BY NOW, most Americans have heard of Sheldon Adelson's 2012 ambitions to sway the American electorate and his current efforts to influence the selection of the 2016 Republican presidential candidate. Much less is known about the Las Vegas casino magnate's growing influence in Israel. There, the 80-year-old billionaire has poured a fraction of his considerable wealth not into individual campaign coffers but into the media business, beginning with the creation of a new newspaper, Ysrael Hayom [Israel Today], which hit the streets on July 30, 2007.
The daily broadsheet, handed out for free at coffee shops, gas and bus stations, apartment complexes, supermarkets, hospitals and campuses, was a brash, direct challenge to Israel's paid mass-circulation Hebrew dailies--Yediot Ahronot, Ma'ariv and Haaretz. With Adelson's backing, the paper had the financial resources to have the bells and whistles of a "real newspaper" while selling advertising at bargain rates. It didn't take long for the free publication to find readers among Israel's 7.9 million news junkies and upend the economics of the country's newspaper industry. By 2010, Yisrael Hayom was Israel's most widely circulated paper. In the last half of 2013, the market research company TGI found Yisrael Hayom to have a 38.6 percent exposure rate compared to 38.4 percent for the former number-one paper Yediot Ahronot, and 6.1 percent for Haaretz, sometimes called the New York Times of Israel. The once-prestigious powerhouse, Ma'ariv, had dwindled to 3.5 percent A few months later, Ma'ariv ceased publishing.
"Adelson's great wealth has created unfair competition between the free paper and the papers that cost," says Dan Caspi, a communications professor at Ben-Gurion University in Beer-sheva. "No other publisher can compete with his deep pockets." Caspi, like other Israeli media observers, blames Novel Hayom for the death of Ma'ariv.
Yisrael Hayom has also upset the delicate left-right political balance among Israel's newspapers. In keeping with Adelson's very public conservative political views, Yisrael Hayom is seen as supporting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu so unabashedly that political wags dubbed the paper "Bibiton"--blending Netanyahu's nickname, "Bibi," with iton, the Hebrew word for newspaper. During the February 2009 Israeli elections in which Netanyahu's Likud Party emerged the victor, a study by HaAyin HaShevi'it [The Seventh Eye], a respected online media watchdog that is part of the independent Israel Democracy Institute, found that lismel Hayom 's coverage was biased in favor of Netanyahu and inflated the importance of events that helped to promote him and Likud.
But Adelson, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has scoffed at the notion that the paper's coverage is biased. "Everybody thinks I started the newspaper purely to benefit Bibi," he said in a 2009 interview. "Nothing could be further from the truth. I started the newspaper to give Israel, Israelis, a fair and balanced view of the news and the views. That's all. It is not a 'Bibiton." Using similar language in 2013, he said, "What you read in our newspaper is a fair and balanced viewpoint not only about Bibi but about everyone."
Publishers rarely admit to bias, and Adelson is no different. But his competitors are vociferous in their criticism. "By placing a dagger in the heart of the Israeli media, Yirrael Hayom has thus given Israeli newspapers much more of a right-wing bent--and it is getting worse," says an executive from Yediot Ahronot. "Adelson simply brought ruin to the Israeli newspaper market, and the Israel politicians who benefit from its flattering coverage have allowed this unprecedented phenomenon." Ben-Dror Yernini, a reporter for the now defunct Ma 'any, goes further, accusing Yis-rael Hayom of being "a danger to Israeli democracy."
In March, Adelson took steps to expand his influence. For five million dollars, he bought a small but influential right-wing religious newspaper called Makor Rishon and Ma'ariv's website, NRG. "The fact that he now owns the most popular right-of-center paper and now an even more right-of-center paper is of concern," says Israeli journalist and media observer Slunuel Rosner. "Adelson has gone from the major player on the right to the only player on the right. For him to control all the voices on the right is not healthy for the Israeli debate."
This drama is largely invisible to the vast majority of diaspora Jews, who are familiar only with Israel's English-language publications such as Haaretz's English version, The Jerusalem Post and the online Times of Israel, but know little about its Hebrew-language press, where coverage can make or break an Israeli politician. The complex story of Israel's current newspaper war and Adelson's role in it has its roots in the pre-state movements of political Zionism, in a landscape that is far removed from American journalism.
In Israel's early days, political parties published their own newspapers. The workers' Mapam party, for example, put out Al-Hamishmar; the Liberal Party, Haboker; the National Religious Party, Hazofeh; and the Communist Party, Kol Ha'am. There were a few independent papers, but most of them had agendas, too. Haaretz, founded by the British military government in 1918 and purchased in 1937 by the wealthy German Schocken family, was generally anti-government. The English-language Jerusalem Post, established in 1932 as The Palestine Post, had a historical association with the Mapai party on the left. Yediot Ahronot appeared in the 1930s, and a group of disgruntled Yediot Ahronot employees launched Ma'ariv...