The Trump campaign “revoked” the Washington Post’s press credentials yesterday. The Republican candidate called the 139-year-old, 47-time Pulitzer Prize winning paper “phony” and “dishonest.” In terms of Trump-attacks on the media, this is hardly news. Trump keeps a blacklist a mile long beginning with Buzzfeed and the Daily Beast and ending with the Des Moines Register and something called Fusion. There have also been threats of lawsuits, arrests and, of course, physical violence (recall Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski violently grabbing Breitbart News reporter Michelle Fields). But if Trump really wants to be a media martinet, he should take a page out of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s playbook.
Trump and Netanyahu share a deep disdain for the “mainstream” media. But the differences between them are telling: Trump’s comments are brash. He’s made barefaced comments like, “Look the media, you know my opinion of the media. It’s very low.” He’s shot playground invectives at media personalities, calling Arianna Huffington a “liberal clown” or Tim O’Brian “dopey”. There have been gag pieces asking readers to guess which statements about the media are Trump’s and which are Turkish authoritarian Recep Edroğan’s. But while Trump sounds like a bully, Netanyahu’s knife is far subtler. His tactics are finessed not with bombast, but with butter.
First, Netanyahu doesn’t give interviews. The last interviews he gave — in English to NPR, pounding the just-announced Iran nuclear deal, and in Hebrew to Channel 2 about his upcoming government coalition— were respectively a little under and a little over a year ago. Last month, The Marker, Haaretz’s economic supplement published a list of questions it wished it could ask Netanyahu. Instead of interviews, Netanyahu makes Facebook proclamations, occasionally holds press conferences, or speaks in the Knesset plenum. In all of these situations he has full control over content and messaging to the public. In other words, Netanyahu lives in a world without Jake Tapper.
Second, Bibi has his own print newspaper, privately funded and freely distributed. Israel HaYom has been around since 2007, and it’s no secret that Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson takes home only losses on the “Bibiton”. Still, it remains the most widely read daily in the country, haunting the competition. Before the last elections there was a law on the table that would bar the distribution of free newspapers, but Netanyahu has managed to keep it at bay. Trump might look into what opportunities are available for Trump Productions LLC, his already existing media production company. Sheldon might even chip in.
Third — and here’s where Trump can really look ahead for prospects — Netanyahu is Israel’s Minister of Communications. Of course he is also Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Economy, Minister of Regional Cooperation, and until recently, Minister of the Interior. The first thing he did after taking office as Minister of Communications was to summarily (by telephone) fire the ministry’s standing director general and appoint Shlomo Filber. Filber is Bibi’s man – before his appointment to the Ministry in 2015, he was the Likud Party’s campaign manager. Filber is also a former head of the Yesha Council of Jewish Settlements and head of the Prime Minister’s Office during Netanyahu’s first term and, coincidentally, also happens to be a Rabin conspiracy theorist. In other words, he is the very definition of a crony.
It’s not just over appointments that Netanyahu has control — he holds the keys to Israel’s most powerful communication companies as well. Haaretz published an expose last November uncovering how Shaul Elovitch, the owner of Israel’s telecom giant Bezeq, dictated that his news team at Walla! “sugar coat” Bibi’s image (as well as his wife Sara). In return Bezeq and all its subsidiaries have faced far friendlier policies on Netanyahu’s watch: the Ministry approved a merger between Bezeq and its Yes satellite television unit, cancelled an 11.3 million-shekel penalty, and is on its way to hand Yes it’s own cable channel. Some started calling Walla! “Bibi-net”. Soon they may be calling the Yes channel “Bibi-TV”.
When Bibi took office over a year ago, Zionist Union MK Erel Margalit called on Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to disqualify Netanyahu from his position as Communications Minister due to his ties with Elovitch. In May of this year, Mandelblit finally asked Netanyahu to sign a Conflict of Interest Agreement. It took until yesterday for him to outright prohibit Netanyahu from dealing with Bezeq. The agreement stipulates that Netanyahu, due to his friendship with Elovitch, must “refrain from dealing with matters specifically related to these companies, as well as other matters that materially affect them.”
Of course, this comes as a blow to Netanyahu’s proximate power, but the long reach of regulatory policy, supervision, administration, and licensing presumably will remain in his domain. As Bernard Avishai put it in the New Yorker, Bibi can wield his sword “not by directly intimidating journalists, but by shaping ambient pressures on owners and managers of the media companies.” This is the final lesson Trump can learn: there is not always a need to commit an act. If you want to cow the media into obeisance, a simple threat is enough.