January 25, 2001
Who Speaks for the Jews?
Wiesenthal Center tops the list of sources media turn to when they need a Jewish voice.
In the eyes of television, radio and print editors and reporters, who speaks for the Los Angeles Jewish community? To find out, The Jewish Journal asked 17 media professionals covering the Southland, "If a story with a Jewish or Israeli angle came across your desk and you wanted a local reaction, whom would you call?"
The answers varied. Reporters who covered the Jewish community frequently and were sophisticated about its internal mechanism cited a wide range of rabbinical and lay sources. Reporters who filed Jewish stories rarely or cursorily opted almost invariably for the Simon Wiesenthal Center as their first choice.
To get the 17 respondents, we made about 80 phone calls and were amused how adept reporters were in retreating behind the same evasions they resent when they are chasing down a source. "You'll first have to check with our publicity department," some told us. Others insisted, "We're too busy now (or in a meeting); try us some other time," while some assistants told us, "Don't know whether he or she will call back, but you can leave your number." Obviously, the names cited in this story were not among the evaders.
"Many reporters fall into the trap of thinking that the Jewish community is monolithic and that one rabbi speaks for all Jews, or one priest for all Catholics," said Carl "Duke" Helfand of the Los Angeles Times.
Helfand's title is education writer, but he and his family are fully involved in Jewish life, so that in the absence of a Jewish "beat" reporter at the Times, many Jewish stories fall his way.
Experienced reporters, whatever their beat, soon develop their own list of favorite sources. Helfand has some 35 names on his Jewish list, and on top is John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
"John is able to articulate his ideas, and he speaks for the major Jewish organization here," Helfand said.
For instance, when new elections for Israel's prime minister were announced recently, Helfand first called Fishel for his reaction, then Rabbi Joel Rembaum of Temple Beth Am, and then the local Orthodox Union.
Other good sources include David Lehrer and Sue Stengel of the Anti-Defamation League, demographer Pini Herman, Rabbi Jerrold Goldstein of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (Reform), and Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein for the Orthodox perspective. On gay issues, Helfand will call Rabbi Denise Eger of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood.
Larry B. Stammer, one of five religion writers on the L.A. Times, has an even larger list of Jewish names than Helfand, topped by Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark of Temple Beth Ohr in La Mirada, past president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.
"Larry is good about calling back; he is media-savvy but not pushy; he leaves it to the reporter whether his stuff will be used," Stammer said.
Also high on Stammer's list are Rabbi Harvey Fields of Wilshire Boulevard Temple and Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom.
As for The Jewish Federation, Stammer said, "It is faithful about reminding you of an event, first a phone call, then an e-mail, but not many of their stories are overtly religious."
In general, Stammer, who is Episcopalian, has found that the liberal streams of any religion -- be they Jewish, Protestant or Roman Catholic -- are more adept at dealing with the media than their more orthodox co-religionists.
Another person with a very specific list is Sarah Spitz, producer at National Public Radio station KCRW, who books many Jewish authors and experts for her programs.
Her favorites are Rabbis Gary Greenebaum of the American Jewish Committee and Chaim Seidler-Feller of UCLA Hillel, as well as ADL's Lehrer.
"Chaim has a fabulous mental data bank," Spitz said. "He knows where every person stands in his or her thinking." Nancy Bauer-Gonzales, vice president-news director at KNBC-TV, thinks it's not all that difficult to cover the Jewish community, for reasons that might startle some veterans of bitter turf battles.
"The Jewish community is united, so it gets its word out properly," she said. "Lots of other ethnic communities are so splintered, you have to touch base with a whole lot of factions."
Jose Rios, vice president for Fox 11 News, thinks the story itself determines what contacts to call. "We do a lot with David Lehrer and the ADL in hate crimes and discrimination, not just affecting the Jewish community but others, as well," Rios noted.
"The Federation is good because they refer you to other people if they don't have the answer. We occasionally call AIPAC, mainly for background on the Middle East."
Ray Gonzales, director of KTLA's community affairs programming, produces issue-oriented panel discussions. He draws frequently on the Jewish-Arab Speakers Bureau, Peace Now, National Conference of Christians and Jews, and the L.A. County Human Relations Committee.
Jeffrey Kaye, West Coast correspondent for PBS' "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," deals with relatively few "Jewish" stories, but when he does, he follows the most appropriate contacts inherent in the event. One of his biggest stories was the shooting rampage at the North Valley Jewish Community Center, where he dealt mainly with JCC and Jewish Federation officials.
Jay Eckstein, editor for news and planning at KABC-TV, prefers official spokesmen: The Jewish Federation for Jews, the Muslim Public Affairs Council for Muslims, and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles for Catholics.
Yet among the plethora of Jewish contacts, if there were to be a contest for the number one source, the Wiesenthal Center would win hands down.
And the main key to its popularity lies in one word: availability.
In the frantic, deadline-driven world of the media, a source may be profound, witty and with a keen analytical mind, but that doesn't do any good if he or she is always in meetings that can't be interrupted or takes a full day to return calls. That's where Rabbis Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper, dean and associate dean respectively of the Wiesenthal Center, stand out. They have a good professional public relations department, but in essence the two leaders are their own best PR men.
Although certainly as busy as any other communal executives, they will almost always take calls instantly or phone back within minutes, whether they're in Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Jerusalem or Tokyo.
Jennifer Siebens, West Coast bureau chief of CBS-TV News, told The Journal, "We don't deal with too many Jewish stories out here; they are usually handled in New York and Washington. On stories we work on, we find the Wiesenthal Center most media-fluent. They're judicious in the stories they pitch, and when we reject some, they don't argue and moan.
"Now I know I come across as hard-ass, but there are stories, like Holocaust reparations, where the eyes glaze over, it's been done to a fare-thee-well. The Nazi-hunting stories are mainly over, there'll never be another Eichmann," she said. "Sure, [the center has] a keen touch for the Hollywood shtick, but the Museum of Tolerance is incredible, and they've done a fine job telling the stories of the Holocaust survivors,"Siebens said.
Billie Shilliday, KTLA-TV assignment editor, agreed. "We occasionally call the Skirball Center on cultural events, but in general we phone the Wiesenthal Center," she said. "Rabbi Hier is always available, he's media-savvy, he knows what we're interested in."
Chrys Quimby, news director of KFWB-AM, is also a Wiesenthal fan. "When we call someone, we need responses right away," Quimby said. "So we go first to the Wiesenthal Center. It's well-known, respected and available. After that we might talk to the ADL, American Jewish Congress or Progressive Jewish Alliance."
"First we call the Wiesenthal Center; they're always available," said Ronnie Bradford, KNX-AM managing news editor. "The Jewish Federation is a close second; their response time has greatly improved over the last six months. The ADL is fine, too."
Corliss Duncan, Time assistant bureau chief in Los Angeles, said, "Generally, we call the Wiesenthal Center and its Museum of Tolerance, especially on matters of discrimination. They're most responsive."
Mark Miller, Newsweek bureau chief in Los Angeles until last month and now chief of correspon-dents in New York, said he's culled stories from The Journal. For fresh comment, he said, "I would generally go to the Wiesenthal Center; they're most authoritative."
Mathis Chazanov covered the Jewish beat at the L.A. Times for 12 years and is now foreign news editor for the Orange County Register. "I called one Jewish organization for its opinion, but it declined comment, and I wrote so in my story," he said. "Next day I got a call from the organization's president. 'Why didn't you call me?' he demanded.
"You don't have that kind of access problem at the Wiesenthal Center, where they are very aggressive and very quotable. By now, there's a reflex among many reporters that on a Jewish story you call Hier, just as on a black story you call the Rev. Cecil Murray of the First A.M.E. Church."
Al Corral, news director of KCET's "Life & Times Tonight," said, "On hate crimes, we generally turn to the Wiesenthal Center. They're conversant with the organization, structure and resources of hate groups. We'll also talk to the ADL and Jewish Federation and pick their brains."
One man who needs no outside experts is Hal Fishman, the veteran KTLA-TV news anchor. "I used to be a political science professor, and I've kept up, so I'm my own analyst on the Middle East," he says.