Here are some of my opinions (composed after conducting my interviews) on what is wrong with Jewish journalism.
#1. Failure of imagination.
Jewish journalism is predictable. It rarely catches the reader offguard. You read the headline and you know the story. There’s no need to read more. It’s just the same old actors on the Jewish stage repeating the same old lines. To hold the attention of an infant or an adult, you have to defy expectations.
#2. Lack of courage.
Why would you want to write something critical about somebody you will see again? This particularly applies to fellow Jewish journalists. Not one, except Yossi Abramowitz, was willing to offer me an on-the-record criticism of Gary Rosenblatt, “Mr. Jewish Journalism,” even though the quality of the journalism he’s published has declined dramatically at The Jewish Week compared to his previous employer, the independent Baltimore Jewish Times.
#3. Lack of clarity on mission.
You can be good. You can be truthful. You can be kind. You can investigate. But neither an individual nor a newspaper can do all these things equally well. Jewish newspapers need to clarify if they are primarily in the propaganda game (which is where I would place all Jewish weeklies except the Forward) or in the news game. You need to know what your primary mission is. Is it to report the news in your community or is to act omnisciently in the best interests of the community by frequently withholding the news (the stance of virtually all Jewish weeklies except the Forward)?
#4. Lack of technique.
It is rare to read a Jewish weekly and feel that you are right there in the story. To emotionally rivet the reader, you must:
- Employ scene-by-scene construction moving towards a climax. There must be desire, struggle and realization, the three acts of a screenplay.
- Realistic dialogue.
- Abundant attention to status details.
- Multiple points of view.
#5. Stuck in the past.
Blogs are an increasingly preferred way of getting news, yet few if any Jewish newspapers offer blogs, or use blogging techniques in their print editions. First person news accounts written with attitude can be more interesting and powerful than the old standby objective stance. There’s no inherent reason why the journalist writing a news story has to be less interesting than the people he’s writing on. Jewish journalism could develop stars by allowing those with talent to experiment with different techniques of telling a news story. We need more Yossi Klein Halevis.
#6. Desire to be loved.
Many Jewish journalists yearn to be loved by their readers (or, have greater fear of being hated than they desire to be respected). This attitude rarely makes for compelling reading. We need more J.J. Goldbergs who place their commitment to journalism above their desire to be popular.
# 7. Delusions of grandeur.
Jewish weeklies could do a good job of covering their community if they wanted to, but most of them, particularly the Jewish Journal, suffer from delusions of grandeur. They devote considerable resources to national and international stories where they have no expertise. They are rarely going to improve on what The New York Times has to offer on Israel or national politics, but they insist on publishing second rate material anyway because it makes them feel like they are big time.
#8 Unwillingness to treat religion with the same seriousness and specificity that it treats politics.
That’s where The New Rabbi was revolutionary. It gave a large synagogue the same treatment other institutions of similar size receive routinely.
#9 If you only publish positive book reviews, you don’t take ideas seriously.
The only weekly that takes books seriously is the Forward. All the others treat Jewish authors with kid gloves.
#10 Sensitivity, tact, restraint are only three good traits among many.
Some stories call for insensitivity, tactlessness, and lack of restraint.
ME writes: add:
11) Lack of sense of social justice
How else could legitimate news stories on Rabbinical figures such as Lanner, Tendler, Weinberg, Bryks, Brenner, Gafni /Winiarz been ignored so long.
12) No commitment to a comunity with institutions with accountability/transparency
Just look at the old JNF scandal and the current payroll at the Wiesenthal Center.
13) Arbitrary journalistic criteria for publishing stories
For example, Gary Rosenblatt has some strange criteria he uses for publishing stories about abusive community leaders that ensure that most stories never make it too press. He requires very recent allegations. Although one can question how his expose of Lanner was ever printed (at the time he had no allegatons in the past ten years). Only after his story was printed did the recent victims (who helped convict Lanner) come forward.
Certainly, papers like the Washington Post and the Boston Globe have no such criteria in exposing abusive priests in the Catholic Church.
All this arbitrary criteria does is ensure that the worst abusers who prey on the youngest of victims are protected. As the younger the victim, the longer it usually takes for them to disclose their abuse. That’s why Lanner, Tendler and Weinberg are ultimately exposed by the Jewish press but Bryks, Brenner and Gafni/Winiarz (to some extent, as the more serious allegations involve children) are not.
14) Poor research and fact-checking skills
15) Failure to do thorough stories.
Most articles raise more quesions than they answer and give very poor background to the players and situation.
For example, the Forward story doesn’t address many facets of the Tendler story that a reader would want to know about, his background, why groups in the Orthodox community/his extended family have nothing to do with him, his involvement in the agunot organizations and the knowledge/reaction of the agunot leadership to the allegation.