June 29, 2006
Risks, Rewards of the Jewish Angle
Jewish journalism has its risks, as veteran newsman Daniel Schorr has pointed out.
Addressing a Jewish audience in Los Angeles some years ago, Schorr recounted that his first professional job, in the mid-1930s, was as a correspondent with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in his native New York.
He eventually quit and moved on to CBS and fame because, he said, "I became aware that I was looking at everything through a Jewish lens."
There are other dangers in covering the Jewish world. They include indigestion and glazed eyeballs from too many testimonial dinners, the wrath of machers who do not suffer criticism lightly and the unforgiving grudges of VIPs whose names were left out of the story.
"Community leaders" might have overlooked such sins in a goyishe urban daily -- what do they know about the suffering and incredible accomplishments of our people? -- but to be slighted by a Jewish paper was intolerable.
When I started moonlighting for a Jewish weekly in the late 1950s, I often encountered sneers that implied that if I were any good, why wasn't I working for a "real" newspaper?
Since I had just come off a number of years at the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press in Spain, I naturally resented such slurs.
But looking at the American Jewish press in those days, I had to admit that its viewpoints and professional standards might well frustrate a reporter of Schorr's abilities.
In the typical Jewish weekly, an inordinate amount of space was given to birth, wedding and death announcements -- known in the trade as hatched, matched and dispatched -- and, of course, the ever effusive bar mitzvah stories (although in those leaner years, few parents led safaris and rented baseball stadiums to mark their progeny's passage to manhood).
Most of the remaining space was taken up by large photos of earnestly smiling men and women passing checks to each other for this or that worthy cause, while editorial and rabbinic columns fearlessly exhorted readers to study Torah and support our struggling brethren at home and abroad.
Questioning the competence of communal leaders amounted to heresy and the slightest criticism of Israeli policy meant excommunication.
I toiled on weekends for an upstart weekly, Los Angeles' now defunct Heritage, which was an erratic exception to the general blandness.
Its founder, publisher, editor-in-chief, reporter, columnist and advertising manager was Herb Brin, who would have felt right at home in the frontier journalism of the mid-19th century, when rival editors settled differences of opinion with horsewhips and six-shooters.
Brin had been raised in the "Front Page" tradition of Chicago's brawling journalism and was never happier than when scourging communal wimps who did not share his enthusiasm for decapitating real or imagined enemies of the Jewish people and Israel.
But in the last 20 years, Jewish journalism in the United States, particularly in New York and Los Angeles, has undergone a really remarkable transformation.
Its best editors and writers aim for the same professional standards (and frequently come from) leading general dailies, and they regularly hold up our leadership to scrutiny and try to reflect the changing modes and diversity of the Jewish world.
Still, Schorr's reservation about looking at every problem from the Jewish perspective is still valid, and inevitably so.
As much as we consider ourselves part of the American mainstream, we reflexively look at every happening and ask, "What's the Jewish angle?"
That "angle," though, is less parochial and circumscribed than it used to be, reflecting the broadening interests of the American and worldwide Jewish community of which we are a part.
Though we still tend to obsess about every anti-Semitic scrawl and every neo-Nazi rant, we have gained enough self-assurance to look at our people and community with a degree of openness and honesty unthinkable in the past.