Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Backward With the Forward

Journalism matters, which is why democratic governments try to influence what is reported and why those that are authoritarian control the news. We also know that journalism matters because many are often upset by what they read or hear. We Jews constantly kvetch about stories that we regard as unfair to Israel. In fact, this column is predicated on the notion that journalism matters, that what is written can influence what people know or believe.

Of course, what exercises readers or listeners is often much ado about very little. Most of what we pay attention to are wisps of ink or sound, stories that seem important at a particular moment only to be quickly replaced by new wisps of news. This is particularly true of reports that cover issues on which we already have set opinions. Our attention is selective, somewhat similar to fans who read the sports pages when their heroes win and don’t – or pay less attention – when they lose. In short, we gather information to confirm what we already believe to be true. We may be upset when our views are challenged, but our belief system is scarcely altered.

There is a higher level of journalistic impact and responsibility when what is being reported is written on a clean slate. There is a heightened prospect that what we read or listen to will affect what we accept to be true. Because much of Jewish journalism covers what is not reported elsewhere, our communal newspapers have a special obligation to be accurate and not to distort.

I have been critical of Jewish journalism because it relies too heavily on gossip, on stories which even when accurate are distorted because they take something that is inconsequential or incidental and present it as reflecting attitudes and behavior on a far broader scale. The typical example is the breathless stories of minor incidents in shuls. Such journalism may be accurate and yet is also a distortion.

On occasion, our journalism crosses a line by embellishing details or imposing an ideological slant on what is being reported as news. In its latest incarnation as a left-leaning weekly, the Forward has aspired to the low status as a muckraker, with much of the muck being its own. For months, its front page has informed readers that because of scandals involving his sons and reaching to him, Ariel Sharon would soon be forced from office and perhaps even indicted. Some of this may happen, in the way that news stories fifty years ago of Stalin’s imminent death were eventually borne out. But Mr. Sharon is still in office and what the Forward has reported has not been accurate because there have not been any imminent indictments. I wonder whether the newspaper’s editors have paused to consider whether their reports from Israel have been grossly overblown.

Another example: A company called Alliance has been implicated in the mutual fund scandals, which is not a Jewish story. Several years ago, Alliance purchased Bernstein & Company, which was at the time chaired by Roger Hertog. He is not implicated in the mess although he is involved in Alliance. Mr. Hertog is also a Jewish neo-con and part owner of the New York Sun and The New Republic. In an evidently confused and nasty story, the Forward implicated him in the scandal and suggested that he would be forced out. As in the Sharon reportage, there is reason to believe that what the Forward wrote was derived from its ideological slant.

The newspaper has come to specialize in cholent journalism, the practice of taking divergent bits and pieces and fashioning them into a single hash. As those who make or eat cholent know, the dish can be a grand slam or something foul. The Forward has an instinct for the latter, as in a front-page story a few weeks back on an obscure Hebrew-language book written by someone who has studied at Beth Medrash Govoha, the great yeshiva in Lakewood, New Jersey. The book was privately published by the author, which means that it occupies a place below what is known as vanity publishing. Some of his views are offensive and deserve condemnation. I doubt that it sold as many as twelve copies until the Forward came along to say that it carries a letter of approbation from the Yeshiva’s dean. Lakewood presently has more than 3,000 students and thousands more have studied there. We may rightly hope that its dean – and all others in similar positions – would refrain from writing letters of approbation regarding books that they have not read. In the event, the book was not Lakewood’s. But the story published in the Forward was all about Lakewood, as irrelevant scraps of information entirely unrelated to the book were thrown in, the obvious intent being to besmirch the Yeshiva.

Although it can be nasty, the Forward can be benevolent, as it was in a tendentious apologia for George Soros’ blatant anti-semitism. This can be contrasted with the despicable language it used at about the same time about Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe and head of Agudath Israel, for raising important concerns about Internet pornography. This is a serious social concern, as is evident from prosecutorial actions around the globe aimed particularly at child pornography but also at other sexual abuses linked to the use of the Internet. How easy and yet also how disgusting it is to make a villain out of a good man who is fulfilling his responsibilities as a religious leader.

Since cholent is nowadays eaten mainly by Orthodox Jews, it’s to be expected that cholent journalism will be aimed mainly at the Orthodox. The worst practitioner is a reporter stationed in Israel who cannot get any story right. His latest excursion into mythology appeared last week in an article that ostensibly dealt with a battle in Russia between rival groups of Jewish organizations. The dominant one is led by Chabad. The story is complex and there isn’t space to deal with it here, except to say that the alleged journalist had it all wrong when he wrote that Chabad excludes the non-Orthodox.

For all of the Forward’s failings, there is hope. The newspaper may have another incarnation.