I chat by phone Monday morning, June 28, 2004 with Brandeis University professor Dr. Jonathan D. Sarna.
"Would you be surprised if leaders of the Jewish Establishment threatened to destroy a paper if it published something they didn't like?"
"It's a very old story, not a particularly Jewish one. If you read the history of journalism, often big corporations would threaten to destroy a paper. They would withdraw advertising. Jews too engage in this. Many Jews stopped contributing to NPR because they felt NPR was biased.
"There's a tension inherent in journalism. On the one hand, you need to serve your reading public. If you antagonize them, you go out of business. On the other hand, you have a certain obligation to journalistic standards, which may antagonize some of your readers. You may report some things that make them angry and they make take their anger out against the messenger. Jewish journalism is not that different from Catholic journalism or even small town journalism in this battle between interest groups that want to shape the news and journalists that want to expose the "truth." Probably it is a healthy tension.
"When The Jewish Week exposed the scandal at NCSY [Rabbi Baruch Lanner], because they knew how their readers would view it, they were extraordinarily careful. It was written in careful language. They'd done an immense amount of research. Those who threatened to withdraw their support for The Jewish Week found themselves ridiculed in the community.
"Some Jewish newspapers have cleverly managed to pit wealthy Jews against one another, so that if one threatens, the other defends. Nevertheless, there are many cases where Jewish newspapers have engaged in self-censorship. As a result, readers truly interested in what is going on in the Jewish world, look elsewhere. They look to The New York Times. That's where they'll really find out what is going on. You won't, for example, hear much about Jews and slavery in Jewish newspapers. Even in the time of the Civil War, that was too hot to handle.
"I remember in the 1980s where a rabbinical student in Cincinnatti was on trial for sexually molesting a child at a summer camp. He was eventually found innocent. While this trial was on the front page of the newspaper day-after-day, the Jewish newspaper was enormously reluctant to print the story. When it did print a bit about the story, the newspaper was bitterly criticized.
"You won't find much in Jewish newspapers about the Rosenberg trial [couple who were executed for spying for the Soviet Union]. Take out the American Jewish Year Book and you would think it wasn't big news. It's hardly there. Again, the Jewish community didn't want to give [it] publicity lest people feel that all Jews are communists.
"I think we look back at these moments in the way The New York Times looks back at its coverage of the Holocaust. With some substantial shame and a vow to do better. But when difficult matters come up, it is still difficult. Perhaps what we need is the equivalent of what The New York Times ombudsman now does. Somebody who would stand back and write reflectively to readers about these issues. Gary Rosenblatt did that very well in The Jewish Week [in the Baruch Lanner case].
"Take Yossi Abramowitz's series on the Jewish National Fund. He took on a real icon of the community. Many people argue that there were all sorts of practices at the JNF that were unethical, maybe worse. By exposing them, Abramowitz [created] change. On the other hand, there are people who argue that the JNF never recovered from the scandal. Here was an institution raising large sums for Israel, full of people with high-minded ideas. The journalist, by tarring the whole institution, destroyed it.
"I'm not here to judge. My job is to remind reporters how difficult their job is. I have more respect for the Rosenblatts of the world, who agonize, who feel responsible for their community, but also have a strong sense of the role of the journalist, then I do for journalists who feel that they have no responsibility at all for their community.
"You on your Web site talk about Stephen Fried. There was a fine debate at Brandeis in which Fried spoke about that book and the role of journalists. There were many journalists there who did not agree with everything that Stephen Fried did, who argued that future journalists were harmed by his naming so many names of people who thought they were confidentially interviewing for a rabbinic position. They argued that never again would a synagogue trust journalists. Journalism depends on a certain amount of trust. If I talk to a journalist and I say that this is on the record, this is off the record, I assume that my wishes will be honored. Even if the journalist doesn't like it, there has to be a certain degree of trust. The candidates interviewing assumed that a confidential process would remain confidential.
"These aren't easy issues. The important thing is to have an open debate, and to have journalists who are simultaneously committed to journalism and journalistic ethics, and at the same time care about their communities, and weigh their sometime conflicting responsibilities."
"Did you say you have no sympathy for journalists who don't care about the affect of their work on the community?"
"Not quite that strongly. Journalists who pay no attention to the affect of what they write, however, carry a big moral responsibility. To give the most famous of all examples, The New York Times withheld news of the invasion of Cuba because they felt that publicizing that news would endanger American troops.
"To give another case still debated in journalism school, the Times exposed that one of the leaders of the American Nazi party was a Jew. And he committed suicide when it came out.
"In England, there was great discussion after a leading intelligence officer was exposed for casting doubt on Iraq and he committed suicide.
"A healthy state of tension between the Fourth Estate and the community is called for."
"Your critique of The New Rabbi is?"
"Stephen Fried has a more extreme view of the role of the journalist than I do and he is suspicious of all things confidential... I think his book is wonderfully written and accurate. I knew some of those details first hand. On the other hand, it was not clear to me that the story would've been one whit less powerful if some confidentiality had been preserved, especially when he mentioned names of candidates for the position [of rabbi of Har Zion]. Does the Jewish community suffer when no confidentiality is maintained because many people will not apply for positions if they can not be assured of confidentiality? Government has suffered. We are no longer getting some of the Jeffersons to go into politics because there is a sense of no confidentiality.
"On the one hand, nobody will probably go into a search for a new rabbi without reading that book. On the other hand, I do worry that that book made it more difficult for journalists. Now the first thing you do when you run a search is ban any conversation with a journalist. Even more so, it may have made it more difficult for congregations to sound out rabbis at other places because people will say that they can't risk having their name exposed to the press."
"Can you think of any other sphere of American life where people applying for jobs with such influence and power where they get such hands-off treatment? In every other example, candidates for running the New York Yankees etc are going to be a part of the public discussion."
"Not true at all. When we have a search for a president of our university, we don't hear about the candidates until it is down to the last few. All search committees for university presidents are secret."
"They wouldn't be secret if I were around to report on it," I think.
"Though there is a great deal of speculation," says Dr. Sarna, "we don't know much about what is going on as far as the Kerry Vice Presidential candidacies. There's no publicity. Every time an article is written, the Kerry campaign carefully points out that it is baseless until it happens. I find your argument hard to buy. There are few cases where searches are or should be public. Most often, though, I don't feel much is served by making them public. This is a kind of voyeurism that is satisfied by knowing the intimate details, but no real public purpose. You disagree. It's fine."
"Rabbis tend to be among the most voracious consumers of journalism. I find it humorous that when some elementary techniques of journalism are finally applied to them, they squeal like stuck pigs."
"That is not a complaint unique to rabbis or for that matter to Jews. On the one hand, everybody is interested in the private business of the president and of pop stars. We peep in. We have television shows wholly dedicated to uncovering other people's most private affairs. On the other hand, everybody wants to guard his or her own privacy. The Jewish case is simply a reflection o fa larger case of social hypocrisy. Rabbis are no different from average citizens in this respect."
"They seem to squeal more than CEOs, athletes, Hollywood actors, and other public figures subjected to journalism."
"I don't know. What happens in many companies now is that they simply give out no information at all. I'm not sure we're better for that. I agree with you that we should get reports about what is going on in synagogues. Rabbis feel that the role of the newspaper is to show their institution as they wish it were, not how it may actually be. Newspapers should be telling us more about what goes on day-to-day."
"Did you read Postville?"
"Yeah. Postville I liked a lot less than Stephen Fried's book. The reporter was not objective at all. At a certain point in the story, the reporter decided he didn't like these guys [Chabadniks]. His book became a vendetta against them. It happens a lot in journalism. The journalist is not a dispassionate objective reporter of events but the journalist, like so many of the European journalists, is really an activist who is putting on the guise of objectivity hoping to delude the public away from the agenda that the journalist actually has. A bunch of Middle East journalists are like that. If you speak to the journalists privately, they have strong agendas. They pretend to be objective, but their anti-Israel bias inevitably shows through. The same happened in Postville.
"I don't think the reporter of Postville started that way, but at a certain point, he had an agenda. I found the book much weaker because his dislike of the Hasidim came through. His book would have been much stronger, in my view, had he helped the Hasidim and the town understand each other better on their own terms.
"Second, the reporter didn't know much [about Judaism]. Therefore, there were all sorts of mistakes in the book, some of them hilarious, which cause one to cast doubt on the journalist, because his facts are wrong. He, for example, quotes a Lubavitcher telling him to put on tefillin three times a day, which no Lubavitcher would have ever said [tefillin are only put on once a day, in the morning]."
"Which Jewish publications do you regard as riveting reads?"
"I don't regard any publication as a riveting read. At times, I read riveting articles in Jewish newspapers."
"Which Jewish publications do you regard as the most interesting?"
"If someone were to ask me what do I have to read to be aware of what is going on in the Jewish world, I would list four -- The Jewish Week [of New York], the Forward, the Jerusalem Report, and the JTA (Jewish Telegraph Agency). Sometimes they are not riveting. Sometimes I think they're irresponsible. Sometimes I think I know the story on the inside and I think they're wrong. Nevertheless, they have the highest commitment to presenting us with the story of the Jewish community as it really is."
"How accurate do you think the adjective 'dull' is when applied to American Jewish journalism in general and The Jewish Week in particular?"
"I do not find The Jewish Week dull but that's because my local Jewish weekly is The Jewish Advocate. Compared to many of the other weeklies, The Jewish Week seems to be a model of what a Jewish weekly can be. You only have to compare it to its predecessors to see what a wonderful job Gary has done.
"I think the dullest articles we tend to read are the articles from Israel. They are dull because by the time we read the articles, we're already read The New York Times."
"What do you think of the book review section of The Jewish Week, which has not published a negative review in my lifetime?"
"I think you're being a bit harsh. I don't think I look to The Jewish Week to get a sense of Jewish books. Do I think it matches the Forward? The answer is no. The Forward, more under the previous administration than now (under Jonathan Rosen, the culture page was remarkable and set a standard rarely equaled in Jewish journalism). But compared to other Jewish newspapers, there is coverage at least of which books appear. They don't have reviewers. They have one person who reviews books. Her goal is not so much to review the book but to get Jews to read books. That's a perfectly important goal. It's an educational goal. We haven't talked at all, and you may not respect but I do, the role of the Jewish newspaper as an educational vehicle for the Jewish community. It's no different from the goal of The New York Times in presenting science news, where much of that is simply informing a public that is ignorant about science. The Jewish newspaper has an education function that may stand in tension with its critical function. In this case, the goal of The Jewish Week seems to be to inform readers concerning the best and most important Jewish books that are published."
"The Forward vs The Jewish Week? Which is more fearless and a better paper?"
"I think the Forward has become much less objective. It has declined under its new regime. I found it more compelling under the previous regime. There are stories that you find in the Forward that you find nowhere else. On the other hand, I find stories in The Jewish Week that I don't find well done in the Forward. I think The Jewish Week does a much better job of preserving a sense of objectivity whereas the Forward is taking a liberal party line approach. For example, its reporting on Israel reflects a certain point of view, one that is clearly opposed to Prime Minister Sharon.
"The reporting on the National Jewish Population Survey was also skewed to suport the editor's unique and unsubstantiated theories conerning the survey and the previous survey. Almost none of the scholars of the NJPS buy into JJ Goldberg's conspiracy theory about the survey, nor do most of us buy into his view that intermarriage is not a significant issue. I do not think there was any conspiracy in the world of the NJPS. There may have been mistakes. There are grave problems today with telephone surveys as a genre. I do not think the Forward did a good job of explaining that. The New York Times did it.
"I think the Forward would've been better advised to have gone the Leonard Saxe (head of the Cohen Center of Modern Jewish Studies) direction, and helped readers understand complexity.
"We have not seen anything that resembles Eve Kessler's articles on Jewish religious life [under the Lipsky regime] in the new Forward. She's still working there but she has a different beat. They never replaced her with someone who was investigating our religious institutions in quite so serious a way. They don't even have such a correspondent. The reason is simple. The current editor is not very interested in Jewish religious life. It's not what he thinks the American Jewish community cares about. I think he's wrong.
"I found the Forward more riveting under Seth Lipsky. I respect Seth for creating a new vision of what Jewish journalism could be. I understand he ran afoul of the people who were paying the piper and that JJ is more in tune with the folks who are from the old Forward and have a certain political [socialist] perspective taken from the old Yiddish Forward. I don't happen to share that politics. It's not surprising that I find the slant of the Forward less to my liking. Seth opened up stories that we have not seen before or since.
"We are better off having the current Forward than no Forward. Under Seth, we might not have a current Forward because the organization might not have closed it down.
"There is nobody I respect more in the field of Jewish journalism than Gary Rosenblatt."
"What do you think of the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles?"
"I don't read it unless I'm out there.
"I read the New Jersey Jewish News, which I thought David Twersky significantly improved [until] he fell afoul of his baal habaatim. I think it is unfortunate that a community the size of Boston doesn't have a Jewish newspaper that reflects the high standards of the community or even its voices. The gap between The Jewish Advocate [of Boston] and those other papers [Forward, The Jewish Week] is much wider than the gap between the Boston Globe and The New York Times."
"How do you think the Internet and blogs have affected Jewish journalism?"
"I don't know much about blogging because I don't read them. I would hope that blogging would allow journalists with a point of view to go on the Web.
"The JTA, The Jewish Week, all claim that [the Web] has not hurt their print circulation. They all worried about it. They all discovered that, if anything, it enhanced their print circulation."
Dr. Sarna wrote in Choice magazine about Postville:
Anonymous writes Luke:
Chaim Amalek writes Luke: