I call that wild and crazy Washington correspondent James David Besser Sunday morning, July 4, 2004.
"Could you sketch for me your career in Jewish journalism?"
"I started about 18 years ago when I was a freelance writer in Washington for the Post style section and for The New Republic and many travel magazines. I got tapped by the Baltimore Jewish Times to do their Washington column. It expanded to The New York Jewish Week and others."
"Why have you stayed on the beat?"
"I find it interesting. It changes a lot. Many of the issues remain the same. The cast of characters is always changing. My beat is broad."
"What are the principle obstacles in doing good journalism on Jewish topics?"
"There's a perception that you are serving dual functions. That as a reporter you're doing the same kind of objective journalism as anyone else, but there's also a perception that you are an agent of the community and that you should be attentive to the goals of that world. I've always operated under the assumption that you play the story straight, in the end, that will be good for the Jewish community, no matter how the story turns out. I know colleagues who have felt a pressure to have stories turn out a certain way or to avoid certain stories. I've never felt that pressure. I can't think of a single time somebody has told me, don't pursue this story. I think I would react badly if someone said, don't do this story. It's too sensitive.
"There is a greater appreciation for Jewish journalism now [in Washington D.C.] than when I started because of the work of The Jewish Week, Forward and The Jewish Times in Baltimore."
"How has your journalism changed in the past 18 years?"
"I'm like every other reporter. I get into ruts and I have to jar myself out of the rut. I've written about the Workplace Religious Freedom Act at least 50 times. It's hard to maintain a fresh perspective and to do lively reporting. I've become more skeptical about political spin. I'm better able to see through it. I'm not as driven by the desire to get the splashy headline. Headline stories are often not the ones that really matter. The ones that I am always interested in are the ones that people are not paying attention to. When I started, getting a splashy story about what AIPAC was doing was really important to me. And now, doing a story about the intricacies of the budget process is more interesting to me because ultimately I think it is more meaningful."
"Some of your peers have the knock on you that you are writing so much these days that you don't have the time to uncover the scoops?"
"I've never been scoop-driven. I've always considered myself more of an analyst than an investigative reporter. I've never felt myself to be in competition with my friend Larry Cohler who is an investigative reporter and whose job is to generate headlines. I've always felt it was my job to get an interesting and fresh perspective on a story and lay out what other people are missing."
"How much status does your job convey?"
"Not a lot. Except for a handful of big names, all journalists labor in relative obscurity. Polls show that journalism is not a respected profession. Every niche segment of journalism is going to have even less stature."
"Does that get to you?"
"It probably did when I was younger. I've accommodated myself to it. I don't go to parties and find myself embarrassed to say that I write a Washington column for Jewish newspapers."
"How would your life be different if you hadn't gone down the Jewish beat?"
"I was enjoying humor writing but I was finding it harder and harder to sustain. Being relatively funny is harder from a writing point of view than being interesting. I've done one book [a collection of The Jewish Times columns under the moniker Sol the Answer Man], Do They Keep Kosher on Mars? (1991)."
"Do you think you're as funny as ever?"
"It comes and goes. With humor writing, you have to be in the mood. It comes in phases and it goes in phases."
"Can't you put more of that humor into your political writing?"
"I often do in the analysis stories. I have been making a conscious effort to do that in the past few months. You get an angrier reaction when you have barbed humor."
"Do you have problems getting access to the Right as you are on the Left?"
"No. I have good relations with many right-wingers. They know that I will give them a fair shake. I can't think of anybody who won't talk to me."
"Where would you place yourself in the political spectrum?"
"I would place myself in the skeptical realm. I dislike hard and fast ideologies. People consider me to be on the moderate Left. I dislike categories. I dislike people who view everything through some ideological lens. People, rightly, put me a bit left of center but it is certainly not reflexive in any way."
We talk about the Forward.
"I think it is very good," says James. "Under JJ, it has made huge strides."
"Before JJ, it had the reputation for being sensationalist and right-wing. Anything for a headline. It was often sloppy. JJ is a solid professional. He's come up with a good mix of liveliness and accurate journalism.
"The Jewish journalism world is far stronger than when I entered it, primarily because there are more serious reporters in a handful of major papers. The interesting thing is how Jewish papers are responding to the challenge of keeping readers. We have a readership base that is aging out. How do you attract younger readers without becoming sensationalistic?"
"What was it like at an AJPA conference?"
"I found it unbelievably dull. It's not oriented to reporters, but to publishers and advertising people."