I chat Monday, July 12, 2004, with political consultant Steve Rabinowitz.
A source at the Forward says: "Steve worked as a press aide for umpteen Democrats up to and including Bill Clinton. He knows how to deconstruct an article and more about how to report one and put it together than most Jewish journalists. He is protective of his clients but never unfair. He is the Democratic strategist most interested in the Jewish press -- it's part of his business model -- and the PR professional who has most touted it as a 'market.' He boosts us, but at the same time, often busts our chops."
"[The Jewish press] serves a purpose," he says. "It's not everything that a journalism professor would want it to be."
"Eve Kessler told me that we are all a bunch of mediocrities," I say.
"It's difficult for me to dump on these guys too much because of my relationship with them," says Steve.
"But you'd really like to if you could," I say.
"I'd really like not be quoted as saying so. So many of these Jewish editors are friends, and if not friends, I can't afford to make them enemies.
"You get what you pay for. A lot of the Jewish papers are free. The Federation owns them. The good news is if there is anything major in the community, it will be in The New York Times.
"I'm frustrated by how poor the circulation of the Forward is (below 30,000, mostly in New York). It's a great newspaper. We have even worked with them to help them with their marketing. The Forward is the closest thing we have to a national Jewish paper. It has influence, but not a wide reach.
"The Jewish Week is not a bad paper. It has a large staff with more gender diversity than it used to have."
"How do you tell when you're dealing with a sharp reporter?"
"You can tell if they are knowledgeable about a beat from the questions they ask. The follow-ups are a measure of a good reporter. Whether or not the next question comes from your answer or is like a chess move, already anticipated before the answer.
"One of the problems with Jewish papers is that few have reporters who can become expert in their beat [because they have to do so much general assignment reporting]. They invariably have to cover issues they have little background in. They're vulnerable to being led by sources and having to write superficially."
"How often do you encounter a reporter from a Jewish paper who is as sharp and knowledgeable about his beat as a reporter from The New York Times?"
Steve laughs. "I guess I know too many of these guys too well. It's just a different animal. Compare them to African-American weeklies or other ethnic papers, Jewish journalists would stack up well. If the Jewish reporters were of the same calibre as those for The Times, The Times would scoop them up.
"Wolf Blitzer used to write the AIPAC in-house newsletter. He went from there to the Jerusalem Post to CNN. A lot of Jewish journalists are looking to make the jump to mainstream.
"Then there's James Besser. He's totally at peace with where he's at. He's a lot better of a journalist than many of the papers he writes for. He's got a family and he's happy. It's the youngsters who are trying to climb."
"What are some stories the Jewish press is missing?"
"I think the unaffiliated Jew doesn't get covered. First of all, he isn't reading the paper. It's a difficult person to define. Young people haven't been covered. There are painfully few young Jewish readers of traditional Jewish media.
"This becomes cyclical so you have community papers such as Jewish papers just reporting on themselves. Like local society magazines, the people who read them are the people who are in them.
"The same sources get quoted over and over. If I had a nickel for every time Norm Ornstein (American Enterprise Institute) or Larry Sabato (Political Science professor at the University of Virginia) had been quoted about politics, I'd be rich. It seems to be worse in the Jewish community, and I say that as a frequent source for some stories. It's a bit of the same story over and over again.
"Something big will happen in the world that's not about the Jews and the Jewish media will always want to immediately write, 'What will this mean for the Jews?'
"A few days ago, my wife was coming out of the bathroom with a local Jewish newspaper. She said, 'This is the most ridiculous story I've ever seen.' She pointed to a headline that was the lead story in the paper about John Kerry's selection of John Edwards as his running mate. And what does it mean for the Jews? I said, 'Hey, I'm in that story.'
"I know that a lot of journalists hold their noses when they write these stories, but they are compelled to write them, not just because their editors assign them, but because they will absolutely be published and read. At the end of the day, we love to read these 'What does it mean for the Jews' stories and the counting Jews stories (how many Jews in Congress, on the Boston Red Sox etc).
"We're missing trend stories. Where is Jewry headed?"