ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 200

Channel 14 workers and supporters protest against Yair Lapid, the then-prime minister, in Tel Aviv on October 11, 2022. The poster reads: "Especially now: 14" (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Main image: Channel 14 workers and supporters protest against then-prime minister Yair Lapid in Tel Aviv, October 11, 2022, holding a poster reading 'Especially now: 14.' (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Inside story

As divisions sharpen, an incendiary right-wing news channel finally finds an audience

Channel 14 now draws as many viewers as legacy networks, giving voice to conservatives tired of mainstream news, despite repeated scandals and charges of pro-Netanyahu propaganda

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

Main image: Channel 14 workers and supporters protest against then-prime minister Yair Lapid in Tel Aviv, October 11, 2022, holding a poster reading 'Especially now: 14.' (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

As tens of thousands of people rallied across the country last week to protest the government’s advancement of the so-called “reasonableness bill,” Channel 14 anchor Yinon Magal appeared particularly cheerful.

“They can’t wipe the smile off our faces. In the meantime we’re passing our laws,” he said. In a few days, he predicted, the bill will pass its second and third Knesset readings and “we will have a curtailing of the ‘reasonableness’ test,” the first element of the judicial overhaul, which will bar courts from using that legal yardstick when considering some challenges to government decisions.

Adopting a mocking falsetto, the TV host kicked off the network’s flagship panel discussion show “The Patriots” by squealing “They stole democracy from us, oy oy oy!”

Despite the antics, or perhaps because of them, Magal’s show that evening received sky-high ratings for the still fledgling network, winning 9.3 percent of the Jewish viewing public — the channel’s second-highest rating of all time.

Unabashedly championing right-wing policies now being implemented by the hardline government, the network — which does not broadcast on Shabbat, unlike the other channels — has transformed in recent months from a largely dismissed bit player in the media industry to a bona fide juggernaut, threatening the dominance of the established networks that have long set the national news conversation.

As the network continues its steady climb, appealing to viewers dissatisfied with mainstream news, it has faced heavy criticism for its often incendiary approach. Its fervent backing for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government has led some to term the station’s content propaganda.

Israeli journalist Yinon Magal (front center) attends a protest of Channel 14 workers and supporters in Tel Aviv on October 11, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

For years, many on the right side of the political map have — echoing Netanyahu himself — accused the mainstream TV networks, Kan 11, Keshet 12 and Reshet 13, of being biased against the government and representing only a left-wing minority.

Orly Goldklang, deputy editor of the right-wing Makor Rishon newspaper, said there has been a “real thirst for a media alternative” to the mainstream TV networks.

Despite this, Channel 14 did not appear to take off until earlier this year, as societal rifts vastly deepened over the judicial overhaul and the mass protests that hit the streets were either praised as vibrant democracy in action or derided as anarchy aimed at undermining a democratically elected government.

“The breakthrough of Channel 14 is not a coincidence,” she said. “When you feel like you can’t turn on the nightly news on any other channel and not feel like it’s just protest news, people begin to migrate.”

On the night of the major protests last week, Channel 14’s main primetime newscast opened with: “Good evening: It’s not every day that a few thousand people disrupt the daily routine of millions. Today, with occasional violence and blatant violation of the law, opponents of the reform went out to protest.”

The ratings have spiked, Goldklang suggested, “because people saw that everything else on TV was in favor of the protests – with the unlimited options today, with Netflix and everything else, you can flee to a good TV show or you can choose instead to watch news that knows how to say things in a different way.”

Tens of thousands of Israelis protest against the government’s judicial overhaul moves, in Tel Aviv on March 4, 2023. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

A channel without an audience for an audience without a channel

The network appears to perform best with viewers on evenings with major and highly politicized news events. On the day of the deadly terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli in mid-June, Channel 14’s primetime news broadcast was the second-most watched of the evening, with 6.5% of the Jewish viewing public, behind the dominant Channel 12 (13.6%) but ahead of Channel 13 (5.2%) and Kan 11 (4.7%), according to data published by the Israeli Audience Research Board (IARB).

“The Patriots” was also the second-most watched show in its time slot that night, picking up 7.2% of Jewish viewers, ahead of Kan and Reshet 13 but still behind Channel 12. Just a day later, the network’s news show dropped to the least-viewed of the night, at 5.3%, although not far behind 11 and 13, which picked up 6.6% and 6.3% respectively; all trailed significantly behind the popular Channel 12, with 11.5%.

It’s clear that the consensus is the white, secular, Tel Avivite, and everyone else are sort of guests

When the network first launched, it generally scraped out less than 1% of the Jewish viewing public, and it later dropped out of the IARB rankings. When the channel rejoined the IARB in October, it hovered at 2-3% on any given night.

That rose to a more respectable — but still last-place — average nightly share of 3-4% of Jewish viewers in early January, and in mid-February it beat out Kan 11 for the first time.

On March 2, it was the second-most watched news broadcast of the night.

“The vast majority of Israeli Jews identify with the right or the center-right,” said Oren Meyers, a professor of journalism at the University of Haifa. “And for various reasons, they had the notion that their voices are not heard in the media and their views are not represented in the media… so that kind of gave the space for the almost natural rise of something [that] followed in the Fox News style.”

Goldklang said she believes the need for a network like Channel 14 has been a long time coming in Israel’s media landscape, which for decades operated just one TV channel; the first commercial station was launched in 1993, with a third hitting the airwaves only in 2002.

“I spent the 80s and the 90s arguing with the TV screen… there wasn’t anyone who represented my side of things,” Goldklang said, with the exception of those who were invited to be “the token right-winger or token religious person.”

Even today, she said, when there is a range of prominent right-wing journalists on the three main networks, “it’s clear that the consensus is the white, secular, Tel Avivite, and everyone else are sort of guests.”

Journey to primetime

Channel 14 was born as Channel 20 back in 2014, winning a government tender to establish a “Jewish Heritage Channel.” It was barred from airing any news broadcasts, and was fined multiple times for repeatedly breaking that rule. In 2016 it was granted the right to air 90 minutes a day of news, but continued to violate its bylaws by regularly exceeding the limit.

In early 2018, the Knesset passed legislation transferring the channel from the Council for Cable TV and Satellite Broadcasting to the control of the Second Authority for Television and Radio, largely lifting all restrictions and allowing it to freely broadcast news around the clock. At the same time, it made the channel exempt from paying licensing fees to the tune of tens of millions of shekels, and also granted it a free platform on the HOT and Yes TV providers – exemptions that lawmakers extended again earlier this year.

This week, Likud Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi unveiled a plan seen as overwhelmingly favorable to Channel 14, which would include shutting the current regulatory bodies in favor of a political oversight committee. In a joint statement, Channels 12, 13, and Kan slammed the proposal as an additional measure “to crush free press in Israel.”

Shimon Riklin, center, during a Channel 20 broadcast from HaBima Square in Tel Aviv, on October 15, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)

The network has also been granted an ongoing exemption from a law barring commercial TV networks from being 100% owned by a single individual. Since its inception, the station has been wholly owned by Israeli-Russian billionaire Yitzhak Mirilashvili.

In 2021, Mirilashvili bid NIS 5 million to purchase the rights to air on Channel 14 instead of Channel 20, moving the network alongside mainstream news networks on channels 11, 12 and 13, and adding to a veneer of legitimacy in the public eye.

“For quite a few years, until today, including now, the channel was granted concessions and leniencies worth hundreds of millions of shekels,” said Shuki Tausig, editor-in-chief of The Seventh Eye, a left-leaning media watchdog site. “That gave it an advantage over other channels.”

In addition, Tausig said, Channel 14 “receives insane promotion from [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and his ministers on social media… these things add up.”

Then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a Channel 14 conference in Jerusalem, October 23, 2022. (Yonatan SIndel/Flash90)

A spokesman for Channel 14 told the Times of Israel in a statement that the network “is proud to be the channel with the highest growth over the past year, despite the attempts by former prime minister Yair Lapid to shut it down and despite the fact that the channel is boycotted by the majority of opposition members.”

The network declined to respond to claims that it received favorable treatment from the government or improper promotion from the prime minister and members of the coalition.

Last year, then-prime minister Yair Lapid unsuccessfully attempted to have the Central Elections Committee label Channel 14 a propaganda arm of the Likud party. A successful petition would have effectively shut the network down for improper use of its broadcast license, and Lapid’s bid was derided even by critics of the network.

Then-prime minister Yair Lapid speaks to the media at a polling station in Israel’s coastal city of Tel Aviv on November 1, 2022 (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

“It was stupid, it was done terribly, it was the wrong direction, it was a move that harmed free speech, and could have been used against other channels that are not propaganda networks,” said Tausig.

“It was a hollow move that was designed to make headlines,” he added, claiming it only drove more viewers toward Channel 14.

Meyers called Lapid’s petition an “unjust move,” noting that it is “so hard to define exactly what bias is in journalism. And you can make all kinds of arguments regarding the political inclinations of various media outlets… he should know better.”

Mutual admiration

Channel 14’s most well-known faces – Erel Segal, Yinon Magal and Shimon Riklin – are die-hard and vocal supporters of Netanyahu and the current right-wing-religious government he heads, as well as the plan to overhaul the judicial system. Magal, the “Patriots” host, was briefly a Knesset member for the Jewish Home party and served in a coalition with Netanyahu’s Likud.

And the admiration goes both ways: members of the coalition are frequent guests on the TV network; Public Diplomacy Minister Galit Distel Atbaryan encouraged her followers in March to “make history” by watching the channel, calling Magal’s show “the most enjoyable hour of television on Israeli television.” Likud MK Moshe Passal sent a letter to the Yes TV provider last month demanding to know why its remote control has a shortcut button to channels 12 and 13 but not 14.

Figures published in mid-June by The 7th Eye showed that while Netanyahu has not provided an interview to Channels 11, 12 or 13 over the past seven months, he appeared seven times during that period on Channel 14, for a total of 196 minutes.

“From a political point of view, I can understand [Netanyahu’s] choice,” said Meyers. “It’s just the parallel you have with right-wing [US] politicians choosing to only be interviewed by Fox News.”

Then-former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the annual Jerusalem Conference of Channel 20 in Jerusalem, on March 16, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Netanyahu’s attempts to shape and influence Israel’s media landscape have been well documented, and are also the focus of two of the three cases in his ongoing corruption trial.

“Netanyahu is obsessed with the media, it’s part of his political survival and his political battles,” key witness Arnon Milchan told the courtroom earlier this month in his testimony.

Netanyahu “has this almost religious belief in the power of the media,” said Meyers, who added that the facts don’t seem to support such a view. “Let’s say they’re all biased against him, how come he’s been prime minister for so long? Either the argument is wrong, or maybe the news media have very, very limited influence.”

When the news makes the news

Those who aren’t tuning into the network themselves likely still hear about it when Channel 14 makes headlines for a range of scandals and incidents.

Most prominent among them were comments made last month by the network’s military reporter, Hallel Bitton Rosen, the day that three IDF soldiers were killed in a cross-border attack by an Egyptian paramilitary officer implying that they may have been fooling around instead of guarding when they were killed. “A male and female fighter, alone, for 12 hours, at night, from the start there’s a bad taste,” said Bitton Rosen, as anchor Boaz Golan blamed “the left-wing agenda” for pushing mixed-gender military service.

The comments were widely condemned, even leading to a spontaneous protest outside the home of Mirilashvili in Herzliya, and thousands of complaints to the Second Authority for Television and Radio, which oversees commercial broadcasting in Israel.

Last month, the network raised eyebrows after its anchor Lital Shemesh appeared in an English-language video published and funded by the Public Diplomacy Ministry criticizing international media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In another widely criticized incident in mid-June, the channel hosted conspiracy theory-spinning firebrand Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak, who stated: “Who abandoned the Jews in the Holocaust, do you know? The leftists, those who established Mapai [the political party which was the forerunner to Labor], it was written on the trains ‘Mapai,’ and they would put people on the trains.”

Yitzhak was likely referring to video from 1947 of a Mapai-sponsored train bringing Holocaust survivors from Poland to what was then Mandatory Palestine. Riklin, his host on the show, did not push back against Yitzhak’s claim when it was made live on air, but he later apologized, saying that he did not hear the comments at the time and that he completely disavows them as nonsense.

In August 2022, the network came under fire for trying to sell a package of positive coverage of Likud primary candidates on its website for NIS 50,000.

As Channel 20 the network also often found itself in hot water: rejoicing over the death of an Arab MK; lamenting a lack of casualties in a rocket attack on an Arab Israeli town; providing a platform to an unrepentant arsonist who burned down an Arab-Jewish school; and making sexual comments about a female MK.

Anchors and presenters of Now 14, the TV news channel in Israel formerly at Channel 20. (Courtesy Channel 14)

“The problem with Channel 14 is not that it’s right wing, it’s that it’s fascist, it spreads lies – that’s the problem,” said Tausig. “There’s no place for that. Channel 14 is a dangerous network – more dangerous than Hezbollah.”

Goldklang admitted that the channel could be brash and over the top, but suggested the bombast was necessary if the network hoped to be heard amid the din of the mainstream news.

“The reality is that Channel 14 is an opposition network – it’s too sharp, too boisterous, not balanced… I think the discourse there is very reactionary, very pronounced — and very much in demand,” she said.

“There are those who say they are ‘too outlandish,’ but that, I think, is part of the cry that ‘it’s enough, we can’t not be heard any longer, it can’t be just views from one side.’”

Meyers said that while the network’s news coverage is often problematic, the answer is not to seek to shut it down.

“I do not think that Channel 14 provides good journalism, in the very basic sense of what journalism is or ought to be,” he said. “And yet I do not believe that the way in which you should confront such wrongdoings is shutting them down or even sanctioning them… if there’s a legal problem, they should be sued. And otherwise people should just choose to watch the TV news on another channel.”

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