As different as the United States and Israel are, the events of the last several months have shown that the political and media cultures of the two nations are growing more and more alike. Nothing demonstrates that better than the current campaign to silence Israeli television’s Channel 14.
A free and politically diverse press is essential to democracy. Thomas Jefferson famously wrote that if given the choice between, “a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
That’s a view that Jefferson eventually rejected once he became the target of blistering criticism and abuse from newspapers that supported his political opponents. Yet he was right to understand that without the free flow of information, democracy becomes a sham. Many of us now get our news on the Internet, as well as from broadcast and cable outlets, as newspaper readership continues to show a steep decline, especially among those under 40. But genuine democracy requires a competition of ideas, views and interpretations of events today just as much as it did in the 18th century. And where such a competition doesn’t exist, it must be created.
Filling an underserved niche
The late great commentator Charles Krauthammer memorably explained the astonishing success of Fox News by pointing out that its founders had filled an underserved niche of the national television news audience. But the problem for its competitors, as well as for those who disliked its conservative leanings, was that this niche comprised “half of the American people.” Until the station’s founding in October 1996, those viewers had no alternative to the uniformly liberal news available on broadcast outlets and existing cable channels. Fox not only survived in a competitive environment but soon assumed a position of dominance, routinely attracting larger audiences than its major cable competitors—CNN and MSNBC—combined.
Channel 14 may be on a similar trajectory. That’s because it can offer the half of the Israeli people who voted for the parties that make up Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in the election he won last November an alternative to other television news outlets, which are uniformly on the political left.
Over the years, Fox’s liberal and left-wing detractors have seized various pretexts to repeatedly demand that it be shut down, but they’ve failed. The network’s ratings have only declined recently because of the perception on the part of some in its audience that it is moving more to the left.
The media and business environment in Israel, however, is very different. That’s why the efforts of politicians and now some major businesses to try to organize efforts to strangle Channel 14 should be taken seriously.
The protest movement that is doing everything it can to topple Netanyahu and halt moves to reform an out-of-control and unaccountable judiciary claims to be trying to save democracy. If that’s true, then the effort to shut down the one pro-Netanyahu outlet is something that ought to concern them. But as we’ve seen in the United States, where the Biden administration has sought illegally to try and collude with Big Tech and social media to silence dissent while claiming to be defending democracy against its political opponents, the Israeli left has consistently tried to play the same game.
It wasn’t surprising when in 2014, the parties of the left went all out to pass legislation that targeted the operations of Israel Hayom, the country’s most-read newspaper, and the only major print outlet favorable to Netanyahu and the right. Its purpose was to shut down a conservative alternative to the mainstream liberal media.
The push failed, though the paper eventually soured on Netanyahu. That was due to the understandable anger of its owner, Sheldon Adelson, the late American Jewish casino magnate, over Netanyahu’s willingness to consider supporting the bill if the Israeli left stopped trying to demonize him. That was a foolish though far from illegal conversation that is part of the transparently political effort to convict the prime minister on corruption charges.
A misleading definition of democracy
Still, the Israel Hayom bill is a reminder that the left’s definition of democracy is somewhat misleading. It opposes judicial reform that would actually make Israel more “democratic” because it would lessen the unconstrained power of liberal judges to thwart the legislative branch without reference to existing law or an actual constitution but merely because it believes the right to be “unreasonable.” So, too, the left seeks to defend democracy by seeking to shut down media outlets that provide an alternative to their views. For them, democracy is anything that keeps them in power. And anything that opposes them, even if it is the will of a democratically elected government, is considered anti-democratic.
The privately owned Channel 14 is an outlier in the Jewish state’s media landscape in that it’s the only one with programming that features a preponderance of hosts and guests who support Netanyahu and his government’s efforts to pass legislation reforming the judicial system. That’s why its existence is something that infuriates the anti-Bibi resistance, which can count on overwhelmingly favorable coverage almost everywhere else on the Israeli television spectrum as well as most of the print media. The fact that its ratings have soared in the last year has only added to their fury.
In 2022, then-Prime Minister Yair Lapid was determined to shut it down during the Knesset election campaign and demanded that the country’s Election Commission declare all of its programming to be a pro-Likud propaganda outlet. Had it been approved, the channel would have lost its license and been unable to run any advertising until after the Nov. 1 vote—something akin to a death sentence for the news outlet.
Channel 14 only came upon the scene in 2021, when it was renamed (it was previously called Channel 20) and rebranded. It began as a moreshet or heritage channel that had primarily educational content. Given the heavy-handed broadcast regulatory system in Israel—part of the legacy of the country’s Socialist past—it took a long struggle to get a license to do live nightly news programs. But once it started operations, it soon found an audience that has continued to grow to the point where it now outstrips some of its larger left-wing competitors—something that even the most vicious opponents of Netanyahu have been forced to concede. But that has only made Channel 14’s opponents even more eager to find a way to shut it down.
As with Fox, not everything seen or heard on Channel 14 is correct or even defensible. Those wanting to censor it judge its programs by a different standard than the one they would apply to liberal alternatives, which are just as, if not more likely to broadcast inflammatory comments and misinformation. But so long as the misinformation is defaming the political right, they are fine with that.
The problem, however, isn’t just that the left is being hypocritical. By falsely claiming that democracy requires that undemocratic institutions like the liberal Supreme Court assume a dominant role that can essentially deny the right of the majority to govern, the left undermines faith in democracy among the majority of voters who are being told that their votes don’t matter.
The same applies to the discussion about the role of the press. In the United States, Democrats claim that they are defending democracy but seek to silence opponents and, as seen in the last weeks before the 2020 election, used the untrammeled power of Big Tech oligarchs to shut down coverage of a story about corruption within the Biden family. In Israel, this now has taken the form of an effort to shut down or starve the one conservative outlet of advertising.
One doesn’t have to like Netanyahu or agree with him about judicial reform to understand that this spirit of intolerance towards non-liberal viewpoints is dangerous. A monolithic media where only left-wing voices can be heard is incompatible with freedom. That’s as true in Israel as it is in the United States. The attack on Channel 14 is doing more damage to democracy than anything Netanyahu is accused of doing.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.