss of its longstanding status among the Israeli public. He takes us back to the paper’s founding, which preceded the establishment of Israel, and up to the first years of the 21st century, which he retrospectively identifies as the paper’s height.

In the Public Square

His analysis of the paper’s downfall follows two tracks: the business track, which he identifies as the principal track, and which he says hampered the newspaper’s ability to continue to grow, to cultivate and to retain budding journalists who could find a life-long career in journalism and a home at the newspaper. “The Ze’ev Schiff types,” in his words [referring to a veteran accomplished Ha’aretz military reporter who has since passed away]. Second is the ideological track, to which he attributes less importance. The newspaper, which has always reflected a distinctively leftist worldview, has strayed from its traditional viewpoints, finding itself at the periphery of the fringe left, outside of the public square in which the Israeli public is conducting its debate.

Marmari, who speaks with great restraint, concurs that, with respect to the ideological track, the paper has strayed more than once beyond the outer limits of the conversation in which its readers engage, and as a result it has lost the prominent public status that it once enjoyed: “One of my main goals as the editor-in-chief was to keep the newspaper in the playing field, and not to drag it into the periphery. Today, Ha’aretz is not in the playing field. Rather it is morphed from a player to a spectator in the bleachers. When you are a distant observer you do not necessarily see the complicated dynamics of the game – and you definitely exert less influence.”

In recent years, according to Marmari, Ha’aretz lost a unique asset that it enjoyed for decades, since its founding, and that was its direct engagement with the heads of state: “A newspaper cannot survive when it is cut off from the upper echelon of government that is situated directly across from it and that it covers. The newspaper was always on the left, but nevertheless it was always engaged in dialogue with the prime ministers, even if at times the dialogue was extremely critical. The just does not exist anymore.”

When Marmari was editor, the newspaper always strived to stay within in the public debate, even as it clearly identified with the left. In recent years, he concurs, this stance has also eroded, but he attributes this to the weakening of the paper’s main asset, namely, its quality. “There is a substantial difference between journalists who see their newspaper as a home for their entire professional career, versus those who park there for a limited period of time, and who are perpetually waiting for the pink slip. Especially given the character of Ha’aretz as a newspaper of record and depth, it is disturbing to see how the collective memory of its journalists has quickly eroded and its professional skills have diminished.”

Presspectiva: Is the reason for the loss of good journalists apolitical? In other words, why does the paper’s deterioration express itself in only one direction – to the left – as opposed to multiple directions?

Marmari: One of the most important things incumbent upon an editor-in-chief is to keep the newspaper in the correct directions and within these boundaries to allow a wide range of expression and a variety of views. This principal is not always kept.

Presspectiva: There is another problem at Ha’aretz in recent years: News headlines in the Hebrew edition are translated for the English edition with an extreme slant, sometimes even to the point that there is no connection between the two headlines. The extreme English translations are influential among many international policymakers. Do you also attribute this problem to the lack of good journalists?

Marmari: Maybe, but this is also a question of leadership.

Ha’aretz, a Thin Wrapping

With respect to the business track, he cites the decision to establish The Marker, a business paper, as a separate paper from Ha’aretz) as a major source of the paper’s weakening. (This was Amos Schocken’s decision which essentially led to Marmari’s stepping down.) Despite the fact that “it was a brilliant id
ea at the time on the part of a brilliant man, Guy Rolnick, The Marker became the main item, and Ha’aretz became its thin wrapping, hampering The Marker’s growth. Thus an entire additional editorial board was built, because in the course of time it became apparent that in practice parallel coverage of civil society emerged – in a different spirit from the old The Marker, that ‘it’s all money.’ Thus, the areas of civil society covered in the new paper include environment and infrastructure, health and education, culture and social services. All of these subjects are covered at length in The Marker, leading to a situation in which Ha’aretz operated two editorial boards. But it did not also double its subscribers, and it certainly did not double its income. Instead it added maybe an additional 10 percent.”

According to Marmari, he fretted about The Markers’ growing takeover of resources which were also intended to fund its parent paper. But, currently, when the situation is that “the newspaper is too large on the one hand and is lacking in resources on the other, there is no escaping the need to re-merge Ha’aretz with The Marker and to restore it to a size in which it can survive in the shrinking market.”

Ha’aretz editor Aluf Benn responds:

“The underlying assumption of both Presspectiva and Hanoch Marmari, that “Ha’aretz has declined in recent years,” is unfounded and appears to be a blatant attempt to harm the newspaper’s image.

“I will quote the editor-in-chief of Presspectiva, Yishai Goldflam: ‘No other Israeli media outlet comes close to the international influence that Ha’aretz enjoys. It is not for nothing that Ha’aretz is the most quoted Israeli newspaper in the world.’

Ha’aretz today has reached a peak circulation in print and online with its English and Hebrew Web sites. Ha’aretz’s financial troubles stem from the decline in advertising income, a problem that plagues the entire media market.

“Marmari vehemently opposed the publication of The Marker, and stepped down from Ha’aretz as a result. It’s a pity to see that he continues to pursue this battle, despite the fact that reality disproves his claim. The Marker brought new communities of readers to Ha’aretz, has led to a revolution in business reporting, and leads important public campaigns to decrease the cost of cell phones and against market monopolies.

“Regarding the political position of Ha’aretz: It saddens me that my teacher and mentor, who taught me about the campaign for a free press in Israel, now serves those who seek to squelch free expression and a variety of opinions in the Israeli media, and who seek to transform journalism into the government’s talking points.

“The paper’s positions, as articulated in the editorials, have not changed in decades. Ha’aretz has not drifted to the left. Rather, Marmari has drifted to the right.

“It’s not clear to me what Marmari means by ‘dialogue with the prime ministers.’ I remember very well how, as editor-in-chief of Ha’aretz, Marmari did not exhibit any direct connections to the prime ministers or senior ministers. What a shame that he now prefers Yisrael Hayom-style journalism [a daily that is identified with Prime Minister Netanyahu.]

“Under Marmari’s leadership, as today, critics claimed that Ha’aretz skewed its reports because of his leftist and unpatriotic views. More than once, these views irked some of our readers, and even led to the cancellation of subscriptions, but Marmari rightly stood by them.

“When Benjamin Netanyahu was elected Prime Minister in 1996, Marmari convened his editorial staff at the convention hall, and said that the new government is conducting a culture war against him, and we must fight back. In the same period, several Op-Eds a day would appear on the opinion pages – editorials and signed opinion pieces – under the general theme, “Bibi, leave.” The variety of opinions was limited to differing arguments about why Netanyahu should be removed from government. It’s peculiar that years later Marmari attempts to depict himself as a liberal editor who allowed for multiple opinions.

“I invite Marmari to come to visit Ha’aretz, to glance at the yellowing volumes in the archives, and to remind himself of the newspaper that he edited and led for 13 years. Maybe it will remind him of the combative journalist he once was, and how he educated a generation of successors not to bow under pressure exerted by prime ministers, senior officials in the army, tycoons or foreign elements that seek to transform Ha’aretz into the Israeli version of Pravda or Tishreen.

“The coffee’s on us.”

For the Hebrew version of this article, visit Presspectiva.

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