Leon Wieseltier is one of the leading public intellectuals in America. Author of the acclaimed “Kaddish,” he was literary editor of The New Republic for more than three decades and currently is Isaiah Berlin Senior Fellow in Culture and Policy at Brookings Institution and contributing editor and critic at The Atlantic. He is also co-chair of the Global Forum of the National Library in Jerusalem.
Q: What do you see as the role of Jewish media?
I believe American Jewish journalism is essential. Every community needs a clear sense of itself in its totality, and no single element of a community can provide such a sense. A newspaper, if it does its work well, provides a community with a comprehensive and accurate picture of itself. And an accurate picture is necessary not only so we that we may feel good about what we have accomplished, but also to recognize what we have not yet accomplished. Self-criticism is the hallmark of a mature community. Jewish journalism may be the most effective embodiment of the biblical command to “rebuke” our neighbors when we see them going astray. Journalists should not just be celebrators, they should also be rebukers.
How should the community respond to coverage of its activities?
With gratitude, however uncomfortable it is. We are an amazing community, but we are called upon to do more than admire ourselves. Jewish journalism is a primary vehicle for our honesty about ourselves. The American Jewish community has always thought too little of the journalism in its midst. It owes the journalist a much greater debt than it realizes. And I am not referring to The New York Times, which too many Jews regard as the American Jewish newspaper. Precious little of the American Jewish experience as it is actually lived can be found in the pages of the Times. For a full and true portrait we need the other Jewish papers, the really Jewish papers.
How would you assess the quality of American Jewish journalism today?
Decidedly mixed. There are islands of professional excellence, of real journalism, but generally American Jewish journalism should be more rigorous and sober and ambitious. Our media celebrate us too much. They are too taken up with our ethnic adorableness, with sentimentality, with policing our politics according to one orthodoxy or another, with local boosterism.
American Jewish journalism needs more investigative energy. It has not performed brilliantly in this regard. I regard the sex scandals of recent years that have been exposed by Jewish media to be among the triumphs of American Jewish journalism, and The Jewish Week has been a courageous pioneer in this regard. It’s odd, I know, that the shame of our community should be the glory of our journalism, but such is life in an open society. These distressing but truthful reports are a sure sign of journalistic seriousness and moral growth. We may cringe at the content of these stories but we must be proud that they exist. We know more generally from the American experience that honest journalism is one of the most fundamental obstacles to corruption and deceit. And the surest measure of intellectual honesty is the willingness to find fault with one’s own congregation.
How should the community deal with its own internal differences?
Candidly and without fear. The people who own and operate our media companies have a solemn responsibility to publish articles with which they do not agree. A core of conviction, yes — but not catechisms and loyalty tests. Too many of the issues facing our community are genuinely difficult and genuinely painful. We have enough heat. We need more light. The purpose of our journalism should be to facilitate intelligent and informed debate.
Sometimes our community is too exercised about unanimity and consensus. But argumentativeness is one of the most ancient features of Jewish culture. We are quarrel artists, and — as the rabbis said — our positions are all the words of the living God, even if some of them are right and some of them are wrong.
Are American Jews overly focused on mainstream media Mideast coverage?
No. The power of the media is grotesquely large. And the closer you are to a subject, the more obsessed you are with its coverage. We have no choice but to care about the veracity of reports about Israel and its tribulations. The stakes for Israel in the battle for public opinion are high. Yet we must never mistake the coverage for the reality, even when we like the coverage. What should matter to us most is what actually happens in Israel itself. Many American Jews know more about The New York Times’ coverage of Israel than they know about Israel. They are so busy hunting for hostility (and sometimes finding it) that they fail to immerse themselves in more direct ways in Israeli experience.
Is there a future for journalism, given the financial challenges today?
This is a grim subject, alas. The new technology has transformed many journalistic outlets into digital sweatshops, in an attempt to feed the unappeasable appetite for new and newer “content”. People are typing more than they are thinking and researching. This is certainly the problem with blogs, which are based on the spectacularly false notion that a person’s first thoughts are her best thoughts. Serious journalism takes time, and time is what the Internet hates.
The problem with American journalism is that too many of its major institutions have believed the rumors about its obsolescence. Instead of producing more trivia, more entertainment pieces, more quick takes, more facile “explainers,” there should be a doubling down to produce journalism of great ambition. The impact of journalism on our society cannot be measured in clicks.
For this reason, journalism needs not just great journalists but great owners, enlightened owners, who have a sense of social responsibility and an ethical commitment to the public good, and are not animated only, or chiefly, by financial considerations. Democracy without a free press is not just imperfect. It is, in some ways, doomed to failure. The goal of journalism — of Jewish journalism, too — is not to lift us up but to report the truth. Anyway, the discovery of the truth should be an uplifting experience.