What Are The Obstacles To Good Jewish Journalism?

I chat Friday, June 18, 2004 with Andrew Silow-Carroll, editor in chief of the New Jersey Jewish News.

"What are the chief obstacles to doing good Jewish journalisms?"

"Your assuming there isn't much good Jewish journalism. Some people do it well. The Forward does it really well. The Jewish Week in New York can do it really well on certain topics."

"How often do you think they do it really well?"

"It depends on what your goals are. If your goal every week is to muckrake and to uncover a scandal, you have to assume there are a lot of scandals that are going under the radar. I'm not sure how true that is. One judge of Jewish journalism is not just covering a community's bad news but making sure the debate about Jewish life reflects a broad range of opinions. Jewish journalism is doing a better job of that over the past ten years than it ever did. Partly because when Rabin came to power, it broke down the taboo on the right of criticizing Israel. Let's separate the reporting from ideas journalism. There are definitely more ideas in play in Jewish journalism than there have been in the past. The ZOA (Zionist Organization of America) is glad to criticize the Sharon government as harshly as ten years ago, Peace Now criticized the Shamir government.

"Yeah, there's probably not enough hard news investigative reporting in Jewish journalism but that doesn't mean that Jewish journalism is a rubber stamp for some of the biggest ideas in Jewish life."

"Is the New Jersey Jewish News owned by the local Jewish Federation?"

"It is. It is an obstacle. It puts a constraint on us and the things we can report about. Within the world of Jewish Federation owned newspapers, my Federation tries to extend as much independence as possible. I get to write my editorials. I don't have to submit them to an editorial board. I don't have to submit my articles to an editorial board. I do have to have a consulting relationship with them that I would rather not have. About half of Jewish newspapers are in that boat. Being independent doesn't mean you're a good paper and being with the Federation doesn't necessarily mean that you're bad. When you're independent, it doesn't mean that you don't have constraints coming from advertisers and your owner. I've worked for individual owners who sometimes have more axes to grind than the community boards that run or advise a Federation paper.

"It is up to a good editor to see that a full story is told. We've been able to. I've been here a year-and-a-half. I was at the Forward before that. We've been able to tell stories honestly, though sometimes not with the telling detail that I would prefer. You start thinking, can this story be told without embarrassing the participants more than they need to be embarrassed? Can the story be told without doing damage to the institution itself beyond the damage it deserves? I'm not embarrassed by this restraint. We're a small paper serving a small community which is a small subset of a small ethnic group. We have a kind of responsibility that you don't have if you have a big wild and woolly city weekly that doesn't have to worry about the sensibilities of a small voluntary community. I have 45,000 subscribers."

"What were the benefits and costs in journalism of moving to your present position?"

"Benefits: You have a nice intimate relationship with your readers who are rooted in their geography and want to know about their friends and neighbors. The Forward is a national paper that sets an agenda for the organizational world but you don't meet your readers beyond the board rooms of the big organizations. The down side is independence. Independence is nice at the Forward. It's nice to be able to say that the only thing that matters in this story is -- is it true? Is it fair? Is it accurate? At some level, every good journalist should ask, is it serving a purpose? You don't have to ask: Whose oxe is being gored? What are the prices of a volunteer philanthropist not liking the story? That's liberating. Because it's a national newspaper, every week the Forward can go out and find the 15-20 best stories in the country. I'm a local weekly. I have to find the best things that are happening in my geography. Some weeks are interesting and some weeks are pro forma."

"When and where did you begin in Jewish journalism?"

"I go back to the late '80s at the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia. I was a freelancer. I got hired by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (30 months). Then I was at the Washington Jewish Week for 30 months. I became editor. I had a great staff, including Larry Cohler. We had an independent owner who was erratic but gave us latitude to write some interesting things, including the Israel-US relationship. We built up an interesting reputation for telling the truth at a time when that was not that accepted in the Jewish world that you would write something that would not reflect well, especially on Israel.

"I resigned after my late boss demoted me, ostensibly because I was too young (I was in my early 30s), but at the same time AIPAC was distributing a memo saying I was a leftist who shouldn't be editing a Jewish weekly. Apparently an AIPAC "monitor" caught a speech I gave at a picnic for Washington-area left-wing groups, and alleged that by my speaking at a picnic for left-wing groups, I was endorsing their agenda.(I spoke everywhere I was invited -- that's one of the responsibilites of being an editor.) But AIPAC had clearly been upset with Larry Cohler's reporting and had previously approached me directly about taking him off the story. I refused. I can' say the publisher was responding directly to that memo -- he was famously erratic and went through about ten editors in twelve years. But I know close friends of his were in possession of the memo. My [late] boss went through about ten editors in twelve years. AIPAC thought that by my speaking at a picnic for left-wing groups, I was endorsing their agenda. I was in my early 30s."

"Do you carry resentment to AIPAC to this day?"

"Not to this day. My life has moved on. I wasn't all that hurt by it professionally. At the time, I thought it was unfortunate that a Jewish organization would be involved in suppressing debate around the country. AIPAC has changed its stripes because suppressing debate now means suppressing the right. Norman Podhoretz wrote as soon as Rabin came to power that it's ok to criticize Israel. It's ok to critize the Left. It put AIPAC out of their control-the-message business.

"In all my years with Larry, I never remember printing a correction, clarification, or retraction. What AIPAC hated at the time, and what they still hate about the Forward, is that they don't think these things should be written about. They make the case that we need a unified voice when it comes to Israel because we are a beleaguered people. By reporting on dissent in the community, you give fodder to Israel's enemies.

"But consensus in the Jewish community does not exist. By not providing a voice to those who dissent, you disenfranchise a large part of the community. The Conference of Presidents can say, why are you printing these guys who have no standing in the community? Well, they have no standing in the community because they lost the vote. It doesn't mean they are not dues-paying members of the community. We need to be a voice for both.

"Malcolm Hoenlein (executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of major American Jewish Organizations) recently spoke to the American Jewish Press Association on the topic of dissent in the community. He seemed to be troubled by articles that report dissent in the community. I think he had the Forward in mind. Jewish newspapers go to reliable people knowing they will disagree with the mainstream. And that's not responsible, according to Hoenlein. If the Conference of Presidents comes to a consensual idea, it's not responsible to go to Tikkun for a contrary opinion."

"You don't have any time for that view, right?" I say.

"Who am I to read Tikkun out of the communal debate? If Bush doesn't get 30% of the [Jewish] votes come November, nobody is going to be surprised. We've known all along that he still has vulnerabilities in the Jewish community.

"Republican Jews, to take another example, are a minority in the Jewish community, but we are obligated to publish their views.

"I'm not even sure what Malcolm would expect of us. Just to report Conference of Presidents proceedings as is without hinting about the debates that roil beneath the surface is a false picture of Jewish life."

"People like him who consume an enormous amount of journalism really don't have the first clue about it," I sigh.

I think to myself, "You can call what Malco;m wants for the Jewish press many things, such as propaganda, but you can't call it journalism."

"Quite the opposite," says Andrew. "Malcolm is a savvy player. He knows full well what we do. He thinks Jewish journalism has a different responsibility than mainstream journalism. And it is true: There is an advocacy part of what we do that demands that we work closely with the greater aims of the Jewish community. Then the debate comes who sets those aims. Malcom feels that as the professional at a group that represents consensus among the presidents of the top 52 Jewish organizations he's the closest you are going to get to it. They set the advocacy agenda. Jewish journalism should not undermine that agenda. It's a point of view about journalism. I think he understands journalism entirely."

I scream in my head: "It's a point of view akin to Goebells. Journalism as the hand maiden of the Authority. Malcolm Bloody Hoenlein should take his place with the former Iraqi Information Minister Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf as a bloody-minded propagandist out of 1984. What he wants has as much to do with journalism as ham and eggs have to do with Orthodox Judaism.

"In an age of spin, Malcolm Hoenlein offers feeling and authenticity. His message is consistent -- unshakeable, in fact, no matter the evidence -- but he commands daily attention by his on-the-spot, invective-rich variations on the theme. His lunatic counterfactual art is more appealing than the banal awfulness of the Reliable Sources. He is a Method actor in a production that will close in a couple of days. He stands superior to truth."

I keep my temper and protest gently to Andrew, "That's not journalism. That's Pravda."

Andrew: "Umm, maybe. I won't go that far. I just know it's a different view of what we should be."

"You can't hold any truck with that," I say.

If you did, you might as well turn in your gonads to Malcolm Bloody Hoenlein, and when he thinks it is ok for you to have your balls back, maybe he'll give them to you.

Andrew: "I tend not to. Which is not to say that we don't think about a responsibility to Jewish life. We do have an advocacy role to play. I'm not neutral on Israel. I'm proudly pro-Israel. If there's a point of view expressed in the Israel Knesset, it's probably fair to have it expressed in the American Jewish community. There's Tommy Lapid, Ariel Sharon and Yossi Beilin. These are all good Jewish Israelis whose opinions should be expressed in our paper. It doesn't mean we'll print everything. It doesn't mean that I don't weigh the effects of what we do on Jewish well being."

"Is there much self-hating Jewish stuff written anymore?" I ask.

My neshama longs for the days of controversy over Portnoy's Complaint (Phillip Roth) and Israel Shahak.

"By my opinion, I don't think there ever was. I don't buy that Portnoy's Complaint was self-hating. Where the self-hating stuff is supposedly going on today is on the far Left of the mainstream political debate. You've got a lot of Jews involved in The Nation magazine and MoveOn.org. They are very critical of Israel. Tony Jutt who wrote that piece in the New York Review of Books questioning Israel's legitimacy. They would be described as self-hating. Not about American Jewry, but about Israel."

"But they're not funny. Remember the funny purportedly self-hating stuff of 30 years ago?"

"Most of the interesting Jewish literature now is being written by the more observant core Jews. Roth and Wallace Markfield (To an Early Grave) were writing in reaction to assimilationist tension. Now the interesting stuff is by Allegra Goodman, Nathan Englander, who are looking at what is happening among Jews who are religious and involved. The assimilation thing has been played out. There is less reason for self hatred. The self-haters, if there ever were, opted out of Jewish life and the ones who stayed in are getting ever more Jewish."

What did you think of The New Rabbi?" I ask.

"I think it is a terrific book. I belong to a Conservative synagogue. I can look out from my pew and see some of the people named in the book. I'm surprised by the reaction from all the Conservative rabbis about the damage he did. I thought it was a pro-rabbi book. It showed that lay leaders can be incredibly petty. It showed how difficult it can be for a rabbi to be a politician who has to please an entire congregation. The famous stuff about Perry Rank [that he wore his kipa side-saddle] made the synagogue look bad for focusing on such superficial things. It didn't make me think less of Perry Rank. I'm baffled [at the accusations that] Fried spoke lashon hara in this book. He did a lot of homework, got the cooperation of most of the people in the book, and told a useful story. I wouldn't want to be a rabbi and not read that book."

"I was ticked off at the criticism by so many Conservative rabbis," I say. "These guys must be incredibly thin-skinned and control freaks."

"There's a little of that. There's a certain amount of self importance in the role. It's one thing for you and I and Stephen Fried and Ari Goldman to agree that rabbis are public figures. If they don't see themselves as such, however, there's going to be a period of transition where they don't fully understand their role as public figures. They may find themselves saying things that a public figure would not. I don't know how much education is going in the Jewish Theological Seminary about press relations. If you come up as a politician or a civil service executive, you have a press office.

"In community journalism, we say you're a public figure, whether you're the head of a pre-school or a day school principal, but they don't see themselves as such, so they're not savvy with the newspaper. They can get screwed. They don't know how to play the game. I tell my reporters all the time that we have some responsibility to tell them that we are going to be writing about this. Think about how you want to message this. Make sure you are speaking for the synagogue and not just yourself."

"Is there good American Jewish journalism by Israeli papers?" I ask.

"Not much. I haven't been that impressed. The Israelis take a patronizing tone to nutty American Judaism, meaning Reform and Conservative Jews. Israelis don't have a grasp of American diversity.

"Federation papers can do a good job. The serious people you want to attract to Jewish causes are not going to be attracted to a newspaper that is pediatric or geriatric. If they see themselves and their concerns and their dissent reflected in the pages of the paper, they're more likely to respect the community and take part. That's how I sold myself to my current position and I think they buy it."

"Any reflections on your time guest-blogging on Protocols?" I ask.

"You're talking to the inside of the inside. Really smart people. I get a lot of ideas from them. They're insiders who are talking out of school every now and then. In between the rumors, there are the germs for a good story."

Andrew writes later:

Maybe the primary obstacle is that there may not be a constituency for tough, iconoclastic reporting. I suspect that most of our subscribers, and subscribers to Jewish weeklies, do not want a newspaper that makes them feel uncomfortable about aspects of Jewish life. They feel we have a role to play as advocates, as comforters, as entertainers, and bulletin boards, but not as gadflies or the "afflicters of the comfortable." When we were publishing good investigative stuff at the Washington Jewish Week in the early 1990s, I felt there was a small elite of readers who appreciated what we were doing (the kinds of readers who gravitate to Protocols and the woefully under-subscribed Forward), a similarly-sized clique that felt we were bad for the Jews, but a remaining majority that didn't care much for that kind of reporting and flipped quickly to the recipes, synagogue announcements and wedding notices.

I don't blame them, necessarily. It's a divide within religious life as well -- there are many folks, and I'd guess they are the majority, who take part in religious life as if they were slipping into a warm bath, looking for comfort, solace, and reaffirmation of their basic beliefs and prejudices. Only an elite takes part to be intellectually challenged and spiritually discomfitted. (I think this is true in all the movements, by the way.) That's not to say that the complacent crowd is neither intellectual nor up for a challenge -- only that they seek those challenges outside of affiliated Jewish life.

The question for me as an editor is, do I lead or follow? I think I try to split the difference -- gently and responsibly lead them to uncomfortable places, but also provide the kind of stuff that affirms their basic commitment to their Jewishness. Does that sound wiggly? Perhaps. But I don't think there is an editor in the country, at any newspaper or media outlet, who doesn't weigh the platonic ideals of the journalist's profession against what he sees as the appettites of his community of readers.

There's one other factor that must be said, and that's the talent pool in Jewish journalism. Journalism and the media are already "Jewish" professions and serve as magnets for the best and brightest of our community. Papers like mine are small, alternative, fairly low-paying -- and unable to provide the prestige and opportunities available in the mainstream. That doesn't mean that I haven't worked with really talented people -- and still do. But the reality is that we're less able to compete for the "major league" talent, and on the whole the product suffers as a result.