When Journalists Are The Story
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When Journalists Are The Story

Saying a sad goodbye to some NYT stalwarts, and The New Republic.

Editor & Publisher of The NY Jewish Week.

The job of the journalist is to cover the story. In recent days, though, it seems that journalists have become the story, and not in a good way.

At The New York Times, ongoing financial problems in an age of “free” journalism prompted another round of buyouts this fall. The move was aimed at reducing the editorial staff of more than 1,000 by about 100 reporters and editors, in part to make room for younger (and less expensive) staff fluent in social media.

Among the familiar names of highly experienced veterans opting to take the offer and avoid the possibility of being let go are Joseph Berger and Ethan Bronner. Berger, a reporter at The Times for three decades, often has displayed his rich knowledge of and interest in Jewish life. His writings on chasidic culture resulted in his new book, “The Pious Ones: The World of Hasidim and their Battle with America.” Bronner, deputy national editor and former Jerusalem bureau chief, will also be leaving this month. His reporting from Israel — widely considered the most difficult assignment at the paper of record — has been criticized and praised, but was always knowledgeable, and thoughtful in seeking to question assumptions on all sides, as required of a professional correspondent.

Berger and Bronner and dozens of their seasoned colleagues will have their slots filled, but that doesn’t mean they’re replaceable. And they will be missed.

That certainly goes for the dozens of editors and writers who resigned from The New Republic two weeks ago in an act of mass moral outrage over the young owner’s decision to reconstruct the storied, high-quality magazine as a “vertically integrated digital media company.” The dispute has been cast as a battle between print and online media, between the young and the old, and/or an attempt to make The New Republic profitable after decades of financial losses. But the issue goes deeper, to the heart of what journalism should be about: an effort to educate and enlighten, entertain and inspire rather than appeal to the lowest common denominator, such as focus-group-oriented topics, in the hope of attracting the most readers.

Surely it takes dollars to keep publications afloat; otherwise the most noble of enterprises will sink like a stone. But The New Republic fiasco suggests that “disruption,” the buzzword in vogue for shaking things up in a positive way, can also prove to be simply disruptive when applied with more muscle than collaboration, as was the case in this instance.

As a letter made public from a group of former New Republic staffers and contributors asserted: “We write to express our dismay and sorrow at [the magazine’s] destruction in all but name.”

Here was an institution that celebrated its proud 100-year history in October, and by December was a magazine in name only, forced to suspend publication until February after the loss of its most prized staff members and contributors. Franklin Foer, the editor, and Leon Wieseltier, literary editor for more than 30 years and considered the soul — and brains — of the enterprise, set off the revolt by leaving a magazine that was technically secular but, in its heart, seemed like a Jewish enterprise. During the longtime ownership of publisher Martin Peretz, who took control 40 years ago, The New Republic became known for its liberal social views and deep loyalty to Israel. That continued under a series of editors, several of whom happened to be Jewish, including Hendrik Hertzberg, Peter Beinart and Foer, in addition to Peretz.

There was always ample coverage of Israel and Jewish thought and culture, and vigorous discussion and debate on these issues, with Wieseltier’s graceful, penetrating and pointed columns anchoring a magazine devoted to noble ideas. Sadly, that may be a thing of the past.

A reminder of the importance of journalism’s most basic mandate — get the facts right — was on display at Rolling Stone this month when a 9,000-word investigative report on an alleged gang-rape at a University of Virginia fraternity party seemed to unravel under media scrutiny. Part of the problem was that the reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, appears to have shown her empathy to the alleged victim in a way that kept her from fulfilling her job. Erdely now says she was so worried about the fragility of the victim’s emotional state that she agreed not to interview the alleged ringleader of the rapists, who denies the allegations.

One lesson here is that journalists have to do their best not to pre-judge the facts. They need to be especially wary of publicly indicting someone based on charges made by those who, for whatever reasons, choose not to reveal their own names. The larger issue, of course, remains: that the University of Virginia, and many other colleges, may be lax in protecting students at a time of excessive drinking and a culture of sexual promiscuity on campus. All the more reason to get the story right, so as not to weaken the impact of the problem.

Finally, there is the controversy generated by Matti Friedman, a Jerusalem-based reporter and editor who, in two major articles of late, has asserted that the foreign press corps in Israel is guilty of a deep bias against the Jewish state. The difference between Friedman’s arguments and those of so many pro-Israel polemicists is that he knows how journalism works. And his examples, based on experience, go deeper, are more specific and ring more true than simply “they have it in for us.”

A piece Friedman wrote in Tablet in August charged that there is disproportionate coverage of Israel, most of it negative, and that the reporting of the Gaza war reflected “a hostile obsession with the Jews” among journalists. He made his case by offering examples of how the unwavering narrative of the conflict, as told in the media, is between the “passive victims” (the Palestinians) and “the recalcitrant and increasingly extreme” Israelis.

“International press coverage has become a morality play,” he wrote, “starring a familiar villain.”

A second essay by Friedman, which appeared in The Atlantic earlier this month, accused the AP in particular of biased journalism and explored how “the Western press has become less an observer of this conflict than an actor in it.” He wrote of how newsworthy incidents that reflect poorly on the Palestinians don’t receive coverage, while the slightest perceived flaws in Israel get major treatment. “The construction of 100 apartments in a Jewish settlement is always news,” Friedman wrote. “The smuggling of 100 rockets into Gaza by Hamas is, with rare exceptions, not news at all.”

In part, he said, that’s because members of the foreign press socialize with each other and with professionals at international NGOs, UN staffers and members of the diplomatic corps, many of whom share “a distaste for Israel … as a prerequisite for entry.”

Not surprisingly, Friedman’s blunt views have attracted a great deal of attention and been both slammed and defended. 

Within the media world, “the opposition has been loud and support very discrete,” he told me in a phone interview on Monday. In part, he said, some media insiders who share his views are fearful of losing their jobs if they speak out publicly.

Friedman said “one positive note” was that in November The New York Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan, dealt with the topic of perceived bias in the Times’ Mideast coverage. She mostly wrote about how difficult it is to please both sides of this bitter conflict, but she cited Friedman’s critique and called for deeper scrutiny of the Palestinians rather than just describing them as victims. NPR’s “On the Media” program featured a thoughtful debate between Friedman and Ethan Bronner on media coverage during the Gaza war.

In general, though, Freidman believes that “the press covers everything but the press” and “is not prone to self-reflection or self-correction.”

He is quite right.

It’s only human nature to appreciate people and things more when they’re missing than when they’re present. That certainly applies to quality journalism, which is no longer a given. But its absence is cause for personal and societal sorrow, if not alarm.
 

gary@jewishweek.org

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