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August 17, 2006

Needed: Rational Discussion

http://www.jewishjournal.com/opinion/article/needed_rational_discussion_20060818

When David Lauter, the deputy foreign editor of the Los Angeles Times, began speaking to a crowd of about 400 at a Women's Alliance for Israel program last week, it was clear that most of the audience was out for his scalp, and not even the yarmulke he was wearing could save him.

Lauter was on a panel discussing news coverage of Israel's battle against Hezbollah. I was also on the panel, seated next to Lauter, who is a friend and was a longtime colleague when I worked at the Times.

He is a highly intelligent, soft-spoken, logical man who thinks before he speaks. He is also an observant Jew.

That meant nothing to this crowd. Neither did his intelligence and logic. They booed when he tried to explain his paper's coverage. When they weren't booing, they talked among themselves, paying no attention to Lauter. To this bunch, the world outside their own community was a vast and hostile conspiracy against them and against Israel.

I've spoken to many groups all over Los Angeles during extremely volatile times. I've never seen such rudeness, narrow mindedness and just plain boorishness.

Nothing Lauter said warranted such a response. He told how the coverage began, with him and the foreign editor, Marjorie Miller, organizing the Times foreign correspondents the day the conflict began.

The regulars needed help. A couple of the correspondents were already arranging their transportation to Israel. Miller and Lauter dispatched more to deal with the unexpected story.

This crowd wasn't interested in these details. Nor did they want to know of the courage of these correspondents, who willingly head into danger -- and stay there. This crowd probably had no idea of how many correspondents have been killed in Iraq. These deaths are a clear warning that the same thing could happen to some of the reporters in Lebanon or Israel.

The questions were unrelentingly hostile. They weren't questions, in fact. They were attacks. And when Lauter tried to answer them, there were more boos. When he sat down, I told him that this bunch was out for blood. Later, he said felt there was a hard core of haters, "but I don't think they were the majority."

I don't know about that. Hostility seemed to extend through the room, back to the far edges where my wife and cousin were seated.

And at the end of the program, Lauter announced to the crowd that he would stick around and answer more questions.

"Several people came up to me and said they appreciated my being there, but they said so quietly, not exposing themselves to the crowd," Lauter told me later. Not blessed with Lauter's patience, I left angry and stayed mad all the next day.

In the first place, the Times' coverage is excellent. It's fair. The reporters and editors strive for balance in the writing and editing of stories and the placement of the stories and the powerful pictures.

This does not mean it is perfect. Putting out a daily paper is an imperfect business. Think about putting that thing together every day with deadlines. I did it for years, the last three as city editor of the Times. When I went home at night, I wondered how we did it. In the process, mistakes are made. Reporters get things wrong. Editors make bad choices. Journalists live -- or should live -- in constant awareness of their fallibility.

But the Women's Alliance for Israel event illustrates a bigger issue that extends far beyond the reliability and honesty of the Times coverage: Why can't we have a rational discussion of Israel and the war in Lebanon?

In my modest presentation -- I thought it best to bore these people rather than anger them -- I noted that never before in history was so much information available in so many forms of media.

In the morning, I read three papers called the Times -- the Los Angeles, New York and Financial. When writing, I take breaks to read Haaretz, the Jerusalem Post and the DEBKA Report, all from Israel, plus take a look at the Guardian to check out the anti-Israel thoughts of the British left wing. All that, plus my lifelong support of Israel, shapes my opinions.

With this information overload, sometimes it is hard for me to make up my mind. Sometimes, I actually have to think.

I would have enjoyed a rational discussion of the media, in general, and the Times, specifically. I have talked to many anti-Times audiences. People hear me out, argue and exchange ideas. They concede a point. I concede a point. We all leave the room better informed.

This group did not want to be better informed. They preferred to get their information from e-mails circulated by like-minded friends, interest groups and, of course, by watching Fox. Any mention of this network, by the way, got a lot of applause.

But as this war continues, we've got to reach out and talk to people who don't agree with us. If we won't listen to fellow Jews, particularly those as well informed as Lauter, how can we convince anyone of the rightness of our cause?

Bill Boyarsky's monthly column on Jews and civic life returns this week. Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at bw.boyarsky@verizon.net.

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