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.