With fake media outlet Likud TV, Netanyahu sets up nakedly self-serving soapbox
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With fake media outlet Likud TV, Netanyahu sets up nakedly self-serving soapbox

Trying to circumvent traditional media he both snubs and exploits, PM launches Facebook channel to directly persuade voters he is the victim of a witch-hunt, must have another term

Raoul Wootliff

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appearing on Likud TV on Facebook, February 3, 2018. (screen capture: Facebook)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appearing on Likud TV on Facebook, February 3, 2018. (screen capture: Facebook)

There is something ironic in a news outlet writing about the maiden broadcast of a purpose-built TV channel set up by the prime minister with the declared intention of “throwing the ‘fake’ out of the news” and providing the public with “true facts, unfiltered by the manipulative media.”

If all mainstream media is fake, then the analysis article you are currently reading on the launch of “Likud TV” is yet another item to ignore as a biased and unfair attack on Benjamin Netanyahu. But if this piece offers reasonable insights into the premier’s new Facebook-streamed channel, then, well, the news that Likud TV has set out to counter isn’t fake after all — and then Likud TV is, to put it mildly, disingenuous.

Over the past two decades, Netanyahu has repeatedly tried to curb his many detractors in the mainstream media, which he considers biased against him. He has long eschewed press conferences and interviews with Israeli journalists, and has publicly called out specific stories or media outlets for stories he disliked. In 1999, while facing challenger Ehud Barak as incumbent prime minister, Netanyahu famously derided media coverage of him, leading Likud members in a chant, “They are a-f-r-a-i-d.”

His famously combative relationship with the media has soured even further over the past two years, as police have pursued three criminal cases against him.  Accusing the press of leading “witch hunts” against him — along with the opposition, then the police, and most recently the state prosecution hierarchy — he has dismissed specific journalists as biased and untrustworthy and denounced critical stories about him as “fake news.” Unsurprisingly, two of the three corruption cases against Netanyahu revolve around his alleged efforts to secure more favorable coverage — in the nation’s most resonant news empire, Yedioth Ahronoth, and at one of Israel’s largest news sites, Walla!

Since mainstream media, doing its job, has given plenty of prominence to Netanyahu’s complaints about coverage, the prime minister has largely managed to both attack the way he is covered, and to watch those same attacks broadcast on the nightly news.

But last month, in the first days after early elections were called, Netanyahu may have lost his free pass to free coverage when he put the country on high alert by promising a “dramatic announcement” timed to coincide with the start of the 8 p.m. prime time news broadcasts.

His announcement turned out to be anything but dramatic. He had simply wanted to make sure that his speech — in which he not only pleaded innocence in the corruption cases in which he is accused of bribery, but also attacked the media for promulgating the accusations and charged that he was not being treated fairly by the police and the state prosecution — got maximum exposure.

This was a gamble. While news outlets sometimes give more deference, and routinely give more time, to the premier than to other politicians, they resent handing over precious broadcast time for pure politicking and campaign spin. On January 7, Netanyahu played them into doing just that. As a result, the next time the prime minister-who-cried-wolf wants to address the nation to announce a mysterious matter of purported national urgency, fewer outlets are likely to stop all other coverage in order to cut exclusively to him.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement live at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem regarding his graft investigations, on January 7, 2019. (Likud/AFP)

Netanyahu knows this. And in any case, he has long complained that his appearances in traditional media are preceded and followed by “clueless pundits,” as he has called them, nitpicking at every statement.

Hence Netanyahu’s launch on Sunday of Likud TV, his latest attempt to bypass the traditional media and appeal directly to voters, with the goal of reiterating his innocence of the corruption allegations and his worthiness of a fourth term as prime minister — without the inconvenience of hostile questions and critical punditry. A simple, self-serving soapbox, as it were, undisturbed by independent noise.

In a move reminiscent of Donald Trump’s online election campaign broadcasts, Likud TV will air each evening at 7 p.m. on the prime minister’s official Facebook page and on a new Likud TV page from a studio within the party’s headquarters in Tel Aviv, from now until Israel votes on April 9.

To get the ball rolling, the first “episode” featured an exclusive “interview” with the prime minister, conducted by TV presenter Eliraz Sade, a former winner of the “Big Brother” reality show who is trying to forge his own television career.

Moments after the Facebook stream began, it became clear that the “news broadcast” was a long way off the standards of independent news media.

While he opened by promising to provide “real and positive” coverage of the prime minister, Sade focused on the latter — posing clearly pre-agreed, softball questions, peppered with praise of Netanyahu.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and reality TV celebrity Eliraz Sadeh poke fun at Channel 13 crime reporter Moshe Nussbaum on a promo for the new Facebook-based Likud TV, February 2, 2019. (Facebook screenshot)

Apart from directly attacking former Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar for allegedly planning an internal party putsch to unseat him — something Sa’ar has dismissed as a blatant falsehood — Netanyahu provided no new information for the viewers. Rather, he largely repeated well-used lines from stump speeches to present the achievements of his government and the ostensible deviousness of the press in purportedly ignoring them.

While he got his message out, Netanyahu is doubtless aware that by speaking so directly to the public, he also opens himself up to a volatile and fickle social media public discourse that could have a negative effect in return.

In an interview with Fox News in October 2017, Netanyahu remarked that being “overly connected” to the public via social media can be problematic and lead to poor decision-making. But he said that in today’s world, politicians have to play the game.

“The problem today for politicians is not being disconnected. The problem is they’re overly connected. And they’re completely at the mercy of these shifting tides of opinion that are reflected in the net. And that’s — not good,” he said. But, he added, “I think it’s inevitable. It’s here.”

Likud TV marks Netanyahu’s effort to further circumvent mainstream news providers and opinion-shapers. By definition, however, a “Likud TV” Facebook channel, providing material dedicated to portraying Netanyahu in the best possible light, may well bolster support among who are already supportive, but is unlikely to win him many new admirers.

At least, that’s this reporter’s independent conclusion. The prime minister would doubtless dismiss it as fake news.

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