Israel Votes to Limit Sheldon Adelson

A bill titled a “law for the advancement and protection of written journalism in Israel” passed a preliminary hurdle in the Knesset today. Although it doesn’t say so explicitly, the bill is aimed at limiting the free distribution of Israel Hayom (Israel Today), the free newspaper owned by American casino magnate and Republican super-funder Sheldon Adelson.

The same Sheldon Adelson who, at the inaugural meeting of the Israeli American Council in Washington on Sunday, said, “I don’t like journalism.”

Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer explains the anti-Adelson bill that advanced today:

The law, proposed by MK Eitan Cabel (Knesset) and sponsored by members of five other Knesset parties, would make it illegal to widely distribute a full-size newspaper free of charge.

The law’s stated intention is to “defend written journalism” in a period of financial hardship for newspapers in Israel. It doesn’t mention any paper by name, but only Israel Hayom fits its requirements.

If it passes into legislation — Wednesday’s 43-23 vote in favor was just the preliminary stage — Israel Hayom will be forced to charge its readers at least half the price of its cheapest competitor.

Israel Hayom, as Pfeffer reports, is widely known in Israel as a mouthpiece for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the bill is sponsored by Netanyahu’s political adversaries both on the left and right. Adelson launched the paper “as his own personal loophole to do in Israel what he has been doing in the United States. The paper’s financial statements remain a closely guarded secret, but Israeli media experts believe he has spent at least $50 million to date.” Adelson insists his goal isn’t to prop up Netanyahu, telling Pfeffer he bankrolls the venture “to balance the ‘far-left’ agenda of Yedioth [Ahronoth] and other Israeli media.”

Back at home (Adelson is an American citizen and not an Israeli one) Adelson is taking jabs at the supposedly lefty agendas of journalists who cover Israel here. Adelson, the biggest donor to the Israeli American Council (mission: “to build an engaged and united Israeli-American community that strengthens our next generations, the American Jewish community, and the State of Israel”) accused Jewish Daily Forward reporter Nathan Guttman of lacking professionalism in journalism, and intimated that he is anti-Israel. Speaking with the IAC co-funder Haim Saban (a Democratic Party donor), Adelson twisted remarks Guttman made during a prior panel on how reporters cover Israel:

The two Jewish philanthropists pondered how to save Israel from the local and international media that are biased against it. They suggested solving the problem by opening their pocketbooks. “Why don’t you and I go after The New York Times?” Adelson joked with Saban, later explaining that the only way to do so is by offering “significantly more than it’s worth” and thus having shareholders sue the owners if they don’t accept the offer. Saban, apparently, already tried something similar. He attempted to purchase the Washington Post, but failed. The paper was sold last year to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, for $250 million, or as Saban described it, “bupkis.”

Adelson, who admitted at the opening of the discussion that he does not like journalism, later took issue with the Forward reporter — yours truly — who spoke on an earlier panel discussion about the media. “You heard what this guy Guttman said here today,” Adelson told the audience. “He said ‘we look for the wrong, to tell the people what’s wrong in life. Are they insane from that? Yeah, they’re mad.’ That’s not professional journalism.”

This statement, attributed to me by Adelson, was never uttered during the panel discussion.

There are legitimate questions, of course, about the serious problems involved in a government limiting the distribution of media, and about laws that target an individual person or company, as Pfeffer notes. But, he goes on, Israel Hayom “is not a real newspaper in many senses.” Adelson’s free tabloid “is thinly disguised mega-campaign funding. The regulators of political finance, especially the state comptroller, should have stepped in long ago to close this loophole.”

The anti-Adelson bill is like Israel’s Citizens United—in reverse. Although launched a few years before the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision, Israel Hayom is like a Citizens United effort, where a political advocacy group attempted (and ultimately succeeded) in circumventing campaign finance limits by portraying an anti-Hillary Clinton film as media subject to First Amendment protection, rather than independent political expenditures.

Adelson has taken a page from American politics by casting Israel Hayom as a newspaper rather than an extended political pamphlet. One would expect nothing less from someone who doesn’t like journalism.

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