On Media / Pop Culcha

Jewish World Review August 21, 1998 / 29 Menachem-Av, 5758

Jonathan S. Tobin

Jonathan S. Tobin Is 'Jewish journalism'
an oxymoron?

IN A WEEK DOMINATED by a hair-splitting presidential confession and mega-spin by politicians of all stripes, each of us have had to come face to face with the fact that truth is a rare commodity in our body politic.

I'll leave it to colleagues elsewhere in the media to rake over the disgrace that has been heaped on the American presidency. Bill Clinton may be the most sanctimonious liar in this fair republic, but he isn't the only one. This is also a year of notorious media liars: Mike Barnicle and Patricia Smith of the Boston Globe, Stephen Glass of The New Republic and Peter Arnett of CNN.

Just as Mr. Clinton lied, those famous journalists fabricated stories and then fibbed about what they did. And they, like the president, are sorry they got caught and would very much like everyone else to change the subject. But the truth still matters. We in the newspaper business have a duty to seek it and should worry when it is flouted in such a flagrant manner.

Unfortunately, these lies are seen not just as aberrations but as indicative of a lowering of standards in the media. That's why it is no surprise that nowadays journalists rate about as low in the public's opinion as politicians.

Decline in standards and expectations

Yet my worry isn't so much about my profession's reputation, but the general decline in standards of honesty in society that these incidents represent. The prospect that people like the president or columnist Barnicle will succeed in getting away with their lies without paying a serious price doesn't bother me so much as the idea that the importance of telling the truth is being devalued. The supporters of Barnicle and Clinton seem to be saying, "So they lied. So what?"

Too many people seem to think that their good intentions and important work ought to give them a free pass when it comes to telling the truth. Too many journalists -- like Mr. Clinton -- seem to think that the attention their story will focus on an important issue outweighs their obligation to getting the story right. And when caught, they act as if it is priggishness or bad taste on the part of their critics to force them to account for their misdeeds.

Jewish newspapers are in a particularly tough position. Like everyone else in the media, we are expected to give our readers an honest and thorough account of the news as well as putting it in perspective via commentary and opinion.

Yet, Jewish papers are subject to pressures that are different from those that other journalists face.

Jewish newspapers are asked to not merely report the Jewish news but often to promote Jewish organizations and causes. Even more to the point, we are sometimes asked to protect them as well from the consequences of their own folly. That's because of our special position in our community which we want desperately to nurture. We can't afford to be cavalier or indifferent to the question of whether American Jewish survives in a time when that is an open question.

Jewish journalism under siege

At the majority of Jewish papers around the country, this isn't even an issue. Most are owned by Jewish groups like Federations which exercise varying levels of editorial control which can in some cases preclude objective reporting or publishing a wide variety of opinions. No wonder most Jewish newspapers have long been known as "weaklies." Some also suppress minority views on issues because they conflict with the prevailing wisdom of community leaders.

A recent controversy at a respected Jewish weekly in a major city led some there to conclude that its public did not really regard it as a newspaper at all. In the past year, my own newspaper, the Connecticut Jewish Ledger has reported on some stories which were troublesome. The closing down under troubling circumstances of Camp Chaya in Litchfield County, financial troubles at New Haven Hebrew Day School and the resignation of the longtime director of Jewish Family Services of Greater Hartford were all important news which our readers had a right to know about and which we had an obligation to report on.

Yet, in each case some in the community — including influential leaders — did their best to keep it out of the paper so as to spare some embarrassment and to protect the future of the institutions involved.

The recent controversy over the anti-Zionist statements made by the president of the Hartford Seminary also led to a situation where some communal leaders were upset that unflinching and honest commentary on the issues might embarrass some local Jewish institutions and leaders.

Confronting the facts and our conscience

This meant we had to think about our responsibility not only as journalists but as Jews who have a stake in the survival of our community. In each case, we went through a process which led us to walk through the story painstakingly, examining and re-examining the facts and our reasons for publishing.

The case of New Haven Hebrew Day was particularly agonizing as we not only editorially support the day school movement but also believe that this particular school is an excellent institution. We were faced with real arguments about whether reporting the problem would have a negative impact on the school's future.

Personal appeals which pulled at the heartstrings as well as the conscience of the editor made that a particularly difficult decision.

But the outcome was never really in doubt. Our readers have a right to know. If communal institutions are having problems or there are issues which need to be addressed, there is no place for them to go but the Jewish newspaper. Moreover, we reasoned that there is no better way to rally support for institutions that need help than to inform the public about the problem. In each of these cases, we published, but did so as fairly as possible, putting the story in perspective and reporting efforts under way which might solve the problem in question.

A paradigm for Jewish journalism

That experience led us to re-examine what Jewish sources tell us about the obligations of a journalist. In a recent lively lunch n'learn study session, the Ledger's editorial staff talked about what the Torah says.

Some precepts were easy to apply such as "You shall not go about as a talebearer," (Leviticus 19:16). Others, such as the prohibition against shaming a Jew are not quite so easy since they are balanced by precepts such the religious duty to rebuke a fellow Jew for improper behavior.

But when one considers the obligation, "You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor," the second clause to Leviticus 19:16, one can see a paradigm for Jewish journalism emerging. Moreover, the prohibition against leaving obstacles or hindrances on public or private property (so as to prevent injury to the public) presents a clear and present need for reliable forums of public information.

That's why I think Jewish newspapers are so important and why we at the Ledger remain dedicated to maintaining it as a free and open forum of news and opinion. It will remain a journal which values and which always will do its best to tell its readers the truth. That is a value that people of faith still respect and one which true journalists will never abandon no matter what pressures might be exerted.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Connecticut Jewish Ledger. He was the recipient of the American Jewish Press Association highest award: First Place in The Louis Rapoport Award for Excellence in Commentary and Editorial Writing. The Rapoport award is named for the longtime editor of the Jerusalem Post and was given to Mr. Tobin at the AJPA's 1997 Simon Rockower Awards dinner in Cleveland on June 18, 1998.


8/14/98: Holding on to our heroes
8/07/98: Three strikes, but they continue to play
7/23/98: Zionist vs Zionist
7/17/98: Summer news stories: Large and small
7/13/98: A step closer to school choice
6/26/98: The Holocaust Museum and Mort Klein
6/12/98: What price Jewish education?
6/5/98: Ten books for a long, hot summer: A serious vacation reading list for Jewish history lovers
5/29/98: Double standards here and there: Hypocrisy raises its ugly head in Israel and the U.S.
5/26/98: Hartford Seminary tangle points to bigger issues
5/22/98:The importance of being Bibi
5/14/98: The ‘dream palace' of the anti-Zionists: Hartford Seminary controversy has historic roots
4/26/98: All-rightniks versus the alarmists: Focussing on the Jewish bottom line
4/13/98:Of ends and means and victims
4/5/98: Hang up on Albright
3/29/98: Bigshots or activists?: Clinton's three clerics return from China
3/27/98: Will American Jews help Clinton push Israel into a corner?
3/22/98: Anti-Semitism then and now
3/15/98: Still searching for Jews at the opera
3/11/98: Remembering Eric Breindel
3/8/98: Getting lost in history
3/5/98: Follow the money to Hamas
2/22/98: Re-writing "Anne Frank" - A distorted legacy
2/15/98: Religious persecution is still a Jewish issue
2/6/98: A lost cause remembered (the failure of the Bund)
2/1/98: Economic aid is not in Israel's interest
1/25/98: Jews are news, and a fair shake for Israel is hard to find

©1998, Jonathan S. Tobin