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News Analysis: Yediot Editor Latest Casualty of Israel’s Fierce Media Wars

As so often happens in life, the best writers in Hollywood could not have scripted a better drama.

Money, power, jealousy and politics – they were all juicy elements of the story that shook the Israeli media last week and whose aftershocks will be felt for a long time to come.

Moshe Vardi, the star editor of Yediot Achronot, Israel’s top-selling and richest newspaper, resigned last week over allegations that he was involved in a wiretapping scandal dating back to 1994 that involved top executives from both Yediot and its closest competitor, Ma’ariv.

It was the same week that the daily Davar Rishon was saved at the 11th hour from collapse when a group of private investors stepped forward to keep the presses rolling at the newspaper founded 70 years ago by the Histadrut labor federation.

The closure of Davar Rishon would have left the country with only three Hebrew dailies – Yediot, Ma’ariv and Ha’aretz.

The drama at Yediot was big – precisely because it could not have happened to a more successful newspaper enterprise or to a better journalist.

Yediot sells some 250,000 copies on weekdays; on weekends, that figure jumps to 450,000 copies, almost 10 percent of the country’s population.

Vardi, the man behind Yediot’s success, was described by Eitan Haber, a former colleague who went on to work in the Prime Minister’s Office of Yitzhak Rabin, as the best news editor in Israel – “perhaps one of the best in the world.”

But Vardi had to resign, not only because of the wiretapping scandal, but also because he had lost the confidence of the newspaper’s board of directors.

The wiretapping case grew out of a Watergate-type scandal, with executives from Israel’s two highest-circulation dailies allegedly bugging one another’s offices in an attempt to prevent the competition from beating them to any exclusive stories.

The cast had its roots in the growing rivalry among the Israeli media in general, a situation that began some 2 1/2 years ago, about the time that Israel got its first commercial television station.

At the time, Ma’ariv’s editors, in an effort to stop circulation losses to Yediot, changed the paper’s layout to make it look like Yediot’s twin.

They also recruited some star writers to join the Ma’ariv staff. The paper’s sales began to climb; circulation today is about 160,000.

For Yediot, this meant war.

For 25 years, Yediot had been Israel’s top-selling paper – and the paper’s management had no intention of losing that position.

It was in the context of this circulation war that the two papers’ top officials allegedly began to listen in on the goings-on of their rivals.

Ofer Nimrodi, the editor of Ma’ariv, who has also been indicted in the wiretapping case, suspended himself several weeks ago from his editing position at the paper.

But he countered that move by remaining chairman of the board and appointing himself as special adviser to Ma’ariv’s editorial staff.

Vardi would probably have opted for a similar solution, but he suddenly found himself at odds with the board of directors, which is in the midst of a power struggle. Some board members are trying to take over control from publisher Arnon Moses, son of the last publisher Noah Moses.

Vardi counted on the support of Arnon Moses, but other members of the family – longtime rivals of Vardi’s – seized the opportunity to settle accounts and demand his resignation.

Yediot has for years exercised a powerful influence over the state of the nation’s affairs.

It was Yediot, to cite one example, which launched the campaign that brought about the September 1993 resignation of Interior Minister Aryeh Deri of the Shas Party, after the High Court of Justice called on him to resign because of charges of financial misconduct brought against him.

But for all its influence, Yediot has experienced three major internal crises: the death of its publisher, Noah Moses, in a car accident; the resignation of its powerful editor, Dov Yudkovsky, who defect to rival Ma’ariv; and now the resignation of Vardi.

What is at issue now is not just a power struggle at Yediot. Most significant are the revolutionary changes affecting the entire Israeli media, where everyone appears to be in a tooth-and-nail fight with everyone else.

Hadashot, an attempt to establish a newspaper with a refreshing mixture of tabloid and serious journalism, collapsed four years ago because it could not get out of the red.

Davar Rishon, previously called Davar, almost collapsed last week because of a lack of funds. The newspaper was taken over by its employees last year and renamed after the Histadrut, itself confronting a financial crisis, no longer wanted to fund the newspaper’s losses.

But shortly before Davar Rishon was scheduled to shut its doors a group of private investors joined ranks with the Histadrut to provide a much-needed infusion of funds.

Israel’s second television channel, in which the commercial newspapers have stocks has hit the government-owned Channel One with serious competition that includes popular game shows and talk shows.

At Yediot, it is not yet known who will succeed Vardi, but it is certainly too early to eulogize the paper, which still has some of the best writers and editors in the country.

For better or worse, almost all segments of the Israeli media are becoming more aggressive. More than ever before, the name of the game is sell or be sold.

But good journalism – with solid ethical principles in both the newsroom and in the executive suites – may in the process fall by the wayside.

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