Friday, October 14, 2005

The Responsibility of American Jewish Journalism

Journalism is largely about choice, about what stories to publish and what should be included in those that are. The available space cannot accommodate all that is happening. To accommodate declining readership interest in hard news, much of the available space is increasingly assigned to trivial pursuits, such things as gossip and human interest stories. Likely, the New York Times fabled "All The News That's Fit To Print" front-page boast always has had as much to do with space considerations as with appropriateness, but never more so than now.

Journalism is therefore inevitably - and usually unintentionally - the handmaiden of distortion. What is reported becomes larger than it is, as in the recent Times gushing article on kugel (aka pudding) which in addition to other fantasies contained a bit of sociological infantilism announcing that among chassidim, kugel received from their Rebbes had "mystical powers," including the ability "to help couples conceive." No wonder that chassidim do not take biology.

The distortion is even greater when what is newsworthy is not reported. What is becomes, in a sense, something that isn't. Another contributor to distortion is the use of material from interviews. The inescapable tendency is to select a handful of words out of perhaps many hundreds. In the process, the views of the person who is being quoted are often inaccurately reported. This is why those who are wise avoid giving interviews.

American Jewish journalism, primarily in the form of weekly newspapers, suffers from the shortcomings of the genre. Space limitations are compounded by our extraordinary number of organizations, institutions, projects and causes, many of them trying to get media attention. Public relations is often their primary activity. Another complication is the geographic diversity of American Jewry.
Those who edit our communal newspapers have a tough time figuring out what to print.

At times, they come up short as significant developments go unreported. A case in point is the failure to report that for more than a year there has been an attractive and well-written English language daily newspaper called Hamodia serving charedim or the fervently Orthodox. This is a major story, but I bet that at least 90% of American Jews do not know that there is such a publication. Also worthy of attention and also lost in the shuffle is the huge amount of private construction by and for chassidim at the edge of Williamsburg pushing into Bedford Stuyvesant. This is a development that has significant economic and ethnic implications.

Space limitations do not account for the curious neglect of key Israeli news. Substantial attention is given, of course, to Israel, yet the stories have little depth and the tendency is to shy away from issues that the Israeli government might not want covered in American publications. I wonder why I was the first to write about Israel's enormous shame in turning a blind eye for too many years to the trafficking in women sold into sexual slavery, a subject that has been covered in Israeli newspapers.

Perhaps this story wasn't regarded as sufficiently newsworthy. What is the excuse for the insipid coverage of the intense pressure being exerted on Israel by the Bush Administration and especially Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. As Jonathan Mark noted last week in his important article in this newspaper, this is one of the "most unreported stories of the year." He quoted Sidney Zion's reference in the Daily News to Rice's "bullying" and his complaint about the failure of U.S. media to tell the full story. This is big time news and we should expect coverage in our newspapers.

Could it be that the Sharon government has indicated that American Jewish newspapers should not publish material critical of President Bush and his administration? Or is it that our media are engaged in self-censorship? Whatever the explanation, there is no justification for the nearly total neglect of a critical development in American-Israeli relations. I might add that this neglect does not result in any benefit to Israel, nor to American Jews. It also constitutes a neglect of journalistic responsibility.

Much the same can be said of the feeble attention given to the AIPAC affair. This is in contrast to probing articles in The New Yorker and The New Republic that questioned the charges brought against Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman, the ex-AIPAC staffers. Our publications have essentially reported what can be read in the general media and little else. It was for The New Republic to tell us that this case is the first time "the federal government has charged two private citizens with leaking state secrets" and that the "prosecution of Rosen and Weissman threatens to have a chilling effect - not on the ability of foreign agents to influence U.S. policy, but on the ability of the American public to understand it."

How can American Jewish newspapers ignore these issues? Is our timidity self-imposed or are we obeying instructions from Israel? In either case, our publications are not fulfilling their responsibility. The AIPAC affair is harming Israel because it is causing too many Americans to question this country's relationship with the Jewish state. The AIPAC story is harming American Jews. This harm is not going to be negated by our turning the other cheek, by not challenging charges that deserve to be challenged. If we believe, as I do, that American Jewish groups and Israel have the right to do what other governments and lobbyists do dozens of times each day in Washington and elsewhere, then the charges against Rosen and Weissman are bogus.

I am not advocating that our newspapers disclose information that is secret or harmful to the U.S. or Israel. I am advocating that they adhere to their self-proclaimed credo that a free press is beneficial to democracy and the people who depend on a free press.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Helping Some of Katrina's Children But Not Others

When George W. Bush was re-elected by an unexpectedly wide margin, there was much media and political talk that in order to accommodate social conservatives who were decisive in crucial Red States, Democrats and their liberal allies would moderate their position on hot-button social issues. Soon enough, there were strong signals that this wasn't idle speculation. Perhaps it was their still being blue over the electoral outcome that induced gay righters to say that their advocacy of same-sex marriage was moving too fast - after all, a year later, they're in high drive on the issue - or Senator Clinton to suggest a compromise on abortion.

While certain liberal sacred cows were being offered for political slaughter, there was one that was still regarded as an untouchable, as too sacred to put on any altar to tame the wrath of Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians. There could be no yielding on separation of church and state, on the dogmatic belief that great evil would befall the country if the wall of separation was even slightly breached.

Along came Katrina and New Orleans' walls holding back flood waters were severely breached, giving the purists, including many in the Jewish community, an opportunity to demonstrate anew that nothing can deter their absolutism. When as part of Washington's response to the disaster President Bush proposed an emergency education program that included vouchers for non-public school students - parochial schoolers among them - liberals and Jewish groups emitted howls of protest.

But Katrina is different. Water and wind did not distinguish between home and church, between public school and religious school. There was perfect neutrality in the destruction. Presumably, there should be a reciprocal neutrality in the government's response and in the challenge to rebuild, certainly when we look at this challenge from the perspective of Katrina's victims. If in helping them, the religious education that some received were excluded from public funding on First Amendment grounds, government would inadvertently, yet inevitably, be hostile to religion.

Putting aside the important question of whether there is sufficient space and educational infrastructure to accommodate the large number of parochial school attendees who cannot return to their former schools, even in its most liberal composition the Supreme Court has sanctioned public programs that encompass religious schools and their students when the primary focus is on the welfare of the children. Is there a more compelling example of the child-benefit imperative than the one provided by Katrina?

There is even a question whether in view of the scope of the disaster America is facing, public funding might be utilized to rebuild churches and other religious institutions damaged or destroyed by the storm. Could they be excluded, if the aim is to restore what once was?

The point is not new. It was made nearly forty years ago by Nathan Lewin, the noted constitutional lawyer who was then at the Justice Department, in a paper presented at a conference on aid to parochial schools that I organized and chaired. Not long before, there had been destructive race riots in the Watts section of Los Angeles and in other cities. Referring to these events, Nat said:

"Hypothesize, if you will, an imaginative Mayor of Los Angeles faced with a destroyed area such as Watts, or a daring housing administration in Detroit or in Newark. What if he were to conclude that his municipality should float a bond issue and rebuild the wasted area from the very ground up at city expense? He designs homes and stores and libraries and offices, and then it occurs to him that he must include churches and possibly a synagogue or a mosque ... Must the Mayor build the churches in the area with the very limited funds which the residents can provide or may he dig into the city's treasury to construct buildings that will fit in with their surroundings? I have no hesitation in saying that he may do the latter - even though the city is financing the construction of a church."

The relevance to Katrina is obvious. For all of Nat's prescience, there is no chance that Washington or Louisiana will rebuild ruined Gulf State churches, nor should they be rebuilt with public funds. I believe that a defensible distinction can be made between churches which inherently and fully are establishments of religion and parochial schools which inherently are educational institutions. In any case, school vouchers go directly to children and their parents and they are neutral instrumentalities. The first blast of criticism of the President's proposal was unwarranted. It was the automatic reaction of people who have long been conditioned to oppose any place for religion in the public square, people who never feel the obligation to re-examine their faithless faith.

As I write, there are indications that congressional strict separationists are tempering their position, in recognition that the extreme emergency warrants attention being paid to all victims, including those of a religious persuasion. There isn't a corollary indication that Jewish church-state purists are ready to soften their views. We are diehards and in what I regard as a perverse way, we are consistent. American Jews, after all, have done a good job undermining Judaism. Why shouldn't they bring their talent and resources to bear on other religions?