Stay Tuned


 

Last October, a man called with a complaint. Before I could ask what was the matter, he launched into a tirade about a biased and

inaccurate article. He said he couldn’t believe a serious newspaper would print such lies. He was so angry, he was this close to canceling his subscription.

I wasn’t sure which article he was referring to, so I gently asked him to be more specific. He went on to describe a piece I had absolutely no memory of.

“Are you sure you read this in The Jewish Journal?”

“The Journal?” he said. “No! This was in The Los Angeles Times.”

“The Times?” I said. “So why are you calling me?”

“Because they won’t pick up the phone!”

I tell the story often, because among other things, it says a lot about the role of community journalism. We are the paper that responds. We are the paper that can’t help but listen attentively to its readers. We are the paper that picks up the phone. My hope is that readers will keep this in mind as The Journal embarks on a new business model that is, as far as we know, unprecedented for a Jewish newspaper.

Starting Jan. 1, Journal readers who received their weekly newspaper by donating to The Jewish Federation will still be able to get it, but not as part of their Federation donation. For 18 years, The Federation purchased annual Journal subscriptions for its donors. Last year, it purchased about 20,000 of the 60,000 papers The Journal distributed each week. Beginning next week, it will no longer do so.

Readers will be able to subscribe directly to The Journal for home delivery or pick it up for free at distribution sites around Los Angeles (subscriptions and a list of sites are available at www.jewishjournal.com).

When we announced this new arrangement earlier this year, many people approached me with their condolences, as if we had been consigned to our doom. But the impetus for this change came from us — yes, from us — and I believe it is a big step forward for the paper and the community.

Granted, of the 135 Jewish community papers in North America, none has a distribution plan like ours. But Los Angeles is a Jewish community like no other, and our new model will serve it well. Most importantly, it will enable us to reach the greatest number of readers across a vast and diverse landscape. Under the previous arrangement, postal regulations limited the number of papers we could distribute for free. But free distribution has been a boon to us — bringing the paper to readers who might otherwise have no connection to Jewish life, increasing our visibility to advertisers and giving us an audience far more diverse in terms of age and background than that of almost any Jewish institution I know of.

Our goal is to reach every possible reader we can (thereby becoming, not incidentally, the largest circulation mainstream Jewish weekly in the country), and this step takes us leaps and bounds closer to achieving it.

The move also establishes The Journal as one of a handful of truly independent community Jewish newspapers. About 85 percent of Jewish papers are either owned by or sell thousands of subscriptions to federations or other major Jewish philanthropies. These arrangements provide a cushion of guaranteed income.

But even when there is little question of outside editorial influence, as at the superb New York Jewish Week or at this paper, the arrangement is less than ideal. It diverts Federation dollars from urgent philanthropy, it involves a charitable organization in a business where it has little expertise and it creates a temptation for either censorship or self-censorship, which isn’t healthy for the Jewish community.

If a Jewish paper can survive economically free of one organization or the other, it should make every attempt to do so.

Jewish newspapers have played an important role in Jewish life since the very first one was published just 70 years after the printing press was invented. As Jews dispersed, they no sooner established mikvahs and cemeteries as they did newspapers. There is no community without communication, and these papers have functioned over the centuries to deliver important news, to serve as a kind of communal bulletin board, to broadcast the teachings and values of Judaism itself.

Is the form antiquated? If anything, I believe a Jewish paper, whether delivered on newsprint or by Internet, is more important than ever.

We are a far-flung community, spread out from the South Bay to the East Valley to Thousand Oaks. We contain multitudes of different backgrounds, practices and beliefs. And The Journal is one place where we can meet each week, if only virtually, to engage in a common discussion on the things that matter so much to us. That conversation needn’t be parochial — it mustn’t be.

The crisis in Sudan and the disaster in Southeast Asia may not have a “Jewish angle,” but they do implore a Jewish response, which can be called forth and described in the pages of the Jewish press.

Since we announced our change in the business model several months ago, the response from current subscribers has been heartening. Far more Federation subscribers than we expected to took out new subscriptions. Of course, if you haven’t already done so, I hope you will, too.

But in any case, I hope you keep reading. We are heading into uncharted waters here, but we are doing so with a terrific group of journalists, sales personnel, office staff and board of directors. We also do so with a community we are so proud to be a part of, and so excited to continue serving.

 

Money Buys Control


The angry man in the back of the room at El Caballero
Country Club in Tarzana was shaking his fist and calling us crooks.

I made a big mistake — eye contact. With me in his range, he
raised his hand, and I think his middle finger, and yelled, “You!” Being a city
ethics commissioner, I didn’t think I should be called a crook in public.

Bill Rosendahl, cable television public affairs moderator
and City Council candidate, leaned over and asked me what was with the guy.
Just don’t make eye contact, I warned. Finally the man, still shaking his fist,
left and we concluded our panel discussion at the annual town hall meeting of
the Tarzana Property Owners Association.

The subject was “Ethics in Politics: Oxymoron? Achievable?
Pipe Dream?” Rosendahl was the moderator. The panelists were Los Angeles City
Councilmembers Cindy Miscikowski, Wendy Greuel and Dennis Zine; City Controller
Laura Chick; lobbyist Steve Afriat; and me.

The room was pretty well filled with members of the
association, longtime Valley activists, some of whom have been in the middle of
every big fight from Bradley-Yorty to Valley secession. They live in the heart
of what political consultants and analysts like to call “the Jewish Valley,”
home to many Jews who are involved in synagogue life, community organizations
and who have a long history of political involvement.

The audience seemed to share the Valley discontent with
downtown that sparked the secession movement last year.

The man in back was an extreme example. He was mad because of
a highly controversial city award of a $33 million contract for a Van Nuys
Airport parking garage and shuttle bus terminal to the firm of Tutor-Saliba,
which has been involved in many disputes over the quality of its work.

Others in the audience expressed themselves in a more civil
manner. But they, too, were unhappy with the city. What particularly galled
some was a proposed increase in Department of Water and Power rates.

They hammered Greuel, Miscikowski, Zine and Chick with
demands that the city councilmembers do something about it, as if the matter
were out of the audience’s hands.

Actually, constituents are not entirely powerless. Public
protests prompted the City Council to delay the increase and to begin a study
on whether higher rates are really needed.

As I listened, I felt frustrated, not particularly with the
audience, because these were good people with a long record of civic
involvement. I was thinking of Angelenos in general: Why don’t they do more to
seize control of their government?

Scholars, analysts and journalists, puzzled by the vast
expanse of a city that has sprawled instead of grown, blame the lack of a civic
culture on an amusement-loving quality in Los Angeles life, exacerbated by
sunshine.

That’s not what I’ve seen in covering Los Angeles for more
than 30 years. I’ve encountered intense political activity in East Los Angeles,
South Los Angeles, the Westside and the Valley. I’ve met many involved people,
such as Los Angeles City Fire Commissioner Louise Frankel, who was in the Tarzana
Property Owners Association town hall audience.

Toward the end of the session, Frankel, who is now president
of the Mountain Gate Community Association, rose to offer her opinion.

“I do enjoy local government,” she said. “….It touches you
every day. When you see something wrong, you can do something about it.”

Frankel took credit for her precinct registering a high vote
for Miscikowski. “And that’s because I walked door to door,” she said.

Miscikowski got to the root of the problem — a lack of broad-based
campaign contributions that would permit a wide variety of candidates and
issues to go before the voters. Rather than offer a tired old rant against
fat-cat contributors, she put it to the audience. How many people in the
audience contributed to a local political campaign, she asked.

Very few hands went up.

Such a tepid response shows that Los Angeles residents have
ceded power to the small universe of business and union leaders — all dependent
on city pay and contracts — that finance Los Angeles political campaigns.

This has led to an incestuous political culture that does
not reflect what is actually happening in the city. The same contributors go to
the same fundraisers and pay the same few political consultants to run
campaigns. The consultants are interviewed by an equally small group of
reporters. Reading the papers, you would think that no more than a dozen people
run L.A. politics.

There’s a way out of this.

Remember Howard Dean? I know he imploded in Iowa and
collapsed in New Hampshire, but the brilliant use of the Internet by his man,
Joe Trippi, revolutionized political communications and fundraising. Dean
created his own network.

We could do the same thing in Los Angeles.

I looked over the audience. Lots of retired people were
there. Computer literate, no doubt, and spending their time e-mailing messages
and photographs to kids, grandchildren, other relatives and friends. Tarzana
and the rest of the Jewish Valley is a mighty source of energy and talent.

What’s needed is a better way of getting these folks
together. Someone should harness that talent into a Dean-like L.A. fund-raising
Internet network for candidates and causes. If you can control the money, you
can control the town.

There’s enough anger to fuel such a network. The man who
called me a crook should be given a more constructive outlet, just as Dean,
even in defeat, offered one to angry and frustrated Democrats.


Bill Boyarsky’s column on Jews and civic life appears on the first Friday of each month. 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.

Pressure Power?


Henry Bean can barely contain his anger when he talks about the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

He blames the center, and particularly its associate dean, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, for spoiling a likely deal with Paramount Classics to distribute his prize-winning film "The Believer."

Cooper categorically denies Bean’s assumption, and Paramount Classics says it passed on the movie for unrelated reasons.

Whoever is right, the controversy throws into relief the question of the extent to which pressure by special-interest groups — be they Jewish, Arab American, gay or animal lovers — affects the content and commercial screening of movies and television programs.

A couple of facts are uncontested:

"The Believer" is based on the true story of a young Jew who becomes the leader of a virulently anti-Semitic neo-Nazi gang and kills himself when his Jewish background is revealed.

The picture, written and directed by Bean, whose screenwriting credits include "Mulholland Falls" and "Enemy of the State," won the grand jury prize at the recent Sundance Film Festival.

In the early part of February, the Wiesenthal Center was contacted by an intermediary and asked to take a look at "The Believer."

Cooper, who is used to such requests from directors whose films deal with Nazis or the Holocaust, agreed and gathered a group of eight or nine people, varying in age, gender and background. Bean appeared before the group and spoke for 10 minutes about the making of "The Believer," then left before the screening of the film.

From this point on, the stories diverge somewhat in factual details, but even more in perspective.

Cooper said his group agreed that the film just didn’t work. "It’s not a good script, and we don’t learn the motivation of the protagonist," he said.

He was particularly put off by one "problematic and disturbing" scene in a synagogue, during which skinheads rip a Torah scroll to shreds. "That scene alone could be a primer for anti-Semitism," Cooper said.

The following day, Cooper got a call from Paramount, asking for his evaluation of the film. He recounted his reservations and illustrated them by comparing "The Believer" to the 1999 film "American History X," which also dealt with American neo-Nazis.

"That also was a very controversial film, but the character of the protagonist was fully developed, and you understood what he was going through," Cooper said. "We sponsored a showing of the film with actual skinheads in the audience."

Bean, who went through his own Jewish evolution from agnostic to maintaining a kosher home, obviously disagreed with Cooper’s assessment of his film.

Reached at his home in New York, he described "The Believer" as "philo-Semitic … and really a sabotage of bigotry."

He acknowledged that at first sight the film might not strike a viewer in such terms, and he cautioned the audience at Sundance before the film was screened.

"However, that was a younger, professional crowd, not specifically Jewish," Bean said. "They saw my good intentions, and the reception was uniformly favorable."

Bean sees the reaction of the Cooper group as a form of "Jewish paranoia," and he was particularly agitated by criticism of the Torah-ripping scene.

"This scene was crucial because it triggers a change in the main character," he said. "We were very careful not to desecrate the Torah. We substituted a parchment-like paper and made sure that the lettering did not contain the name of God."

Bean said he was approached by a Paramount representative at Sundance and thought he was "on the verge of a deal" for distribution of "The Believer."

He thinks that Cooper’s criticism scared off the Paramount decision-makers, or, at least, gave them an excuse to back off from a controversial project.

"You know how frightened people in the entertainment industry are of any opposition," Bean said. "In one of my previous scripts, I mentioned gays, not in a derogatory way, but after protests, the producer took [the references] out."

Recently, the producer of "Sum of All Fears" changed Arab terrorists into neo-Nazis after protests from Arab-American groups. "It’s too bad Nazis don’t have a lobby," Bean said sarcastically.

In retrospect, Bean thinks it was a mistake to show the film at the Wiesenthal Center. "I wish I had never heard of Rabbi Cooper," he said. "These people can’t help a film, but they can hurt it."

A possible confirmation of the latter thesis is the reaction of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which also reviewed "The Believer" and praised it in an official statement.

"’The Believer’ is a provocative film on a subject that has special resonance for the Jewish community," the statement read. "The film is gripping and raises troubling issues. While some may find it objectionable, the filmmaker succeeds in his portrayal of this disturbing subject without legitimizing or glamorizing the hate-filled protagonist, anti-Semitism, or the lifestyle of skinheads."

Amy Levy, associate director of the regional ADL office in Los Angeles, said she gets calls all the time from producers checking whether a given character or scene might be offensive, not only to Jews, but to African Americans, Latinos or gays.

"We stand up for the right of filmmakers to deal with any subject, but we try to sensitize them to the dangers of bigotry," Levy said.

The third party in the controversy is Paramount Classics, a Paramount subsidiary, which distributes pictures geared to narrower-than-mainstream audiences. In the past couple of years, it has distributed movies on Jewish and Holocaust themes such as "Sunshine" and "Train of Life."

"’The Believer’ is a very good film, but we pick only six to seven films a year, and our slate was full," said David Dinerstein, co-president of Paramount Classics.

"We talked to Bean at Sundance, but we never had a deal on the table," he added.

One consideration in passing on "The Believer" was that promotion of the film would be "labor-intensive," Dinerstein said. "We have only 15 people in our organization, and it would take a lot of work and manpower to handle a film like this," he explained. "We would have to be proactive in publicizing a controversial film and reactive in responding to criticism."

Dinerstein acknowledged that if a large pressure group were to be strongly offended by a given film, it would be a factor in whether to take it on as a project. "But in the case of ‘The Believer,’ that didn’t play a part," he said.

While special interest groups are exerting increasing pressure on the entertainment industry, no constitutional issues are involved, observed attorney Douglas Mirell, who is frequently involved in First Amendment cases.

"The First Amendment comes into play when a governmental agency tries to curb the freedom of creative expression," he said. "It does not apply in disputes between private parties."