Sheldon Adelson's Israel Today paper doesn't charge even for… (Ym Yik / European Pressphoto…)
Reporting from Jerusalem — Media Titan to Rivals: Drop Dead! That's tabloid shorthand for the Darwinian clash unfolding between Israel's three biggest newspaper barons.
The story begins with a publicity-shy publisher who built a paper so popular and powerful it was deemed a monopoly.
Nipping at his heels is a scrappy businessman who once wiretapped competitors and later destroyed an incriminating document by swallowing it.
But it didn't become a battle royal until a Jewish-American billionaire, borrowing a page from Fox News, launched a "fair and balanced" newspaper to counter what he called liberal media.
"It's turning into a jungle," said Daniel Ben-Simon, a member of Israel's parliament and a respected former journalist. "The media organizations are trying to destroy one another."
With newspaper revenue falling worldwide and two of the Israeli papers already hemorrhaging money, no one expects all three to survive. The upstart, Israel Today, has taken aim at its rivals by low-balling ad rates and not charging readers a penny. Even home delivery is free, thanks to American billionaire Sheldon Adelson's apparent willingness to absorb steep losses.
Yediot Aharonot, the country's most-read newspaper, and Maariv, which recently slipped to No. 3 behind Israel Today, are crying foul, accusing Adelson of trying to drive them out of business, no matter the cost, so he can silence competing voices.
They say his main reason for launching Israel Today in 2007 was to support a friend: then-opposition leader and now Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They've asked lawmakers to come to their rescue by restricting foreign ownership of media and banning free distribution.
"This is the biggest political gift given by a tycoon to any Israeli politician in the history of the country," said Nahum Barnea, senior columnist at Yediot. "It's a hostile takeover of the Israeli press."
Israel Today editor Amos Regev brushes off the complaints as a desperate gambit by has-beens. In a recent column, Regev aimed a dart at Yediot's publisher, Arnon Mozes, saying he sees "himself as the true prime minister of Israel even though no one has ever cast a single ballot for him."
The stakes are high in a country whose highly educated and politically aware citizens are among the world's most voracious news consumers. Israel has seen newspaper wars before, but this one is different, Israelis say, because it's clouding journalistic judgment and fueling sensationalism in a country that has frowned on the kind of tabloid fare common in London and New York.
When Netanyahu delivered a major address last month on preserving Jewish heritage, Yediot and Maariv raised eyebrows by ignoring it. Israel Today celebrated it as one of the best political speeches in 25 years.
When Netanyahu slipped and fell while boarding a naval vessel, Yediot and Maariv splashed the photos on their front pages; Israel Today ran a shot of the prime minister looking resolute and statesmanlike.
Then there's the matter of Netanyahu's wife. When a disgruntled housekeeper accused Sara Netanyahu of verbal abuse and withholding pay, Yediot devoted two-thirds of its front page to the quarrel, with headlines that rivaled the size of those about the devastating earthquake in Haiti. "Sara Abused Me, Humiliated Me, Exploited Me," said one. Maariv's political correspondent said the prime minister was "unfit" to serve and "trembles in fear of his wife's shadow."
Jerusalem Post editor David Horovitz said the housekeeper's lawsuit was a legitimate story, but hardly earth-shaking.
"It was clear something was skewing the news judgment," he said. "There's something foul here."
Israel Today responded with a puff piece on Sara Netanyahu, detailing her warm relations with her household staff. According to the paper, Sara once hand-delivered a Passover gift of candlesticks to the home of the now-estranged housekeeper, who was so moved that she wept.
Until the 1990s, Israeli newshounds kept several dozen daily newspapers in business, mostly partisan publications, union-backed newspapers and several serious-minded broadsheets.
Most of those publications collapsed as readers turned to websites and TV for their news and gravitated toward the lighter, shorter articles offered by Yediot and Maariv, which tried to avoid any ideological slant.
Now, coverage in the two papers and in Israel Today appears to be shifting to reflect political and personal agendas.
"Israeli newspapers are getting yellower," said Yoram Peri, a longtime Israeli media analyst who serves as director of the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland. "This is a dangerous phenomenon. For a strong democracy, you need strong newspapers."