Threats, extortion, blackmail, protection rackets, kickbacks, payouts and fraud – or in other words: journalism in the ultra-Orthodox community. A major undercover police sting has unraveled what must be the most interesting story of corroded ethics, criminal activity, and journalistic skulduggery in the news business since, well, since Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World was caught hacking into the cell phone messages of families of fallen soldiers.
The haredi community’s most influential news portal ”Behdarei Haredim” (a play on wage words Behdarei hadarim – behind closed doors) has gone where even the News of the World didn’t dare go.
Top staffers and journalists at the popular news site allegedly extorted large sums of cash from politicians, rabbis, businessmen, celebrities and a variety of other notables in the haredi community in exchange for not publicizing damaging stories and talkbacks about them, or, as in some cases, as payment for positive stories. In some cases, the damaging talkbacks were to have been written by the web site staff themselves.
One Israeli political party, the United Torah Judaism, which represents the Ashkenazi religious community in the Knesset, even had a written contract with Behdarei Haredim which specifically states that the political party would pay the news site fifty thousand shekels for positive news coverage and a promise to avoid negativity toward UTJ in its reporting.
Other, less formal contracts with a wide range of people netted the news site hundreds of thousands of shekels per month. The site allegedly even had some ’clients’ on a retainer.
Talk about finding a winning business model which meets the challenges faced by news media around the world. Newspapers have been closing down all over the world, and the ones that do survive do so by slashing editorial budgets, as well as scaling back on serious journalism in favor of less expensive alternatives. Newspapers and news sites have been struggling to find a way to survive in the new digital economy: some try pay walls, others link their print subscriptions to their Internet offerings, others still try boost their traffic to increase the worth of their banner ads. Some have gone mobile, some try tiered pricing. We in the news business have been breaking our heads and wracking our brains over how to make an honest buck, and here come a bunch of wise guys with an entirely different approach…
And others have decided to forgo all these efforts and try something completely different: focus their investigative reporting on the weaknesses, vices, and crimes of passion of their target audience and then charge a premium fee for not publishing that reporting. Add to this business model the old favorite of planting positive stories in the media about a client, and you have a winning formula for a steady flow of cash, with lots and lots of clout and influence for your publication. Stories will never dry out. And if they do, you can always just make them up, and charge someone for not publishing.
Forget old school journalism ethics; forget values such as the public’s right to know; the media as watchdog of democracy; and forget hard legwork reporting on important issues.
Knowledge is power, and power can get you money, and more power.
This kind of thing might happen in the secular press, but I haven’t seen it in the newspapers I’ve worked for. Libel and defamation suits are a dime a dozen in the secular press and the courts, but in the haredi world one doesn’t even want a rumor to spread, and one is willing to pay a lot of money to nip rumors in the bud. Protecting your good name in the haredi world is THE most important thing in your life. It affects your standing in the community, your ability to find a suitable marriage partner for yourself of your children, and it affects every aspect of your daily life.
Shame on the ’journalists’ and ’management’ of Behdarei Haredim for exploiting and abusing this most sacred of values, as well as the sacred values of public interest journalism.