The editors of The New York Times Op-Ed page have declared that facts in op-ed submissions “must be supported and validated.” They also claim to edit opinion columns that are “jumbled and disorderly” to clarify the arguments.
But they were either sound asleep on the job or decided to abandon these imperatives when they approved for publication the newspaper’s latest opinion piece slamming Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Here the case against Netanyahu – made by free-lance journalist Ruth Margalit, who describes herself as “an Israeli writer living in New York” – was comprised of unsubstantiated accusations, self-contradictory assertions, and a jumble of unrelated non-sequiturs and innuendo – all under the rubric “How Benjamin Netanyahu Is Crushing Israel’s Free Press.”
Margalit’s first argument seems to be that Israel Hayom, a free daily newspaper owned by Sheldon Adelson is “widely believed to promote the views of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.” This privately-funded publication, distributed free of charge, is similar to free tabloids handed out to commuters in major American cities. But Margalit cites its “outsize influence” as the reason Freedom House downgraded Israel’s freedom of press from “free” to “partly free.”
Of course, no one coerces the Israeli public to accept or read these free handouts and many journalists believe that freedom of the press ought to apply to all, including those espousing opinions they do not share. Nevertheless, the fact that a perceived pro-Netanyahu publication has garnered such a wide readership has aroused the ire of others, including Freedom House, the author of the column, and some of the journalists on Israel’s left whose readership is presumably not as large as Israel Hayom‘s.
Margalit then turns to allegations that Netanyahu “and his aides have brazenly leveraged his power to seek favorable coverage from outlets that he once routinely described as ‘radically biased.'” She suggests that this is an “effort to stifle freedom of the press” and “part of a broader attack by Mr. Netanyahu and his ministers on Israel’s democratic institutions…” How exactly? The writer merely alleges these things without any examples or data to support this.
Indeed, Margalit would have one believe the very idea of a government having a press office to contact the media and create a positive spin on its policies and decisions is somehow anathema to freedom of the press. (How ironic that such spleen about a government press office trying to gain favorable coverage is published in The New York Times, of all newspapers….)
Next, Margalit exposes a supposedly shocking revelation: Netanyahu replaced one ministry employee with another who “once served as [his] chief of staff,” as if hiring a new communications director proves some sort of nefarious conspiracy to control the press!
Then comes her innuendo and hearsay suggesting a dark conspiracy that is destroying Israel’s free press: The Communications Ministry, under Netanyahu ruled on decisions that were advantageous to Bezeq, Israel’s leading telecommunications provider. A “close associate” of Mr. Netanyahu’s owns “a controlling stake” in an internet news outlet, owned by Bezeq. An anonymous informant confides that these powerful institutions are “threatening” journalists. Examples? Proof?
Again, Margalit doesn’t bother with any evidence. Instead she doubles down, quoting another anonymous source to support her assertion that “an atmosphere of intimidation has begun to take hold in many, if not most, of the country’s newsrooms.”
At the same time, she accuses Netanyahu of opening up the communications industry to more competition. Doesn’t this actually refute the idea of consolidating his control over Israel’s media outlets?
Margalit’s incoherent explanation is that “on other issues, like natural gas, the prime minister has been loath to take a stand against monopolies” and so this is a “double standard.” Readers are forgiven if they lose her here. Has she abandoned her initial argument and is now taking up the cudgel against Netanyahu’s position on natural gas?
But she goes on to quote an Israeli journalist critical of Netanyahu to provide a specious non-sequitur – “sometimes competition is the refuge of the antidemocrat” – as if this cryptic and vague pronouncement, in and of itself, somehow proves that Netanyahu’s attempt to broaden the media market is actually an attempt to strangle it.
The writer further contradicts her own accusations that Netanyahu is taking over the media and forcing favorable coverage when she notes that Netanyahu’s supposed “repeated interventions in editorial content haven’t propped up the ideological right” and that investigative programs on Israeli television “continue to delve into government corruption and to air in prime-time slots.” And where is she finding Israeli journalists to publicly criticize Netanyahu if they are so “gripped by fear and paranoia” as she suggests?
Even with Ms. Margalit’s presentation of an apparently unvetted mish-mash of nonsensical, unsubstantiated and contradictory allegations against the Israeli Prime Minister, nothing in her column can support the headline that Netanyahu is “crushing Israel’s free press.” In fact, her conclusion is quite to the contrary.
New York Times editors insist that an op-ed contributor “never gets to choose the headline.” It is The Times’ own staff who create and approve the headline. This begs the question of whether editors came up with a headline, then deliberately overlooked the illogic, contradictions and overall incoherence of the column in order to publish another anti-Netanyahu piece supporting their own attempts to smear the Israeli leader.