Teresa Watanabe wrote the most discussed American Jewish journalism story
of the past five years for the front page of The Los Angeles Times
scholars say the Exodus did not take place as the Bible describes it.
I emailed her an interview request July 27 for my book on Jewish journalism:
"I'd like your views on what are the primary obstacles to producing compelling
journalism on American religious life. It is often said around newsrooms
that the religion beat does not go to the best and brightest."
The religion beat is usually where old reporters go to die. It's the
least prestigious beat at newspapers aside from obituaries. None of the
major American papers do a good job at covering religion. There are no
stars among reporters on religion.
I don't feel really qualified to comment on Jewish journalism, other
than to say that I enjoy both the Jewish Journal and the Forward and
find American Jewish journalism to be the highest quality of all American
ethnic media I monitor. I'd like to pass on your interview request,
but would certainly love to see your book when it's out.
If you'd like to interview someone about religious journalism, my colleague
Larry Stammer and former Times religion writer John Dart would be excellent
I appreciate your suggested alternatives though I am sure you know
as well as I do that Larry Stammer is a crappy reporter.
You also know that you are perfectly qualifed to talk about the difficulties
of reporting on American religion, if not specifically Jewish religion,
and that if your subjects refused your interview requests with "I don't
feel qualified," you'd feel fully qualified to be annoyed with them.
Journalists ask other institutions to be transparent and accountable
but you obviously don't hold yourself up to the same standard. I've
read a lot of your reporting on Jewish topics and I know you have many
interesting things to say.
When LA Times reporters (there have been a dozen over the years) have
turned to me for help, I have always given it to them. I've never refused
an interview request (but once). I consider it a professional courtesy.
And so should you.
An impressive attempt at guilt-tripping me but so far I'm several weeks
late on a promised interview with a master's degree student who has
been patiently waiting for me to help him with his thesis on reportage
about Muslims and 9/11, including questions about many of my stories.
As you can see, I am more than happy to be "transparent and accountable,"
time permitting. You specifically started your email off by saying you're
writing about Jewish JOURNALISM -- a subject I do not, in fact, feel
qualified to talk about since I only read the JJ and Forward sporadically.
But now I am annoyed at your annoyance, your presumption to tell me
what I'm qualified to talk about when you don't even know me, your insinuations
that I refuse to be "transparent and accountable," along with your slam
on my trusted and most-valued colleague, Larry Stammer. He is not a
"crappy reporter," as you put it -- among other things, he has broken
national stories over the sex scandal this past year and is a perennial
finalist in the RNA's national journalism awards. He has covered the
Jewish world far more than I have during the past several years, which
is why I referred you to him.
I wanted something that you could've provided if you had cared to give
20 minutes of your time. My only remark about your qualifications was
to protest your protest at your lack of them for my book.
You wrote: "I don't feel really qualified to comment on Jewish journalism..."
I replied: "You also know that you are perfectly qualifed to talk about
the difficulties of reporting on American religion..."
That's no slam on you or presumption on my part. I am sure there have
been times in your journalism career when you were annoyed with people
you wanted to interview who protested that they were not qualified to
speak to you. You probably thought, if not said, let me be the judge
of who to speak to for my story and I won't tell you how to run your
You may be right that I have missed the boat with Larry Stammer. I've
read him for years. You also know that my view of him is widely shared
in the LAT newsroom (though we may all be wrong).
You also know that you wrote the most talked about piece of journalism
on American Jewish life (Wolpe, Exodus) of the past five or ten years.
I do not know your level of transparency and accountability. I do not
know how many interview requests you have given. I do know that I never
recall reading anything more than a cursory quote of yours and I'm pretty
well read on these topics. So if you have been giving interviews, they've
been pretty well hidden.
I do know that as a rule, at the LAT and other major papers, journalists
such as yourself widely refuse interview requests. I think that is wrong.
About half the time when I am interviewed, and that has happened hundreds
of times in the past six years, the interviewer has asked me not to
write on him, which is amusing and sad.
I gave interviews to whoever asked for them when the Exodus story broke,
Eshman of the JJ, the Jerusalem Post and the now-defunct Jewish
newspaper in the valley whose name escapes me. I am asked several times
a year for interviews by college students, usually journalism or religious
studies majors, and usually grant them depending on how frenetic my
life happens to be at the time. When people tell me they're not qualified
to speak, they always provide an alternative, which I follow up with
gratefully and graciously. Perhaps a few times I sweet-talked them into
speaking to me anyway, an art you might work on honing.
In any case, I officially left the religion beat a year ago, let my
RNA membership lapse, do not follow religion news so closely anymore
except for American Muslim affairs. I'm supposed to be moving into ethnic
community stories, and that's where I've been putting much of my psychic
energy of late, even though I have some leftover religion stories that
are set to run in the next few weeks and still help occasionally on
the religion page.
The paper's two official religion reporters are Larry and Bill Lobdell,
another wonderful writer, in Orange County. Part of the reason I passed
on your interview is that much of this stuff is fading very quickly
from my aging memory.
People have been terribly unfair to Larry, including the New Times
and L.A. Weekly and people in my own newsroom who have slammed him in
those pages and not had the guts to own up to their sentiments. He's
the most knowledgeable religion writer in Southern Cal, and a wonderful,
kind, collegial and decent person as well.
Too bad writes: "She gotcha. she was kind and courteous in exchange
of your rudeness. Rule number one: Obnoxious journalists should only try
working on other obnoxious journalists. Fascinating read."
Yehupitzer writes Luke: "I think you were unfairly harsh to Teresa. She
politely declined and then politely offered some suggestions. You then
threw a hissy-fit. If I was her, I would have been tempted to write back
"f*** off." She might have been tempted as well, and then held herself
back when she realized you would post it all."