Editor’s Notebook

A study in contrast

2014-07-23 13:02:52

President Obama’s remarks last week following the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-17 over Ukraine by suspected pro-Russian rebels were unusually eloquent, even for this president.

Noting that there were some 100 AIDS/HIV researchers and advocates traveling to an international conference in Australia on board the exploded plane, Obama deplored the loss of men and women who had dedicated their own lives to saving the lives of others and were killed in a senseless act of violence.

“In this world today we shouldn’t forget that in the midst of conflict and killing, there are people like these, people who are focused on what can be built rather than what can be destroyed, people who are focused on how they can help people that they’ve never met, people [who] define themselves not by what makes them different from other people but by the humanity that we hold in common.”

The last time I heard this particular formulation, this stark contrast, was in April 2003, when I heard Yaron Brook, executive director of the Ayn Rand institute, speak at the University of Pennsylvania. I recall asking this Israeli-American intellectual how Rand, a passionate devotee of, and writer about, free-market capitalism (The New York Times has called her 1957 novel, Atlas Shrugged, “one of the most influential business books ever written”) could have counted herself among Israel’s early supporters given Israel’s roots as a quasi-socialist society. Brook wasted no time in answering. Israel, he said, through hard work, determination and creativity (and yes, a little help from its friends) turned a desert into an oasis. In a world divided by “creators and looters,” he said, echoing Rand, Israel has proven itself to be the former.

As Israel continues to endure criticism by world leaders, journalists and protesters in the streets (an anti-Israel rally in Pittsburgh last week featured stuffed bedsheets simulating dead Palestinian “bodies,” reported The Jewish Chronicle), as well as Hamas’ steady stream of rockets directed at civilian areas, I cannot help but return to Obama, Brook and Rand’s binary equation of creators and looters. Israel is not a perfect nation. No nation made of people ever will be. But on balance, how could anyone credibly argue that Israel has not given the world more than it has taken?

Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer was recently quoted in Washington Jewish Week as complaining that, for many observers of Israel, “history begins at [this morning’s] breakfast.” If Israel’s critics would look farther back than Israel’s (provoked) military response to the murder of the three Israeli teenage boys and Hamas rocket fire, back instead to Israel’s founding in 1948, they would see that Israel’s first gift was peace. Israel offered to share the land it now controls with the Arab people who lived there; its offer was refused.

Moreover, Israel’s Arab neighbors ganged up to destroy the nascent Jewish state. In the decades since, Israel has made many other remarkable peace offerings. Those, too, have been met with rejection and more violence.

But Israel has offered more to its neighbors and the world than simply a path to peaceful coexistence. Israel has pioneered a whole host of scientific, medical and agriculture inventions and innovations. Israel gave us the world’s smallest medical camera; the optical heart monitor; the drip irrigation technique; the 8088 processor (the “brain” of the first PC); biocatalysts used in the production of biodiesel; solar windows. Would that I had the newsprint to continue. The list goes on.

In closing his remarks last week about the doomed Malaysian plane, President Obama urged us to “lift up” and “affirm” those who work to repair the world rather than destroy it.

Let’s start with Israel.

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Stepping out of the shadows

2014-07-16 18:14:04

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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The limits of language

2014-07-09 16:40:51

After two weeks on the job as editor-in-chief of Washington Jewish Week, I have started to receive phone calls and letters about our articles.

I am grateful for both the cheers and the jeers; you are clearly reading our work and reading it intently. One of those critical, close readers, an Israeli native living here in the Washington, D.C., area, said it was “shameful” that we referred to the disappearance of the three Israeli teens, Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Frenkel, as an “alleged” kidnapping in our June 26 story “Hundreds rally to ‘bring back our boys.’”

I responded by reminding the reader that on June 26, no ransom had been demanded for the boys’ safe return, no witnesses had come forward to describe their kidnapping and no one had been charged with any crime in connection with the case. “At that early date, we were right to exercise restraint, given how few facts were in,” I said, pointing out that The Washington Post and the Associated Press had used the words “alleged” and “suspected” to describe the kidnappings in their stories that same day.

By June 30, of course, it was far clearer that the boys had been kidnapped, as evinced by a published report by the committee investigating the conduct of operators of the Judea and Samaria Police emergency hotline, which fielded a cellphone call from one of the abductees in which the caller whispered: “I have been kidnapped.”

Our subscriber was not persuaded that WJW’s early attempt at caution was warranted, telling me that our use of the word “alleged” implied that we mistrusted a statement by the Israeli government. She also expressed her belief that the Jewish media ought to show more deference to Israeli government officials than we would leaders of other countries. Her latter comment—Jewish journalists ought to lessen their trademark skepticism when reporting on Israel—reflects a real and ongoing dilemma in our business.

In a recent column for his own publication (“Take Us Seriously”), Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The Jewish Week of New York, reports on a tense exchange between Jewish journos and Israeli government representatives at a global Jewish media conference held this summer in Israel. At one of the sessions he attended, panelist Sue Fishkoff, editor of j, the Jewish news weekly of Northern California, described “a profound misunderstanding” on the part of officials in terms of the relationship between the Israeli government and Jewish media.

“Don’t feed us pap,” Rosenblatt says Fishkoff told the Israeli government representatives, adding that it is not the job of journalists to promote Israel’s image.

Here, I do not believe the Israeli government was feeding journalists (or the public) pap by pronouncing the teens’ disappearance as a kidnapping from the outset. As I said to our reader, kidnapping was a viable “theory of the case,” as we say in criminal law. But I argued to her that neither WJW nor the rest of the media were duty bound on June 24, when we went to press, to call the disappearances a “kidnapping” before more facts were available. We were not trying to be “politically correct,” as this reader suggested. We were trying to be accurate. In the end, she and I agreed on at least one thing – the limits of language.

“Alleged” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as an adjective meaning “cited, quoted,” or “asserted but not proved.” When we went to press with our story, the kidnapping of the Israeli boys was just that: asserted but not proved. But one of our readers had a visceral reaction to that word, finding a meaning in it that we never intended.

This happens all the time, in texts everywhere, from newspapers to Nicholas Nickleby, magazines to Madame Bovary.

The Algerian Jewish philosopher Jacques Derrida, building on the work of Friedrich Nietzsche and others, helped to launch an influential critical theory in the late 1960s called Deconstruction, which contends that language is so riddled with aporia—so thoroughly shot through with unintended meanings—as to be virtually useless in conveying real feeling, real thought, real human experience.

Since at least the 1980s, English departments at American colleges (including at my alma maters of Haverford and Bryn Mawr) have been teaching this theory, applying it to the great works of literature. Some find it freeing, and choose to revel in the Dionysian free play of language. Others find it depressing, even nihilistic, to think of language as this debilitated.

I believe it is possible to stake out a middle ground here. Very often, language is extraordinarily effective at communicating our subjective lives – our thoughts, intentions and feelings. At other times, despite our best attempts at using the dictionary we were born into, the meanings we intend to convey fall into the abyss and disappear into Deconstructive darkness.

By the end of my phone conversation with our riled reader, I think she understood that our use of the word “alleged” to describe the disappearance of the Israeli teens, early on in what would become a developing story, was coming from a place of journalistic caution, not anything more sinister. At least I hope she did.

I also hope that I can offer my hometown newspaper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the same benefit of the doubt. I was angered, too, by that paper’s recent use of the word “relationship” to describe criminal sexual acts performed by an adult man on a minor female. The Pennsylvania Crimes Code negates any possibility of a “relationship” between an adult and a child who is not legally capable of consenting to sex. “Relationship” in this context tends to add an air of credibility and respectability to a form of interaction between adults and children that our society has criminalized for good reason.

The offending word was written by an experienced courts reporter I remember from my days as an assistant district attorney. I believe that she was searching for and failed to achieve the meaning she intended. This can—and does—happen to even the most vigilant writers among us.

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The right to privacy

2014-07-02 18:05:21

The Supreme Court of the United States ended its current term with a flurry of headline-grabbing decisions concerning free speech and the free exercise of religion, two of the five pillars of the First Amendment.

Political reporter Dmitriy Shapiro writes about the Hobby Lobby decision on the front page this week, a case concerning a closely held business’ right to refuse to provide contraception coverage to its employees in contravention of the Affordable Care Act’s mandate. Jewish groups wasted no time in responding to the court’s ruling on Monday, with responses ranging from “applause” to “horror.” Likewise, SCOTUS’ decision striking down no-protest buffer zones near abortion clinics prompted strong reactions from Jewish organizations.

Amid the sound and fury of these two opinions, it was possible to lose sight of a third decision with profound implications for American life. Riley v. California concerned the arrest of David Riley, who was pulled over in California in 2009 for displaying an expired registration sticker on his car. The police found loaded guns in the car, and, on examining Riley’s smartphone, found information associating him with a known gang. After conducting a second, more thorough search of Riley’s phone, without obtaining a warrant, police found messages linking the defendant to a shooting. He was convicted. The lower courts held that neither search of his device required a warrant.

As correctly noted by The New York Times, American courts have long
permitted warrantless searches at the time of arrests, justifying them on the basis of “exigent circumstances” such as the safety of the police officer and the need to prevent the imminent destruction of evidence.

Chief Justice Roberts, writing for a unanimous court, argued that neither justification could be applied to cellphones, which are not likely to endanger officers performing an arrest. Moreover, “[m]odern cell phones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans ‘the privacies of life.’ The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought.”

Therefore, the court ruled, police must obtain a warrant to search a suspect’s cellphone incident to an arrest.

The Riley case, seen in connection with the court’s unanimously decided opinion in U.S. v. Jones back in 2012, gives me hope both about the court’s (average age = 68) ability to apply the law to an increasingly high-tech society and about privacy rights in the digital age. In the Jones case, the court held that the attachment of a Global-Positioning System (GPS) tracking device to a person’s car, and subsequent use of that device to track his movements on public streets, involves a defendant’s constitutional right to be free from “unreasonable searches and seizures.”

Watching this country’s highest court stand up for privacy, what Justice Brandeis famously called the “right to be let alone,” makes me feel a particular pride about how Jewish law has long cherished this principle. The Talmud explains that the famous phrase “how goodly are your tents, Jacob; your dwellings, Israel” refers to their placement such that the openings did not face directly onto each other. Thus, Balaam, the spy sent to curse the Israelites, concluded to his king that the Jewish people were worthy of divine praise as they valued privacy.

Additionally, Rabbi Akiva taught that one should not enter another’s home without knocking – not even his own home – “for perhaps they are engaged in a private matter” inside.

According to one possible interpretation of the Gemara, the bells worn by the kohen gadol on his clothing also served to protect personal privacy. No one would be caught unawares by the approaching high priest, his bells loudly ringing.

Our mission as Jews is to act as a “light unto the nations.” With respect to personal privacy, have we not always done so?

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A high calling

2014-06-25 18:17:11

On my way into Washington Jewish Week’s newsroom on my first day as editor-in-chief last week, I felt like I was going to throw up.

I was not nervous about meeting my new colleagues or regretting my choice to move here from New York City. On the contrary, I was eager to join this historic news organization, to work with my former Jewish Exponent colleague Joshua Runyan and the talented staff at WJW. For the past seven years, I had divided my time between practicing criminal law (both as a prosecutor and as a defense attorney) and writing for magazines. I was ready to commit full time to the news business and, in doing so, to come full circle to my roots in Jewish journalism.

But I had not thought deeply enough about what it would mean to not only work exclusively as a journalist again, but to lead a newsroom. That is, until I was driving down Rockville Pike and heard the news on NPR that New York City’s law department had settled with the five black and Hispanic men, ages 14 to 16 at the time of their arrests, who served between seven and 13 years in prison for the brutal 1989 beating and rape of a 28-year-old female jogger in Central Park—a crime they apparently did not commit. According to The New York Times, the Central Park Five, as the men have come to be known, will receive $40 million from the city, representing $1 million for each year of their incarceration.

It is clear, as Mayor Bill de Blasio said last week, that police and prosecutors committed an “injustice” in this case, notwithstanding the Bloomberg administration’s previous argument in court that authorities had acted in “good faith” and that the charges against the teens had been supported by “abundant probable cause, including confessions.” No physical evidence linked the boys to the scene (DNA found inside the victim and on her sock was later matched to a man named Matias Reyes, a 31-year-old serial rapist unknown to the boys and infamous for gouging out his victims’ eyes), none had a criminal record and their confessions were both disturbingly inconsistent and the product of up to 30 hours of police interrogation that was not videotaped. Only the confessions were recorded. And without those confessions, there essentially was no case.

Jewish law has long disapproved the use of confessions in criminal cases. The Talmud contains no provision for interrogating criminal suspects and holds that “no man may call himself a wrongdoer.” Maimonides argued that confessions should be inadmissible in a Jewish court because of the danger that mentally ill persons might confess to crimes they did not commit as a form of self-punishment. Prominent medieval rabbis, in expressing their own objections to the use of criminal confessions, taught that a person’s body and life belong to God and are not theirs to forfeit. Other scholars worried that confessions might unduly influence the court, leading jurists to ignore or gloss over contradictory evidence.

Here, that is apparently just what happened. Never mind the fact that the victim lost 75 percent of her blood in the bludgeoning and the boys were found with nary a drop on them. They had confessed, and that was good enough for law enforcement, particularly when the city had reached a new apex of violent crime and racial tension.

But the authorities were not the only ones who rushed to judgment. Looking back on the Central Park jogger case, it is clear, says LynNell Hancock, a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, that the wrongful convictions of the Central Park Five were as much as the fault of the press as the prosecution. In her 2003 article for the Columbia Journalism Review, Hancock explained that news headlines “pumped fear into horror.” New York’s Daily News branded the five suspects a “wolf pack.” The New York Post introduced the term “wilding” to describe the city’s poor youth in an apparent nod to the rampaging gang in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange – “packs of bloodthirsty teens from the tenements, bursting with boredom and rage, roam the streets getting kicks from an evening of ultra-violence.”

Bob Herbert, who would later become a prominent New York Times columnist, used his Daily News column to brand the suspects “teenage mutants.” Pete Hamill, a legendary figure in New York journalism, professed a unique insight into the boys’ minds when he wrote in an April 23, 1989 piece for the Post titled “A Savage Disease,” that the Central Park Five “had only one goal: to smash, hurt, rob, stomp, rape. The enemies were rich. The enemies were white.”

While such inflammatory articles and columns hit newspapers “in the heat of the moment,” Hancock notes that they “didn’t end, and none of it was corrected. A year later, when the trial began, the press was still not asking the hard questions about the evidence in the case.”

There were a few journalists who did. Sheryl McCarthy and Nina Bernstein of New York Newsday interviewed the suspects’ teachers, tutors, classmates and parents, revealing that they were considered, variably, “not aggressive, very easy-going,” “a straight-up guy,” and “very shy, very respectable.” But, as Hancock’s study in CJR noted at the time, this act of original reporting did little to stop the runaway momentum of the master narrative the police and press had crafted in unhealthy symbiosis.

Hancock calls this case a “cautionary tale” for journalists, and she is right. It is our responsibility as journalists to get past ourselves – our fears, our biases, our prejudices – when covering a story, even one as fraught with emotion as this one. A trial, as I know from experience, is not about the truth. It is about what can be proved within the confines of the Rules of Evidence. Journalists are not bound by those rules, and can, if they work hard and honestly enough, reveal a clearer picture of important events. As such, we have perhaps an ever fuller mandate as journalists than members of the criminal justice system.

News of the Central Park jogger case may have dampened my spirits as I headed into my first day of work as WJW’s editor. But perhaps it was just the reminder of journalism’s high calling that I needed to hear.

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