Earlier this month, right-wing nationalist Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power in Israel, despite facing multiple federal corruption charges. Many Israelis have expressed deep concern over the state of their democracy, but Netanyahu still pulled a winning number of votes from a large and devoted group of followers. To many viewers around the world, this victory is as frightening as it is unsurprising.
This escape of consequence from what should be very serious allegations is part of a modern trend in the tactics of popular leaders. As news media has increasingly fractured and become more partisan, leaders have had an increasing ability to undermine the legitimacy of any corruption allegations they may face by labeling them, and the media sources who report on them, as “fake news.” Leaders then use the allegations against them as proof that ‘the establishment,’ a term which populists often use to draw conspiratorial connections between media that speaks out against them and their political opposition, is corrupt. This helps to cement the idea that only a government that is willing to stand up to ‘the establishment’ can be legitimate. This erodes trust in news media and democratic institutions, as both make up ‘the establishment,’ and it provides the public support necessary for populist leaders to use their power to target news outlets, democratic institutions such as courts, and opposition parties. Based on this trend, in certain cases it may be beneficial for democracy if the news media limits their coverage of the allegations in order to prevent the perception of a mass smear campaign.
Soon-to-be Prime Minister Netanyahu has routinely used populist appeals and rhetoric throughout his political career, and while in government engaged in the sidelining of opposition parties and circumventing of democratic principles. In painting much of the Israeli government as part of a corrupted establishment run against the ‘people of Israel’ (which to Netanyahu appears to mean ethnic Jews who are the victims of “Arabs who want to annihilate” them), Netanyahu managed to justify his anti-democratic platform as a defense of the Israeli people. At the same time, this anti-establishment rhetoric deteriorated trust in established institutions of democracy, including the justice system. Therefore, when Netanyahu’s corruption allegations surfaced, his defense already existed. The case against him was a ‘rigged’ ‘witch hunt’ that amounted to ‘election interference.’ By leveling accusations of election interference against the court system, Netanyahu managed to turn even his personal embezzlement into a partisan issue and cement support from his base while only facing major backlash from those who already opposed him.
Netanyahu is accused of a variety of offenses, some orchestrated for material gain, others for political gain, but perhaps the most troubling of these are the two allegations that Netanyahu used his status as prime minister to do favors for certain elites in exchange for favorable media coverage and restrictions on media that painted him poorly. Netanyahu’s supporters easily dismissed these allegations as false, using the fact that the media reported on Netanyahu’s alleged wrongdoing to prove that not only was the media not biased towards Netanyahu, but it was biased against him. The more the media reported on this allegation, the more ammo Netanyahu had to defend himself. When an official investigation opened into Netanyahu’s corruption allegations in 2016, Israeli trust in mainstream media dropped to an all time low of 24%.
This is not a unique occurrence. Former U.S. president Donald Trump similarly used the term ‘witch hunt’ when he was accused of politically motivated corruption such as colluding with Russia, as well as when he was accused of personal abuses of his status including sexual harrasment and tax evasion. Trump’s tactics worked, and even when his publicized tax returns revealed that in 2017 he had paid only $750 in taxes to the US government, Trump dismissed the coverage of it as “fake news” and Republicans remained fairly silent on the issue, only speaking up to criticize the bias of the ‘mainstream media’ and its ties to liberal elites. Former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro also used similar tactics to dismiss allegations of embezzlement. Others have used mirroring strategies all around the globe, reaching from Turkey to El Salvador to the Philippines. The method is tried and true.
While media coverage is essential to an informed public, studies show that the prevalence of ‘fake news’ undermines the legitimacy of the media. When a large portion of a country believes their populist leader that allegations against them are part of a partisan witch hunt, they perceive extensive media coverage on the allegations as fake news. Whether or not the news is accurate, it is believed to be fake, and the undermining of institutional trust that occurs as a result is very real. While it may carry its own worrisome implications, it may be counterproductive for media outlets who seek to educate the public to continuously report on corruption trials. Doing so not only will likely have no effect on supporters of the populist leader, but it will also backfire and undermine the legitimacy of any other important reporting. By reigning in the frequency and severity of negative coverage, news media may capitulate to the desires of populist leaders, but they also will wield more power in the stories they choose to run. This also builds a level of trust between the general public and the news media, and it does not give the populist leader an excuse to undermine democratic norms of respecting the media. Admittedly, this strategy is frightening and should not be the standard that citizens of democracies strive for, but in states where the very fabric of democracy is being threatened news media may find more power in reserving itself.