Stepping out of the shadows

In a recent Torah portion, Hukkat, Moses is punished for conflating his authority with God’s.

Instead of telling the restless and thirsty masses that God would produce water for them from a rock, he says: “Listen you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” For the sin of self-deification, wrote Joshua Hammerman in a blog for the Times of Israel on June 27, Moses is barred from entering the Promised Land. That was actually a good thing, according to Hammerman, because, had Moses not been rebuked, the proto-Jewish people might have been misled into thinking that Moses was not simply a witness to God’s power – a reporter – but also the source of that power.

“Whether intentionally or not, Moses would have laid the seeds of a personality cult that would have destroyed the fundamental teachings of the Jewish people. It would have been the ultimate idolatry.”

Moses remains one of our tradition’s greatest heroes, but, as this parsha demonstrates, he was only human, after all. (Aren’t those the best sort of heroes, anyway?) He did something journalists who cover those in power are perennially tempted to do, wittingly or otherwise – insert themselves into the story. In a sense, Moses was the first celebrity journalist.

Self-glorification was, for a very long time, considered declasse in our business. I remember attending a Pennsylvania Newspaper Association conference back in 2002, as a reporter for the Jewish Exponent, when a media consultant expressed his bewilderment and frustration that we print journalists weren’t “branding yourselves” like our TV news counterparts, especially the anchors over at Philadelphia’s NBC10, whose coiffed and maquillaged faces graced billboards up and down the Schuylkill Expressway. “You are celebrities! Why aren’t you taking advantage of that to promote your work and get more readers?”

It took a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, as I recall, to explain news reporters’ historic reluctance to step out into the limelight and share in the attention we are accustomed to devoting to our sources. He quoted Roland Barthes’ famous essay, “The Death of the Author,” in which the French philosopher described writing as the “destruction of every voice, of every point of origin.”

Writing, according to Barthes, “is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost… .” Barthes sought to wrest writing away from the tyrannical “person” of the author – the author’s life, taste, passions. To dwell on the author of a text is to impose a limit on the meaning of that text, to close the writing. Kill the author (metaphorically!), Barthes argued, and suddenly the reader is free to fully take up the joy and the responsibility of making meaning.

The media consultant shook his head exasperatedly, either at Barthes or at us. Maybe both.

Now, more than a decade later, I have come to believe that the consultant was right about the need for journos to think of themselves as brands, with brand identity and recognition – not unlike Coke, Apple or American Express. The digital age we kept hearing about when I was a cub reporter is here, with all its sound and fury. And we creators of content must do more than we’re accustomed to doing to stand out amid the din.

With that in mind, I want to (re)introduce to you the Washington Jewish Week’s editorial staff, a talented group of journalists I have come to know well since I took up this post a month ago. I want you to learn more about them – their beats, their intellectual curiosity, their online handles. This isn’t self-aggrandizement or a coup to reinstate the dictatorial rule of the author over the reader. This is necessary if we are to find each other in the ether of cyberspace and tell great stories.

• David Holzel is a senior writer with many years of experience editing and writing for Jewish newspapers and magazines. His award-winning work for WJW focuses on history, Jewish communal trends, personality profiles and features. He also now serves as the WJW’s chief diplomatic correspondent. Call him at 301-230-6685, email him at dholzel@washingtonjewishweek.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidHolzel.

• Suzanne Pollak, senior writer, is an experienced breaking news and investigative reporter who covered beats in Philadelphia and South Jersey before joining our staff, and has won many awards for doing so. Suzanne is the point person for our new health and science beat. Call her at 301-230-6695, email her at spollak@washingtonjewishweek.com and follow her on Twitter @SuzannePollak.

• Dmitriy Shapiro, political reporter, covers national politics in the form of both hard news and insightful analysis. His background includes radio and print reporting, both here in the capital and in the Deep South. Call him at 301-230-6683, email him at dshapiro@washingtonjewishweek.com and follow him on Twitter @dmitriyshapiro.

• Alexa Laz, general assignment reporter, is a multimedia journalist who honed her television, print, audio storytelling and social media skills at Towson University and through previous internships at NBC, FOX and PBS affiliate stations. She will be reporting our new higher education beat, so expect her to be a regular presence on area college campuses. Call her at 301-230-6684, email her at alaz@washingtonjewishweek.com and follow her on Twitter at @alexalaz130.

• Ian Zelaya, another recent graduate of Towson University, is a staff writer specializing in arts and culture stories, features and personality profiles. Look for his scintillating and surprising Q&As with rising stars in our community. Call him at 301-230-6686, email him at izelaya@washingtonjewishweek.com and follow him on Twitter at @IanDavidZelaya.

• Aaron Leibel, copy chief, holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Maryland. For many years, while living in Israel, he worked as an editor and writer for major Israeli newspapers and magazines, including The Jerusalem Post. His novel, Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family, was published this year. Call him at 301-230-0467; email him at aleibel@washingtonjewishweek.com.

• Eliana Block is WJW’s intern. A current sophomore at the University of Maryland, double majoring in English and journalism, Eliana spent a year studying in Israel before joining WJW. She is enrolled in Maryland’s elite creative writers program, the Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House.

Here we are. We are the multimedia journalists committed to giving you the best Jewish journalism in the capital, or anywhere. In the coming months, you will see more of us in print, on the Web, on social media and in person. We are not the story, but we are part of it. And we are giving it our all.

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