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Jewish World Review July 30, 1999 /17 Av, 5759

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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What They Covered and What We Did Not -- MEDIA CRITICISM is a growth industry. Whether the critics are right or wrong, everyone seems to have an opinion about news outlets -- including the Jewish media -- these days.

On the local newspaper scene there has been an ongoing dispute between friends of Israel and The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Since I am not a Philadelphia native I don't share the general opinion typical of locals that the Inqy is the font of all evil. It is no more, nor less biased against Israel than most major dailies. Unfortunately, being typical in that regard is not to be good.

I had actually thought the fracas between the Jews and the Inquirer might be dying down, but this week, the Inqy decided to feed its critics some red meat.

The recent Inquirer-funded Louisiana State University statistical analysis of the newspaper's Mideast news coverage showed that the paper was fair. I doubted the qualifications of the researchers to deal with the subject matter and the validity of the method they used.

The following week, the Inqy ran a front-page Mideast story about retired Palestinian terrorist Mohammed Odeh's confession to the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre. I took heat from Inqy critics because I said that article was basically fair.

But this week, Barbara Demick, the same Inqy correspondent who wrote the Odeh story, dipped into the standard repertory of Israel-bashing with a front-page dispatch about how evil Israelis are stealing water from thirsty Palestinian Arabs ("Palestinians are left dry by Israeli water distribution," July 26).

So much for fairness.

The charge is not new. It has been a regular number in the Palestinian propaganda machine for years and keeps getting recycled every now and then. We've all heard this canard before: Israelis water their lawns and build swimming pools while Arabs remain parched.

The problem with the story is not the fact that Arab residents of some parts of the territories are not getting the water they need. That's true. But you have to read the Inquirer's Page 10 jump to discover that the amount of water distributed from the Israeli-developed supply system is not determined by the "occupying" Israelis, but is dictated by the peace accords agreed to by the Palestinians.

Leiters Sukkah Israel isn't stealing "Arab water," but actually giving the Palestinians a share of the resources Israelis developed from land to which Israel has a valid claim. The Israelis are living up to their word. And if they use more water than the Arabs, it has to do with greater industrialization, as well as more intensive agriculture dictated by the laudable Zionist desire to make the desert bloom.

Demick writes of the latter as if it is an ecological crime!

What's more, there has been nothing to stop the Palestinians from addressing their needs by digging wells for available water with money already provided by Germany.

Nothing, that is, except the kleptocracy that governs the autonomous Palestinian areas. Palestinian Authority corruption and incompetence are the villains here, not the Israelis who also suffer from the drought, as Demick lets drop in her next-to-last paragraph.

Although you have to give Demick credit for enterprise reporting about some Jews establishing a "black market" to provide the Arabs water, she downplayed other key facts in order to get her stereotypical suffering-Palestinian "human-interest" story amply illustrated with the requisite pictures.

It was a cheap shot and - like a lot of bogus criticism of Israel - deflects the reader away from the real problems of the Palestinians. My question for the LSU researchers: If the Inquirer runs one fair story followed by an unfair article, does that make the newspaper's coverage balanced?

Early on the same day that the Inquirer ran its Palestinian water story, I listened to a message left on my newspaper's voice mail by a reader. Why, the reader asked, in the sort of tone usually reserved for speaking to particularly dense toddlers, didn't my paper publish anything in its July 22 issue about the death of John F. Kennedy Jr.?

"Did he have to convert," she asked, in order to be mentioned?

My first reaction was to laugh and wonder aloud if the reader -- who threatened to cancel her subscription over this -- was making this complaint because she thought the rest of the media had underplayed the story and the Exponent was needed to step into the breach to correct the lack of coverage elsewhere!

Yet, the reader was actually hitting on an important question that Jewish journalists ask every week: What is Jewish news?

My answer? Those events and issues that directly pertain to the Jewish community are clearly Jewish news. Those non-Jewish stories that have a serious impact on Jewish life are also Jewish news.

The easy example this week is the death of King Hassan II of Morocco. His role in the peace process and his protection of Moroccan Jewry make his death Jewish news.

And no, dear reader, he didn't have to convert.

By contrast, the tragic accidental death of JFK Jr. was not Jewish news. He was the son of a president and a handsome, wealthy celebrity publisher.


Of course, you could always strain and find the Jewish "angle" to this story. His mother's longtime companion was Jewish; his brother-in-law is Jewish; his father got a lot of Jewish votes, as his did his uncles; and his grandfather favored appeasing Adolf Hitler.

But so what? That's no reason to waste space on him when we struggle every week to find room for real Jewish news.

It's true we sometimes publish small items about such minimal connections - the item about the non-Jewish actress Gwyneth Paltrow's rabbinic ancestors drew a particularly angry response from some readers --- but they are the exception that proves the rule.

That said, the mass outpouring over JFK Jr.'s death, very much like that over Britain's Princess Diana two years ago, tells us a lot about the mindless worship of celebrity in our culture. You don't have to be a shrink to understand that the public's obsession with people who are famous -- not for what they have accomplished themselves but for being famous itself -- speaks volumes about the lack of connection to real people in their own lives that many feel today.

That represents a genuine need the mass media feels it must pander to in order to survive. Thus, television gives us saturation coverage of celebrity deaths, peppered with psychobabble. Personally, I think it is sad that those who control broadcast journalism have chosen that path. But surely that is not the purpose of a Jewish newspaper. Our task is to give you what you aren't getting elsewhere, not to sink to the secular world's idea of the least common denominator.

That means there are going to be weeks when the rest of the media will go nuts over a story that the Exponent will, more or less, ignore. There may be a market for a Jewish version of People magazine, but the news pages of Jewish newspapers are not the place to look for it.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.


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©1999, Jonathan Tobin