September 9, 1999
Where Were the Journalists?
How to account for the different stories, almost diametrically opposed to one another? From the two articles (Rosenblatt's, which appeared in the Sept. 3 Jewish Week, and Fax's, which ran in the Aug. 20 Jewish Journal), you might think these were two different incidents of violence and terror in two separate cities.
It is particularly disturbing because I know Gary Rosenblatt to be an experienced and extremely responsible editor and writer. Editor-in-chief of The Jewish Week, he is one of the leading Jewish journalists in America. Moreover, Rosenblatt is learned about Judaism and astute when it comes to Jewish organizations and the politics that enfold them. Since it was he who had written that Los Angeles' rabbinate had fumbled badly, I, for one, could not easily dismiss his account by falling back on that cliché, "Oh, you know journalists and their passion for conflict, for the negative spin."
I telephoned him in New York.
He had received a call, as he relates, from someone on the JCC staff who was angry at the rabbis for their non-appearance, and angrier still that a few rabbis had flocked to the scene only to gravitate toward the journalists and the TV cameras. Rosenblatt had followed up with telephone calls to four or five rabbis he knew in Los Angeles. As he reports, one had been away on vacation; another did not think to drive out to the Valley or telephone to inquire if his help was needed. In all, not one of the rabbis had pitched in to help. His editorial in Jewish Week, and reprinted here, followed. As a community, we do not come across as looking good. Or at least our rabbis do not.
The Jewish Journal received a similar telephone call from a JCC staffer complaining about grandstanding and absentee rabbis. But when our reporter Julie Gruenbaum Fax checked, a different story emerged.
At Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge, Rabbi Jerald Brown "dispatched his associate, Rabbi Debbie Till, to the JCC and then to the hospital, where one of his members was injured. Rabbi Barry Lutz stayed at the synagogue to deal with clearing out their own preschool and to field phone calls from distraught members, many of them JCC parents."
There were others as well. Rabbi Steven Tucker of Temple Ramat Zion, about 1.5 miles from the JCC, visited area hospitals the day after the shooting and the JCC later in the week.
"A number of rabbis," according to Fax, "deliberately stayed away from the site as the crisis was occurring" on the assumption that "the last thing emergency personnel needed was more people to handle."
Meanwhile, Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark, interim executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, who served as the representative for all the city's rabbis, was also on hand. "He gave comfort to many parents and campers on site," wrote Fax, "[and] also attended the funeral of the slain postal worker, Joseph Ileto."
It occurred to me as I read the two stories back to back that another factor was present as well -- namely, that most of the rabbis turned to their own congregants in an effort to offer comfort.
I can tell you with some authority that journalism is not a science or a branch of the arts. Nor is it an immediate form of history. It is, rather, a way of obtaining information either from eyewitness accounts or knowledgeable sources, some of whom often have their own political agenda. The reporter's job is to gather the information as quickly as possible, avoid being used by one or another of the interested parties (e.g. the irate JCC staff member), organize the important details and make sure that the story is accurate, reliable and readable.
All this in time to make the day's deadline. That means there is a cap on the number of calls that can be made, details that can be checked out, and background that can be researched.
The truth of the situation, or of the quote attributed to the authority, you may have noticed, is not at issue. Accuracy is prized. Did he say it? Was it observed? Can the "fact" be corroborated by two separate, independent sources?
Often, journalists know the limitations that bind their coverage, and so adopt a humorous, somewhat cynical take on the public figures they cover. Not true, I should add, for Gary Rosenblatt. And invariably they react to the event, are imprinted by it, and become the informed observer -- which accounts for the (often unconscious) point of view or (the conscious) spin given to a news story or a column.
I cannot tell you which story is "true" -- Gary Rosenblatt's or Julie Gruenbaum Fax's. If fault can be found, I would cite Rosenblatt's failure to call us or Fax or to refer to her story.
Though both accounts came from interviews, each is accurate; each tells the story that emerged from the conversations with sources. In Fax's case, there was the advantage of being on hand, of talking to more people, of seeing close up the impact and the response(s).
We are reprinting the version that New Yorkers were offered. It's always helpful to know how others perceive you. Perhaps The Jewish Week should run Julie Gruenbaum Fax's story.
Note to our readers: You can find Fax's news account on our online archive at http://www.jewishjournal.com/jccrabbis.8.20.9.htm.