I call professor Mark Silk, who's Jewish, Thursday, August 26, 2004.
"I think the Jewish press is pretty good when compared to in-house coverage in other denominations. A fair amount of it is independently owned. A lot of the larger places are good, led by the Forward. It has no competitor. It stands alone as the national weekly. Their coverage of intellectual stuff has increased since Lipsky left and is quite impressive. For anyone who wants to keep up with Jewish stuff, it's essential reading.
"It was quirky under Lipsky. It was more conservative, which, to my taste, is less good. It's more predictable now. It was a Likud operation. It was odd, and for the people who booted him out, it was too odd to have a Jewish publication that far right. Editorially, it is where most Jews tend to be.
"The Jewish weekly press [aside from the Forward] is not especially interesting. They're reluctant to attack the local Jewish establishment or to even look closely. Even if they are independently owned, they are still dependent on advertising and tie-ins on circulation. They tend to be defensive of any criticism of Israel in ways that make for not interesting reading.
"The Catholic press is all run by the archdioceses. They're all house organs. They don't have independent weeklies like the Baltimore Jewish Times, Detroit Jewish News, Atlanta Jewish Times. There are large parts of the country where you have more Baptists on the ground by orders of magnitude than Jews but they're all in different churches. Their sense of denominational identity [is not strong]."
"Two big reasons for the superiority of the Jewish press is the peoplehood component of Judaism and its nonhierarchical nature."
"My impression is that coverage of Jews and Judaism has been light in recent years in the secular press. Jews have been a familiar part of the American scene for a couple of generations. I think there's been an editorial reluctance to get involved in the current American Middle Eastern situation. They get screamed at by the Jews for anything that doesn't seem supportive of Israel. And there are now vocal Muslims who get upset on the other side. I think there's a tendency not to do it anymore than they have to, compared to some earlier times when it was felt to be part of American pluralism to cover folks other than Christians, and that only meant Jews... Now there are other folks who receive that attention. The percentage of Jews in the general population has dropped below two percent.
"I think a significant undercovered the story has been the Lubavitch movement. People have not wanted to look closely at the messianism and the local political hardball. They're tough actors and I don't think they get a significant amount of serious scrutiny.
"There's a tendency to regard Messianic Jews as pariahs and not worthy of attention. The secular press is not entitled to disregard them as beyond the pale of respectable religion. It's a religious judgment to say that their combining of Judaism with Christianity is non-kosher but Presbyterians and Baptists are kosher.
"There's the ongoing story of the weakening of Jewish communal agencies and their difficulty finding leaders of the stature that there used to be. That the American Jewish Congress has to go to an Israeli to head it is extraordinary.
"Madonna's Kabbalah thing has not been covered seriously with the exception of one good article by Yossi Klein Halevi. Even that was a formulaic piece. That Hollywood religion is silly. Philip Berg deserves to be regarded as an operator. It's been almost entirely covered as an entertainment story. There's a prejudice against a certain kind of pop religion. It's definitely a popularizing of kaballah, trading in a promise of eternal life, but that is not to say it isn't serious religious practice."
"Don't secular papers normally put their worst reporters on the religion beat?"
"Not at all. It used to be, perhaps. It was certainly a backwater beat for church ladies. Beginning in 1994, with The Dallas Morning News's invention of a faith and values section. That set in train a move towards devoting more resources to religion coverage. With more resources, came first rate reporters. Good reporters get good stories. Ann Rogers out of Pittsburgh. Michael Paulson out of the Boston Globe. Teresa Watanabe at The LA Times is from a Japanese-American family out of the Pacific Northwest. She was foreign correspondent in Japan. She came back and did a great job on religion for a few years before moving on to other beats. A generation ago, a reporter like that would not have been pushed into covering religion. The notion that the secular press is inherently hostile to religion has never been true.
"My major criticism of the trend towards more coverage has been the preference to do soft stories. To say that religion is becoming less institutional. We have to cover how people feel. I don't think journalists are good at doing that kind of story. It throws them back to repeating whatever this or that academic has to say about more people believing in angels and then finding an example of that on the ground.
"You can't answer questions such as what is the secular press's attitude towards Catholicism. There is no there there. The press tends to not like the abuse of children sexually. It tends to approve of the good works of Mother Theresa. It likes the Pope in some respects and not in other respects."
"What was your reaction to David Klinghoffer's book, The Lord Will Gather Me In?"
"I think he's a dodo. It's not because he's conservative. He's not just an ideologue. He's ignorant. I've been at the point many times of writing the Forward to say, I understand you need to have somebody writing from the conservative standpoint, but he's a dope. It's a real example of a little bit of knowledge being terrible."