December 23, 1999
Tales Told Out of School
(This column is prompted by the controversy at the Los Angeles Times over the Staples Magazine special issue, and the mea culpa independent report the paper published last Monday.)
Some of the differences between The Jewish Journal and the Los Angeles Times are obvious. They have more than 300 editors and reporters; we would need to draft a couple of additional reporters just to form a minyan.
I suspect our readers and advertisers differ as well in their assumptions and expectations. It is commonplace for a Jewish organization to telephone and request a story about a special event, or a dinner, in which a major figure or benefactor is being honored. These are not just our advertisers asking for coverage, but our readers as well. We try to give some mention( a picture and a caption) precisely because they are readers.
Don't misunderstand: This is not a case of pleasing advertisers indirectly. A few years ago a national Jewish agency drew attention to itself because of improprieties in its budget and accounting procedures. Our ad representative came into the editorial offices and pleaded with me not to run the story. We might lose the account, she said.
But we would look like a sell-out to our readers, I replied. They would certainly discover which story we had failed to run and why. We need to publish an accurate account out of self interest, I explained. It isn't principle at all.
Every newspaper presents a different image to different readers. A close friend of mine complains that we do not provide adequate religious coverage. He's a rabbi and a scholar based in one of the Jewish colleges in town. The Orthodox community believes, by and large, that we are anti-Orthodox... even though Julie Fax, our religion editor, is herself Orthodox. But many of our columnists and correspondents are not, and it is their biases to which the Orthodox respond.
We try to listen, to balance, to adjust. We are, after all, a community newspaper. But we are not a blackboard, present simply to reflect back all the beliefs and views of our readers. A newspaper -- particularly a community newspaper -- needs to make judgment calls, needs to inform about facts and truths which may at times seem unpalatable; needs to help create a passionate and informed citizenry; needs to write in what its editors perceive are the interests of the community.
One problem is that we -- journalists and editors -- are fallible. We make mistakes; errors of judgment. And they are there in print and large type for everyone to read. When we published a cover story on Monica Lewinsky, many readers of The Jewish Journal were outraged.
Recently we appear to have antagonized our readers once again, when we published a lead story on the 130 most influential Jews in Los Angeles. The complaints still have not ceased.
Of course we also "kill" stories. Sometimes the facts seems thin to me; sometimes the story just isn't there. These are decisions all editors make, all the time; at The Jewish Journal no less than at the Los Angeles Times.
Occasionally the editorial call is made at our newspaper because of the community itself. In the first few years of this newspaper I killed a story that Naomi Pfefferman wrote about a leading Jewish institution in our city. She had worked long and hard on the story; had interviewed the many parties involved in what was an in-house conflict. Facts were checked and double checked. It was first rate reporting.
And then I set it aside. I am still not certain I made the right call. But in that story everyone emerged tarnished. It may not have been my finest hour, but it definitely was not theirs. These were respected, much loved leaders in the community. But they were behaving badly. And the person challenging them did not remain unscathed either. It was, if you will, all negative.
Should our readers have been informed about a battle that tarred everyone? I may have underestimated them/you. But we were relatively new; had not yet earned the right to speak in behalf of the community. And so I apologized to Naomi and did not run the story. There was no advertising pressure applied.
I am not sure I would follow the same course today.
Readers and advertisers. All newspapers must serve each constituency. But the conflict at the Los Angeles Times today seems to me fueled by a separate agenda: It reads to me like a struggle between the reporters and editors on one side and management, that is, money men, on the other. It is the journalists who feel embarrassed and betrayed, more so than the readers, particularly after their peers in New York and at The Wall Street Journal have called into question their newspaper's integrity.
In short, the present pitched battle at the Los Angeles Times looks to be more about the self respect of the working press than a deep, abiding concern for either readers or advertisers. --Gene Lichtenstein