Is Politico rebelling against Axel Springer’s Israel policy?

From publishing a virulently anti-Israel cartoon to relying on anti-Israel analysts, the news outlet has challenged its parent company’s founding values

The ongoing Israel-Hamas war is casting a spotlight on latent editorial tensions between Politico and its parent company, the German publishing giant Axel Springer, whose unique mission statement has long promoted unwavering support for the Jewish state.

In recent months, however, the tenor of Politico’s coverage has tacitly challenged that commitment, a review of stories published over the course of the war indicates.

The popular D.C. news and politics outlet has turned a distinctly critical eye on Israel as the conflict has unfolded, frequently giving special prominence to detractors of Israel over pro-Israel voices or even neutral foreign policy experts, for instance, while publishing columns suggesting Israel is a human rights violator, among other contested claims.

Considered in aggregate, the emphasis on such framing underscores how Politico has increasingly clashed with one of its owner’s most venerated principles, espousing unequivocal support for “the Jewish people and the right of existence of the State of Israel.” 

The most recent example of a disconnect between Berlin and the Beltway emerged in the form of a political cartoon by a longtime Politico cartoonist that drew backlash on Tuesday for suggesting that Jews are using “centuries of pogroms, antisemitism and the Holocaust” as an excuse for Israel’s war in Gaza.

In an email statement to Jewish Insider, Brad Dayspring, Politico’s executive vice president of global communications and brand, defended the political cartoon, which illustrated its point with a “Free Pass” card punched with holes, as “the opinion of the author.” He stressed that “picking a single piece of opinion-based content” does not “provide an accurate assessment of the coverage in totality.”

“Editorial independence at Axel Springer and Politico is our first priority,” said a spokesperson for Axel Springer “Independent, fair, critical journalism is not at odds with our essentials, which simply affirm the right of Israel to exist.” 

Speaking more broadly, Dayspring insisted that Politico’s coverage of Israel and the politics around the war has not been in tension with the values held by its owner, known internally as the “essentials,” which all employees are expected to uphold.

“Editorial independence is sacrosanct at Politico and at Axel Springer,” Dayspring said. “We expect our journalists to cover the war in Gaza fairly, independently and without compromise. Reporting on the actions taken by the Israeli government — including critical reporting — is certainly not at odds with Axel Springer’s essentials, which, among other principles, simply affirms the right of Israel to exist.”

A spokesperson for Axel Springer echoed that view in a statement to JI. “Editorial independence at Axel Springer and Politico is our first priority,” the spokesperson, who did not comment on the political cartoon, said on Tuesday. “Independent, fair, critical journalism is not at odds with our essentials, which simply affirm the right of Israel to exist.” 

Still, in routinely highlighting foreign policy voices that are critical of Israel, Politico’s editorial choices do not appear to have sought a balance that reflects the principles of its parent company.

Behind the scenes, the European conglomerate, which also owns Business Insider, has shown an acute sensitivity to how coverage from its U.S. properties aligns with the essentials. In January, according to Semafor, some company leaders privately voiced concerns that reporting on alleged plagiarism by Neri Oxman, an Israeli-born designer and former professor married to the billionaire hedge fund manager Bill Ackman, “could be construed as antisemitic and anti-Zionist.”

Following a review completed in mid-January, Axel Springer announced it was satisfied with the stories and said it would “stand by Business Insider and its newsroom.”

“Seldom was the question of who began it all — namely, Hamas — been so easy to answer. Seldom was it more obvious who the perpetrators were and who the victims were — namely, Hamas as the attacker and Israel as the defender,” Axel Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner wrote in an essay for The Free Press in December.

The disconnect with Politico, its flagship U.S. property, further demonstrates the challenges that Axel Springer is now facing as it seeks to balance a commitment to upholding its values while recently mounting an aggressive push into global markets.

Even if it has remained unclear how Axel Springer’s corporate ethos translates to the newsrooms under its purview, particularly outside Germany, support for Israel is widely interpreted as inviolable within the company, whose corporate values also promote a “united Europe” and the “trans-Atlantic alliance.”

The company’s CEO, Mathias Döpfner, a staunch backer of Israel who has raised alarms over rising antisemitism in Europe and beyond, has compared Axel Springer’s essentials, enshrined in a mission statement devised by its eponymous founder more than 50 years ago, to a sort of “constitution,” saying “they apply to every employee.”

Döpfner, who has been called the “pro-Israel king of German media,” has placed particular weight on the company’s commitment to standing with Israel in recent years, saying in a company-wide town hall presentation in 2021 that he was doubling down on an effort to promote the essentials as “a common motivator.”

“Particularly these days, where we have new waves of antisemitism and the military escalation in Israel, the second essential is very concrete and very meaningful, you could say, to a certain degree, even for some people controversial,” he said at the time, stressing that the value “should be important for everybody.”

On the evening of the Oct. 7 attacks, Axel Springer, which owns the largest classifieds website in Israel, said it had raised the Israeli flag outside its Berlin headquarters to show solidarity with the Jewish state.

Until recently, Axel Springer and Politico, whose focus on global issues has been expanding, seemed to have coexisted symbiotically, even if staffers at the Washington-based outlet reportedly expressed suspicion of its new owner’s corporate values after the company was acquired nearly three years ago in a high-profile deal valued at more than $1 billion.

The purchase had raised questions over the extent to which Axel Springer would compel employees at Politico to uphold its core principles, which staffers in German markets are contractually required to follow.

Before the deal had been finalized, Axel Springer clarified that it would not make Politico staffers pledge support for the values in writing, even as it emphasized that the principles are part of its code of conduct.

The company-wide value has gained additional urgency in the wake of Hamas’ terror attacks, as Döpfner indicated in a scathing essay for The Free Press in December, where he expressed shock over efforts to blame Israel for the invasion. 

“Seldom was the question of who began it all — namely, Hamas — been so easy to answer,” he wrote. “Seldom was it more obvious who the perpetrators were and who the victims were — namely, Hamas as the attacker and Israel as the defender.”

While Döpfner criticized some mainstream outlets for alleged ethical breaches while covering the start of the war, he did not share an assessment of how Axel Springer’s own media properties have aligned with his expectations.

BERLIN, GERMANY – OCTOBER 17: Mathias Döpfner at the Axel Springer award at Axel Springer Neubau on October 17, 2023 in Berlin, Germany.

Since Döpfner’s essay, Politico has run stories at odds with his thinking, notably including a late February piece by Nahal Toosi, the news outlet’s lone foreign affairs columnist, arguing President Joe Biden’s support for Israel has demonstrated a lack of commitment to protecting human rights abroad — even while recognizing a “counterpoint that Hamas militants” had started the war in Gaza “by killing 1,200 people” and “taking more than 200 hostage.”

In a separate column published shortly after Biden’s State of the Union address last week, meanwhile, Toosi also noted that “many people alarmed by Israel’s military campaign in Gaza were not pleased” with his remarks on the war, while bypassing supporters of the administration who have been reassured by his positioning on the conflict.

The framing underscores a broader habit within Politico of opting to amplify anti-Israel critics that extends to its straight news coverage — in contrast with other properties in Axel Springer’s portfolio.

On Sunday, for instance, Politico’s European arm syndicated a newsy interview with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu conducted by a top editor at Bild, a widely read German tabloid also owned by Axel Springer. 

The article, in which Netanyahu defied Biden by vowing that Israel still plans to move forward with an invasion of Rafah, the last Hamas stronghold in Gaza, was cited by several U.S. news outlets as a sign of growing divisions between the two leaders.

In its most prominent stateside treatment of the interview, Politico’s flagship “Playbook” newsletter, crediting its “European cousins at Axel Springer,” characterized the standoff as “just the latest episode in a long, dysfunctional (some might say abusive) relationship,” adding that “Biden continues to lose support from key constituencies as his early hug of Bibi gives way to … whatever this is.”

The Monday newsletter also featured comments from Matt Duss, an outspoken critic of Israel and former top foreign policy adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), whose thoughts on Oct. 7 and its aftermath have been closely examined by Politico to highlight the progressive left’s view of the conflict. In his remarks to “Playbook” this week, which were representative of sentiments Politico has typically boosted, Duss called Israel a “client state” while urging Biden to “stop sending” arms to Israel amid its war with Hamas.

While “Playbook” is written in a colloquial style and draws on a diverse range of experts to weigh in on any number of complex issues, its packaging of the story offered a split screen with the articles written by Paul Ronzheimer, the deputy editor-in-chief of Bild, who had spoken with Netanyahu in Tel Aviv. 

In his German-language story drawing on extensive quotations from their discussion, Ronzheimer, who also serves as a senior journalist for Axel Springer, was more deferential in his characterization of the Israeli prime minister as well as Israel’s campaign to defeat Hamas.

The English version, meanwhile, was relatively cautious in describing the Palestinian death toll circulated by the Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry, noting that “exact casualty figures are disputed.” The story also alluded to backlash over Biden’s approach to the war, while acknowledging that “polling indicates Israel continues to enjoy widespread support among U.S. voters.”

The caveat drew a subtle but noteworthy contrast with Politico, which has predominantly focused on Democratic opposition to Israel as Biden begins his presidential campaign, dogged by young and Arab American voters who have voiced their discontent with his Middle East policy decisions, even as he has taken steps to appease them in recent weeks.

The coverage has been viewed critically by pro-Israel voices, who believe that Politico has, inadvertently or not, built a flawed narrative to suggest there is diminishing support for Israel.

In a sign of how Politico’s coverage has faced broader scrutiny in recent months, the White House has also been frustrated with the outlet’s emphasis on such efforts as the “uncommitted” campaign to reject Biden in Michigan, rather than other top battleground states in which voters are more receptive to his overall support for Israel, according to a source familiar with the matter.

On Tuesday, meanwhile, a Politico newsletter covering intrigue in the West Wing featured a regular sponsorship from a group of leading NGOs and think tanks that represent some of the fiercest opponents of Israeli policy in the U.S., including the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and Amnesty International USA, which has accused Israel of apartheid.

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