Freedom and the US Jewish Press

EARLIER this year, Harvard University hosted the first conference on the American-Jewish Press. It was attended by over one hundred journalists, editors and publishers from the East coast, the deep South and the mid-West.

Since 1823, when the first Jewish newspaper, The Jew, was published, there has been a tremendous proliferation of English language Jewish periodicals. Today there are approximately 200 Jewish papers with a readership in excess of four million. Yet this was the first time that such a conference had been organized. The importance of the American Jewish press was recognized by the Carter administration which ensured that a blue and white folder detailing all aspects of Jewish news was given to the President each week.

In the United States, only 20 per cent of the Jewish press is independently owned. The rest is sponsored by the Jewish Federations or fraternal and defence organizations. Robert Cohn, President of the American Jewish Press Association, commented on the intrinsic weaknesses of the Jewish press: “Organization-affiliated papers have a weak image because of what some see as poorly conceived Federation intervention into what is worthy. On the other hand, independent papers come in for their share of criticism because while they’re free to print what they want, they often rely on news services and they’re beholden to their advertisers”.

A number of editors were similarly critical of communal pressure on the Jewish press. Jerome Lippman, editor of the independent Long Island Jewish World interlinked economic problems with communal control. He said: “The Federations are aggressively going after the private independent papers and their advertising dollars which the papers need to survive. When they can’t take them, they decide to publish their own house organ in an effort to control what is printed. Their responsibility is not to inform the reader as a newspaper does, but is used to encourage fundraising, a fact which the public has a right to know”.

Others bemoaned the fact that they were forced to publish “canned” material and “grip and grin” photographs. This robbed the papers of the motivation to produce a quality product. More than one editor referred to the Anglo-Jewish press. Gary Rosenblatt, the editor of two independent papers, quoted William Frankel, former editor of the Jewish Chronicle, as saying: “A paper is independent as long as it is financially independent.” Rosenblatt cited the primary dilemma of an editor as one of responsibility. “How does one reconcile the ethic of journalistic honesty with the ethic of Jewish responsibility?” There was a professional duty to report the truth and a Jewish duty to prevent a “shandeh far di goyim” (a scandal in the eyes of the non-Jews). Rosenblatt also referred to the low standing of editors—like most salaried officials—in communal eyes.

“If you don’t print what the local macher wants you to, he won’t subscribe. If you do print what he and his friends want you to, he won’t subscribe. In the first case, he’s angry with you. In the second, he has no respect for you. Either way, you lose. And so does he. And so does the community”.

Murray Zukoff, the editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, suggested that changes were gradually taking place: “Even though the leaders want us to write as though we had a chastity belt around our cerebrum, the Jewish press is approaching important issues like alcohol, drugs, homosexuality. A Chicago writer wrote about the poor Jews in America, that close to one million Jews live below the poverty line. And she created havoc because the Federations are telling us they take care of their poor.”

Zuckoff further pointed out that until the late sixties leadership effectively spiked such stories. Such an approach was still being maintained, he observed, in the context of Jewish participation in the nuclear freeze movement.

How to tackle contemporary Israel has become a thorny problem for many editors. Charles Fenyvesi, of the Washington Jewish Week, pointed out that the honeymoon between the State of Israel and the American Jewish press had ended. He suggested that evolving realities meant that Israel “can no longer count on sympathetic treatment”.

Many criticized a communal structure which did not encourage aspiring journalists in high schools and colleges to enter the Jewish field. However, numerous young people, committed Jews and talented journalists were embarking on such a career with the result that changes were indeed taking place. Murray Zukoff told the audietice: “I have faith that today Jewish papers are forging a tremendous path, that they will no longer accept the ‘guidelines’ on how to write or cover a story. You know the line that it’s hard to be a Jew—well, its even harder to be a Jewish editor.”

Jewish Quarterly Autumn 1985

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