How ‘Israel Hayom’ became Trump’s mouthpiece in the Middle East

Donald Trump

By Refael Afriat

When Israel Hayom, now the most widely-read newspaper in Israel, was launched in 2007, it was promptly nicknamed the Bibiton (a portmanteau of Bibi, Benjamin Netanyahu’s nickname, and “iton,” the Hebrew word for newspaper). Over the ensuing 12 years, the editors developed several tools for promoting the prime minister: when Netanyahu wants to send a message, the newspaper’s staff is put to the task of communicating it for him; when Netanyahu wants to attack a political rival, the politician is attacked on the pages of the newspaper; and when Netanyahu is in trouble —  for example, when the news cycle is saturated with reports about investigations into allegations of his criminal corruption, or about a scandal involving his family — Israel Hayom knows how to minimize the embarrassment and channel the discourse in other, more comfortable, directions.

The casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who founded and finances the newspaper at a significant loss, is known in Israel as Netanyahu’s patron. In the United States, he has become one of the biggest donors to the Republican party, and to its representative in the White House — Donald Trump. During Trump’s campaign for the presidency, the Las Vegas Journal-Reviewowned by the Adelsons, was the first major newspaper to endorse him for president. Israel Hayom, however, deployed its journalist troops even before its American sister publication.

Israel Hayom covered Trump’s campaign with ingratiating interviews, fawning articles, and analysis that minimized the impact of negative reporting about him in foreign media outlets. They did this using almost the same tactics as those they employ to protect Netanyahu: when possible, ignore; when it’s not possible to ignore or minimize reports, give prominence to the politician’s denials and counter attacks, with the bare minimum of space allotted to explaining what he is denying.

The Seventh Eye has published several analyses of the media tactics employed by Israel Hayom. Recently it undertook a project to study this phenomenon, in partnership with the Open University.

The project is based on case studies, examining three major scandals that dogged Trump’s campaign and which were covered prominently in both American and Israeli media. We compared the coverage in Israel Hayom to that of two other major Israeli newspapers — Yedioth AhronothIsrael Hayom’s major competitor; and Haaretz, the country’s most acclaimed broadsheet. The results of the investigation are presented in this article.

ONE: The Trump-Russia dossier  

At the end of 2016, American media outlets reported extensively on a rumor about a private intelligence report called the Steele Dossier, which contained information about Russian intelligence having compromising material — kompromat — on Trump, which they could use to blackmail the future leader of the free world.

On Jan. 10, 2017, just 10 days before Trump’s inauguration date, BuzzFeed published the entire dossier. In the accompanying article, the editors acknowledged that they had been unable to confirm all its claims; they emphasized that it had been commissioned by Trump’s political rivals, that Trump denied the claims, and that it contained several factual errors. But the train had left the station. The media amplified the most embarrassing claims in the document, bestowing upon Trump a rather dubious inauguration gift.

The Israeli media reported on the dossier shortly after BuzzFeed published it. On Jan. 12, Yedioth Ahronoth made it the main story on the front page of its print edition, while Haaretz gave the story prominent coverage (although it reserved its front page headline for Case 2000, one of several police investigations into corruption allegations against Netanyahu). Israel Hayom, on the other hand, gave its front page headline to a quote from Rex Tillerson, then Trump’s secretary of state: “Israel — America’s most important ally in the Middle East.” The only reference to the Trump story was in the last item on the list of that day’s stories, and it was a report that Trump had denied the allegations: “The report that Russia collected dirt on me is a sick lie.”

This framing was duplicated in various articles published on inside pages. The report by Yoni Hersch, Israel Hayom’s correspondent in the United States, was headlined “A lie invented by sick people,” which was quoted from one of Trump’s tweets. The bulk of the article was devoted to Trump’s denials and his attacks on the media outlets that had published or reported on the dossier. But what exactly was in the dossier? Israel Hayom did not go into any details, limiting its reporting to vague references to contacts between Russian agents and Trump’s people, and “sexual encounters at the Moscow Ritz Carlton Hotel” — a description that was buried in the body of the article.

Yedioth Ahronoth and Haaretz, on the other hand, reported all the details. “Donald Trump, while in the company of prostitutes at the Moscow Ritz Carlton, has been recorded asking them to urinate on the bed that was once used by the Obamas,” summarized Yedioth’s editors. They illustrated the report with a photograph of the bed in question and headlined it: “In bed with Trump.”

Haaretz put Trump’s denial in the headline — but the claim that the president-elect had been recorded having sex with prostitutes was printed on the front page. In the daily cartoon drawn by Amos Biderman, Haaretz’s political caricaturist, we see Trump walking into a luxury hotel with his arms around three scantily-dressed young women. In the background are the iconic onion domes of Saint Basil’s Cathedral, indicating that the location is Moscow; behind them is Valdimir Putin, wearing a trench coat with the collar raised as though to hide his face.

Over the next few days Haaretz and Yedioth continued to report the story, providing readers with background and in-depth analysis on the political storm in the United States. Israel Hayom did no such thing. Instead, they devoted most of their weekend edition to a special feature about Donald Trump, to mark his inauguration. The content included a bleak description of Barack Obama’s presidency, and expressed the hope that Trump’s election heralded a bright new era, with a rehabilitation of both America’s international reputation and its relationship with Israel.

“Trump plans to bring America into a new era over the coming four years. He has no intention of following the rules of the old establishment,” predicted Israel Hayom’s editor, Boaz Bismuth. “This is what the people expect of him, and this is what they will get.” The magazine marked the event with the publication of an excerpt from one of Trump’s books. The headline read: “How I succeeded.” Yedioth Ahronoth, in contrast, noted in its weekend magazine that the Russians were “holding Trump in sensitive places.” The headline: “He was drained when he got out of bed.” The word “drained” can mean exhausted, but it also means “juiced,” which is a slang word for conned or blackmailed.

TWO: The hush money affair

In January 2018, toward the end of Trump’s first year in office, the Wall Street Journal reported that during his campaign for the presidency he had paid $130,000 to Stephanie Clifford, an adult film actress known as Stormy Daniels. The payment was described as hush money, meant to prevent Daniels from revealing that she had had sexual relations with Trump.

Neither Haaretz nor Yedioth Ahronoth published the story on their front pages, but both covered it in detail. The headlines were about the claims against Trump, while the denials were worked into the body of the report. Yedioth Ahronoth included two photos of Stormy Daniels in its report — one that showed her wearing a dress with a plunging neckline, and the other in which she posed with Trump. The caption: “Donald and Stormy. The extra-marital affair that cost him $130,000.”

Israel Hayom used the same strategy as it had when reporting the Moscow Ritz Carlton story. Trump’s denial was in the headline, and the new claims against him were mentioned in anodyne words that were tacked on to the list of stories covered in the paper that day. On Jan. 14, the paper published a small item on the Stormy Daniels scandal, with the headline, “The White House pushes back: ‘Trump did not pay hush money to a porn actress.’” In contrast with what one would generally expect from a tabloid, Israel Hayom refrained from publishing any photos of Daniels — with or without the president.

The following day, Haaretz and Yedioth reported that another adult film actress — Alana Evans — claimed that Trump had invited her to a private party with Stormy Daniels. Israel Hayom did not report the story.

THREE: The Michael Cohen affair

Israel Hayom pulled out the same tactics when another embarrassing story emerged in August 2018, and the Stormy Daniels affair morphed into the Michael Cohen affair. After the revelation that Trump had cheated on his wife with a porn actress to whom he had paid hush money, it became apparent that this was not just a matter of morals but also one that had legal implications. Trump did not pay the money directly from his own pocket, but through his campaign, which violated campaign finance laws.

Soon it became clear that this was not an isolated incident: a Playboy model named Karen McDougal had also received hush money to prevent her from speaking publicly about having had sex with Trump. In this case, David Pecker, a friend of Trump’s who was the publisher of the National Enquirer, paid the woman.

Michael Cohen’s conviction was one of the more difficult moments of Trump’s presidency. The plea deal was covered extensively by the international media, with most analysts positing that it was a stepping stone toward Trump’s impeachment.

Haaretz and Yedioth, as expected, covered this story in depth. Haaretz’s Aug. 23 headline was: “Plea deal with Trump’s lawyer: connects him with campaign finance law violations.” Political analyst Chemi Shalev wrote, in analysis that was published on the front page: “The sky still hasn’t fallen on Donald Trump, but the ground under his feet has begun to shake: Michael Cohen reveals that he is not only a liar, but also an active partner in violations of the law.” Orly Azoulay, Yedioth Ahronoth’s political analyst, wrote an article that earned the headline, “The president’s black day.”

Israel Hayom had nothing about Cohen on its front page that day. In fact, there was nothing about Cohen in the entire edition. And this was not because the correspondents in the United States or on the foreign news desk were on vacation: the paper devoted extensive space to a press conference called by John Bolton, Trump’s national security advisor (“We won’t demand anything in return for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital”). It also published Palestinian reactions to the announcement of the U.S. embassy move (“Trump’s statements on Jerusalem are meaningless”), as well as an analysis by political commentator Ariel Kahana, which was published under the headline, “The American president is Israel’s greatest supporter and will not betray us.”

The following day, Aug. 24, the Cohen affair was the main story in Yedioth Ahronoth’s weekend magazine. Against the background of a large photograph of Trump wearing a scowling expression, the main headline read: “In trouble.” The explanation in the subhead read: “After his lawyer agreed to testify against him, even his publisher friend David Pecker gave evidence about Trump paying hush money to his lovers.”

Israel Hayom, again, did not report the story on its front page. Instead, it was buried on page 29; and again, the headline reflected Trump’s reaction — and not the incident to which he was responding. “Trump: ‘If I’m impeached the markets will crash and everyone will be poor,’” read the headline. Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, was also quoted: “If Trump is impeached from office, the people will revolt.” Most of the text in the report, under Yoni Hersch’s byline, is dedicated to Trump’s version. The related developments, including the one that received the main headline in Yedioth Ahronoth, was shoehorned into two dry paragraphs toward the end of the article.

Professor Abraham Ben-Zvi, an expert on Israel-American relations who is a frequent contributor to Israel Hayom’s op-ed page, wrote an analysis that dealt primarily with the United States’ recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but included some discussion of the chances for Trump’s impeachment. “The path toward the opening of impeachment proceedings against the president based on Michael Cohen’s involvement in criminal matters appears to be completely blocked — and that has nothing to do with the current or future makeup of Congress,” he wrote. “In effect, this is a lot of noise about nothing.”

The extent to which Israel Hayom has been mobilized to promote Trump’s narrative is also reflected in the paper’s coverage of Paul Manafort’s conviction, as a consequence of Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Manafort was convicted of a string of crimes around the time that Michael Cohen completed his plea bargain. Like Cohen, Manafort was one of the people closest to Trump. But unlike Cohen, Manafort did not agree to cooperate with the investigation.

While Trump was tweeting insults about Cohen (“Looking for a good lawyer? Don’t hire Michael Cohen”), he made sure to praise Manafort and call him a “brave man.” Israel Hayom covered Cohen’s confession from Trump’s perspective. Manafort’s conviction, on the other hand, was not covered at all — except for a very short item suggesting that Trump might grant him amnesty. One month later, when Manafort signed a plea deal agreeing to help Special Prosecutor Mueller, Israel Hayom reported the event in a tiny item that was only 66 words long.

The three case studies we chose for this project show a common pattern: when Trump faces an embarrassing affair, Israel Hayom makes a concerted effort to minimize the details and promote the president’s version of events. These are precisely the tactics that Israel Hayom uses when the rest of Israeli media is reporting on a new development in the police investigations into allegations of Netanyahu’s corruption, or revelations about the prime minister’s family.

This also happened in April 2019, when the Mueller Report was finally released. After months of diligent and thorough work, the special prosecutor that had been appointed to investigate Russian interference in the elections — and the American citizens who had helped them — handed down 37 indictments, some of them against people who were close to Trump. Just before the report was published, Trump and his White House spokesperson pushed the message that it contained no evidence of the president’s involvement in any Russian conspiracy. Israel Hayom followed their lead, giving prominent placement to the White House’s narrative and selling it to the Israeli public. “Trump celebrates: the game is over,” announced the headline of the paper’s April 19 edition.

The headlines in Haaretz and Yedioth Ahronoth were about the findings in the report. For example, the harrowing assertion that Russian officials interfered directly in the 2016 elections, by hacking into the DNC’s computers and giving the information they stole to WikiLeaks. Another detail that was given prominent coverage in Israeli media was Trump’s attempts to undermine the investigation — attempts that failed only because the White House Legal Counsel, Don McGahn, ignored the instructions he received from the president. Trump had asked him to fire Mueller, but McGahn refused.

Trump might have announced that the “game was over,” but he had a few more obstacles to overcome: on Sept. 24, Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, announced that Congress would initiate a formal impeachment inquiry against the president, charging him with betraying his oath of office and the nation’s security.

Israel Hayom’s pattern of mobilizing for Trump can teach us about the financial model for the newspaper, which is distributed for free. All over the world, free newspapers base their revenue model on maximum distribution, which allows them to charge high fees from advertisers — thus compensating for the lack of subscription revenue.

In order to achieve maximum distribution, it’s not enough to print many copies and hand them out; the newspaper must also conform to the readers’ worldview, so that it will appeal to them and they will read it. And so, the classic free newspaper is directed at the broadest common denominator, and works to attract their attention at all costs. But Israel Hayom is not a typical free newspaper: despite operating at an enormous loss, the paper continues to charge advertising prices so low that they do not even cover their overhead.

And so the newspaper’s editors prefer to avoid reporting sensational stories that build readership whenever they might be embarrassing to the principal actors that the newspaper promotes — meaning Netanyahu and, in recent years, Trump. Porn actors, hush money, shady Russian involvement in the affairs of the leader of the free world — for tabloid editors, these stories are enormously valuable. And yet, Israel Hayom consistently chooses to ignore them, or to limit the paper’s reporting to short, anodyne items with the tacit, killjoy message: there’s nothing to see here, let’s move along please.

Trump does not, of course, need Israel Hayom’s help. American voters learn about their president from their own media outlets and coverage of the president in the Adelson family’s free Middle Eastern newspaper won’t affect his popularity among his own voters. So why does the paper do it? A possible answer is that the editors simply do not know how to do it any other way.

Refael Afriat is studying for his degree in political science and communications at the Open University. This article was originally published in Hebrew by the Seventh Eye, Israel’s media watchdog, as part of its joint internship program with the university. Read the original here. Republished, with permission, from +972 Magazine.

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