Teresa Watanabe wrote the most discussed American Jewish journalism story of the past five years for the front page of The Los Angeles Times -- that 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 choices.
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 business/affairs.
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, including Rob 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."