I call Ami Eden, the Forward's national editor, Friday, July 23, 2004.
"What were you expected to become?"
"When I was a kid, I wanted to become a disco dancer, or president of the United States.
"Both my parents are lawyers. I used to be argumentative. So I guess they figured I'd become a lawyer or a politician. They weren't disappointed when I became a journalist. My mom reads several daily papers. My mom reads all of the Forward, even the stuff I don't read. My dad reads it selectively.
"I come from a long line of knowledgable l heretics, Labor Zionists. I went occasionally to a Conservative havurah. I started to move towards Modern Orthodox towards the end of college and I finished that move a year after college.
"I had started dating a girl who was Modern Orthodox. It was like a suit I had in the closet that I would put on from time to time. I was always comfortable in the suit and started wearing it more often. I ended up running with it on my own. I ended up marrying the girl [and having three kids]."
"Did your parents think you had become meshuganeh when you became Orthodox?"
"Maybe, but not in a bad way. My dad is the kind of person who would jokingly say, where did I go wrong?
"I went to Brown and worked on the weekly paper The College Hill Independent.(a joint project between students at Brown and students at RISD -- Rhode Island School of Design). I majored in Judaic Studies and American History and graduated in 1995."
"Do you find much support for journalism in the Jewish tradition?"
"I think about that all the time. Am I just engaged in idle gossip? Then I look at the Torah. It exposes all sorts of things that would be considered yellow journalism. All sorts of sexual stuff that we don't even print at the Forward. There's a clear message in the Jewish tradition that power is not a shield against criticism. I heard Rabbi Saul Berman say that the Torah gives every detail of what the priests are supposed to do during the sacrifices not because the priests wouldn't know, but to remove all mystique, any sense that the masses would think that the priests are doing something secret and have special power. We are not supposed to be blindly subservient to authorities. They are supposed to be checked and examined."
"Have you ever checked with a rabbi for halachic guidance on how you should go about reporting a story?"
"No. I've never gone to a rabbi and said, I have this story and I'm not sure what to do. There are rabbis I have general discussions with about the various ethics of journalism and talking about hypothetical situations, but not where I went to my rabbi and asked, do I have permission to print X. The only time I did something like that was when I was dealing with a personnel issue."
"Is your journalism and your Orthodox separated or integrated?"
"Sometimes it is integrated. I've written columns from my religious perspective. To some degree, it's always helping me frame the variety of questions I'm going to be asking."
"Let's talk about lashon hara that is accurate and true and what is legitimate to put in the newspaper?"
"This is the problem. I'm not a rabbi. I don't think you can justify any article if you simply ask, does this meet the criteria of lashon hara. Truth is not a defense in lashon hara. I believe that you need to have a value that trumps lashon hara, such as the public's need to know and to keep institutions honest.
"There was the head of a seminary [Sheldon Zimmerman at HUC]. Did we want to get into the details of what he did? I was not sure how important the details were. The guy had been severely punished [fired from his job for adultery, etc]. Everybody seemed to agree that the Reform movement dealt swiftly and responsibly. He's accepted the punishment. There's no sense that the person who made the complaints is now complaining. Did we need to get to the bottom of what this thing was? I don't think so. From a lashon hara perspective, getting into the sordid details would be crossing the line. What's the justification?"
"The problem by not spelling out what his sexual sins were is that everybody then wonders what were his sexual sins. Now he's in a responsible position somewhere else (UJC)."
"That's a valid point. I don't think anybody cracked the nut about what he did. It's not like anybody was sitting on a pile of info and didn't publish it. When he got a new position, I said to myself, I didn't think that through. Maybe I need to reevaluate it. Then again, maybe the people who hired him for his new position did due diligence. Then again, that's not my role as a journalist.
"In the Rabbi Baruch Lanner story, the details were important. You had a situation where an entire bureaucracy had spent two decades covering something up. It wasn't like the OU dealt with Baruch Lanner and then we were trying to get into the details for no reason."
"How come The Jewish Week broke that story and you didn't?"
"Gary is plugged into that community in New Jersey. He lives in New Jersey where that story happened. He has the persona of being both a journalistic leader and a person in the Modern Orthodox community. If you were a victim, he would be an obvious person to go to. My sense is that he knew about it for a while."
"Do you have any doubt that you are working for the best Jewish weekly in America?"
"No. The only reason somebody would pick any other newspaper over the Forward would be for the communal focus. I worked at the Jewish Exponent (summer of 1997 to summer of 2000) for three years and it became clear to me that the most important thing people wanted from their local Jewish newspaper was to find out who was born, who got Bar Mitzvahed, who got engaged and who got married. I can't give that to them with the Forward. I can't even give them the second most important thing -- what events are going on at the shul.
"There are many talented journalists at other Jewish newspapers, but those publications have more complicated agendas. Ours is simply to put out the most interesting newspaper that we can."
"What stories couldn't you put in the Exponent?"
"You get a good idea of what you are going to be able to handle. I would always pick areas to cover that I would be able to cover legitimately. We would never cover Federation the way the Forward covers UJC. Sometimes we could do stories that covered debates over funding issues. If we are able to do those stories, you are very careful to be [he-said, she-said] rather than compelling eye-catching boil-it-down-to-one sensation point to tell the story which is the way Forward does it. Definitely the Federation did not get covered as the dominant institution of the community should get covered. They own the paper. You know that. You go on with your job. You are not going to do any enterprising reporting about the Federation."
"What about enterprising reporting on the biggest donors?"
"You are not going to have that though Jonathan Tobin [current editor-in-chief of the Exponent] and his predecessor Buddy Korn established the precedent that the news is not going to be ignored."
"We ran all the news stories. They were important donors who were very embarrassed. There were people who said we should've ignored that story but we didn't. It was news and we covered it.
"You'd be amazed at what upsets people. It's the most local things and most irrelevant that upset people. I wrote a string of stories about the way Israel was dealing with Ethiopians and whether the JDC (Joint Distribution Committee) was doing enough. There were no complaints. It wasn't seen as stepping on anybody's toes in Philadelphia. But if you do a story on a rabbi in one neighborhood, the question becomes why didn't you do the other rabbi in the other neighborhood? That's what would cause a firestorm.
"Federations are built around the culture of fundraising. Fundraisers have their own way of seeing the world. They think that the donor must always be kept happy. I thought we foisted low expectations on to the donor community. I've heard about Federation people calling to apologize to a donor before the donor complained. If there is a general expectation that a newspaper operates like a newspaper and doesn't play favorites, I think donors can be educated to accept a paper like that and not going running and crying to the Federation over whatever problem they have.
"I was sympathetic to the anxieties of the Federation people. Their task is to raise as much money as possible to take care of people with desperate needs. You spoke about the lashon hara issue. I spent more time thinking, if I run this story in the Exponent, and they lose $10,000 because of it, I can talk all I want about journalistic freedom but that's $10,000 of meals for senior citizens that they just lost.
"In reality, there were people who pulled contributions because they didn't like the things we ignored. Buddy and Jonathan said, 'Do your job as a journalist. Everything is on our shoulders.'
"I was at the Exponent when [J.J. Goldberg's column was dropped for criticizing Mort Klein, president of Zionists of America and a Philadelphia resident]. It happened in a vacuum between Buddy Korn and Jonathan Tobin. There was no editor. It was the worst thing that happened while I was there. What made it so embarrassing was that we ran the column and then we had to make all these apologies [and discontinue J.J.'s column]. Every paper has to spike a column every once in a while. If we had spiked a J.J. Goldberg column, I don't think it would've been the end of the world."
We discuss the book, The New Rabbi, which we both loved.
"I'm not sure that synagogues should be covered like a regular beat. I believe that we should cover the Federation like it's the Whitehouse -- aggressive, their decision-making process... But a synagogue, that's like assigning a writer to a family. I don't think congregations should be covered aggressively step-by-step. Should I write that I know that 15 people in the congregation are unhappy that the rabbi didn't thank that person? If you started covering synagogues like that, you'd destroy them.
"But a book is different. It comes out once. It's not every week. If I was at the Jewish Exponent and I was doing that every week to your congregation, I'd destroy it. He was getting cooperation. He told people he was writing a book. I thought it was a pro-rabbi. The rabbi [Perry Rank] who was angry at [Fried], it wasn't the rabbi who looked bad but the board for turning him away because the kipa hung by the side of his head.
"I believe rabbis are public figures. If somebody told me that the rabbi of a congregation was having an affair, I'd be slower to think that was a story we needed to write about as opposed to a rabbi who got up on TV and gave a weekly show on morality.
"I remember once I had to wait a week to write about a major rabbinic firing where they were negotiating a severance. The Federation donors wanted it not to be in the paper until it was settled. That annoyed me as the reporter but the story was in the [Jewish Exponent] a week later.
"It always happens with the senior rabbis, the congregations want to push them out. If you have a rabbi who's been there 35 years and there starts to be a groundswell against him, do you write it just because five percent of the people start saying he's old and batty?"
"Most charedi Orthodox rabbis flee from TV cameras, as opposed to a Shmuley Boteach who embraces them."
"If there was ever a rabbi who would merit a full-blown article about his marriage and love life, it would be Shmuley Boteach. He's putting himself out there as an expert in the way you should do it. If I was the editor of the Jewish Exponent, I would never assign a reporter to find out what a regular rabbi's sex life is like."
"What do you hate about your job?"
"I feel like I'm straddling that bridge between being an editor and a writer. I'm struggling to achieve my potential in both areas."
"What about the best blogger you can be?"
"I haven't even come close to doing that. I'm still trying to figure out what the heck I should be doing with the blog."
"How is blogging affecting Jewish journalism, if at all?"
"Right now, not much at all. The bulk of people who read Jewish newspapers I can't imagine are hooked into blogging.
"The creation of the Forward had a much bigger impact than blogging. When I was at the Exponent, I felt there were many stories I ended up doing because the Lipsky Forward did them (maybe a little over the top). It moved the goal posts in what we were allowed to write. The Lipsky Forward was constantly trying to stick its thumb in the eye of the organized Jewish community. So when we suddenly did a balanced story about a serious issue, Federation types said, ok, you were fair. It created a range of debate because it was such a counter to the liberal assumptions out there. It covered all Jewish organizations so aggressively, people got used to it. If you are a macher and you read the Forward, then you read a real news story in your local paper, then it doesn't seem as jarring. Now you're used to seeing articles having Abe Foxman answering for his actions."