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September 25, 2016 / 22 Elul, 5776
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Downfall of a Great Newspaper

Israel’s 'most respected newspaper' is a case study in the collapse of modern journalism.
haaretz collapsing

Like most of the people we spoke with, the editor does not identify with the political Right in Israel. Yet he felt a need to add the following: “Amira Hass’s article fits Aluf Benn and Amos Schocken like a glove. She wrote shocking things. Any editor with a minimum of discretion would have said that it wasn’t suitable for publication. But here? The more provocative you are—to the Left, of course—the better the editorial staff thinks it is.”

Another former employee at the news desk described an incident that reflects what he sees as a significant deterioration in journalistic norms. On January 30, 2012, Haaretz’s diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid published a post on his blog “Diplomania,” titled “The Red Telephone Between Ross and Obama,” which revealed that Dennis Ross—who has served as Middle East envoy for several U.S. presidents—continued to be involved in government even after leaving his official post at the White House for a private think-tank. As Ravid reported:

Apparently, soon after Ross left his position as president Obama’s advisor on Iran and the Middle East, the White House took the unusual step of installing a secure telephone line in Ross’ office at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies. This is what many in Israel know from their military service as a ‘red telephone,’ on which it is possible to speak about classified information without fear of eavesdropping.

The news was hugely exciting for the American media, which began to investigate immediately. But the report quickly proved false. Jeffrey Goldberg, whom Haaretz often describes as a close confidant of President Obama, published a stinging post at the Atlantic titled “State Department: Dennis Ross Does Not Have a Bat Phone,” in which he derided Ravid’s “breathless” conspiratorial report. “If the President, or his national security adviser, wanted to talk to Dennis Ross about sensitive information (as they would, and should), why wouldn’t they just invite him over?” Goldberg asked, noting that “the Washington Institute’s offices are about five blocks from the White House.”

But what happened next, the former Haaretz news desk staffer told us, was even more bizarre. Rather than apologize for the error, Haaretz ran a follow-up piece by Ravid, in which he assailed Dennis Ross and other critics, accusing them of being people who “love Israel but love Israelis somewhat less. Even if they don’t say it in public, they see Israelis as boorish Levantines. In their eyes, Israeli journalism is inferior to the Tablets of the Law that the journalistic establishment in the United States writes every day. Incidentally, in the circles surrounding Prime Minister Netanyahu there are those who hold the same view.”

But in publishing his attack, Ravid had inadvertently revealed that the decline in Haaretz’s journalistic standards has not been lost on many prominent people in Israel and the United States—in journalism and politics, and even among government. Worse still, instead of simply offering a sincere apology for his mistake and the embarrassment it caused his employers, Ravid doubled down, blaming the Americans for being arrogant enough to expose his failure.

“Haaretz is losing its standing and value,” the former news desk employee concluded. “When you look at the handling of the Ravid affair and the red telephone, you understand why.”

The employees who agreed to interview for this piece often disagreed to the precise causes for the decline of Haaretz’s journalistic standards. Yet they unanimously agreed that there has been a serious drop in quality at Haaretz over the past two years. The high number of layoffs and reductions at Haaretz are not a secret. Reportedly, Haaretz and its popular financial supplement, The Marker, will ultimately lay off 70-100 employees, or 20 percent of its workforce. In addition, employees who have not been laid off face deep salary cuts. Our sources spoke of a 15-35 percent cut in salaries, numbers that have yet to be confirmed and testify to the size of the financial sinkhole that has taken the floor out from under what was, until recently, Israel’s most respected paper. Published reports have also spoken of cuts of up to 20 percent in the budget for freelance writers, as well as cuts in the graphics and photography departments.

Haaretz has also cut or scaled back multiple departments of its print edition. In August 2012, the prestigious political supplement Hashavua (“The Week”) was discontinued, and employees were informed that its traditional content would now be folded into the weekend edition. Over the past year and a half, it was decided to merge the sports supplement into to the paper’s news section. Last month, the leisure and culture supplement Achbar Ha’ir (“The City Mouse”) was also discontinued. This followed the closure more than two years ago of the Schocken group’s largest local newspaper, Tel Aviv’s Ha’ir (“The City”).

Erez Tadmor

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