A paper evolves and innovates


In 1986, Elie Wiesel received the Nobel Peace Prize, the Soviet regime released refusenik Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky from prison, the New York Mets won the World Series, and “The Cosby Show” ranked No. 1 on television.

In the same historic year, The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles published its inaugural issue on Feb. 28.

On the 40-page newspaper’s first cover, above the headline “Bobbi and the New Jewish Right,” was a photo of Congresswoman Bobbi Fiedler, who had sparked the movement against the busing of school children to further the integration of public schools.

In many ways, that first issue, with its mix of politics, personal voices, solid reporting and spirited editorial independence,  has endured as a model for an organization that has grown and changed greatly in the decades since.

In the early 1980s, involved Los Angeles Jews had a choice of two privately owned weeklies, the venerable B’nai B’rith Messenger and the free-swinging Heritage, plus The Federation’s Jewish Community Bulletin.

jj_cover_040904The Federation’s lay and professional leadership felt that none of the three publications adequately served the community, and in 1983, a six-person committee set to work to explore the creation of a newspaper.

Attorney Richard Volpert served as committee chair, and, after a year of deliberations, he handed in a report recommending the establishment of a new weekly, financially supported by the Federation, but with complete editorial independence.

At the time, that last suggestion constituted a fairly radical step. Almost all other Jewish weeklies in the country were owned and run by local federations, which rarely, if ever, brooked criticism of Jewish institutions or Israeli policy.

The new editorial concept wasn’t an easy sell to many of Los Angeles’ Federation board members. Quite a few thought, “If we pay for the paper, then we run it,” Volpert recalled, “but I felt that without independence, the paper would have no credibility.”

Eventually, Federation started the paper, investing $660,000 and subsidizing subscriptions for its donors.

One of the strongest advocates for independence was Jonathan Kirsch, the youngest committee member, whose combined background as magazine writer, book critic and attorney specializing in publishing and libel law proved invaluable.

Kirsch has served as pro bono legal counsel for The Journal since its inception.

The next step was to select an editor. Gene Lichtenstein, who had edited a Jewish weekly in the Boston area, written for major national magazines and taught journalism courses at East and West Coast universities, was the pick.

His first two hires were his competitors for the editor’s slot, local writer Marlene Adler Marks and journalist Yehuda Lev, while Volpert became the first board chairman — in effect, publisher — of the fledgling weekly.

jj_cover_051305As editor, Lichtenstein made it his priority to publish as many diverse viewpoints as possible, recruit talented writers and columnists, and insisted, at all times, on good writing.

“I wanted an American newspaper, Jewish but connected to the larger world,” he said more recently. “It wouldn’t just reflect the viewpoint of The Federation or be mainly about fundraising. It wouldn’t print only favorable stories about the Jewish community and Israel.”

In the beginning …

“There were no computers,” recalled Toni Van Ness, now an advertising senior account executive at the Journal. “All invoices were typed on an IBM Selectric. There was no email. Ad proofs were copied and then sent by messenger or delivered by sales reps for approval. There were about 20 full-time people on the staff.”

Van Ness shared a small office with Janet Polyak, and the two personified the diversity of the personnel.

“I was a girl from South Central [Los Angeles] who spoke Ebonics, and Janet had a thick Russian accent,” Van Ness recounted. “In the beginning, there was a lot of, ‘What did you say? I didn’t understand you. Can you repeat that?’ ”

Naomi Pfefferman joined the Journal as a reporter in the fall of 1986.

She wrote her first cover story about the rising tensions between Jewish and African-American students on the UCLA campus. Pfefferman soon focused increasingly on movie and art stories, and now is the Journal’s longtime arts and entertainment editor.

jj_cover_062102“It became easier to line up Hollywood celebrities as the paper kept gaining exposure and credibility,” she said.

In its first few months, the Journal received kudos for lively writing, outraged comments from some Jewish organizations and a weak response from advertisers.

Almost from the beginning, the paper was hemorrhaging money, and some influential Federation leaders demanded more control over the paper.

Lichtenstein was meeting monthly at Nibblers restaurant with a four-member Federation subcommittee to chart progress and iron out problems.

Three months after the paper launched, a very influential member of the committee demanded that, from then on, all the paper’s articles be vetted by the committee’s members.

Lichtenstein says he told the committee that “this was a really bad idea.” The proposal was put to a vote and defeated, 3-1.

Nevertheless, dissatisfaction with the editorial and business performance of the Journal continued, and the Journal came close to being sold to an East Coast Jewish newspaper publisher.

At this critical point, major Federation leaders, with Edward Brennglass, Stanley Hirsh and Osias Goren in the lead, rode to the rescue, personally underwriting a loan from City National Bank to provide working capital for the paper to be an independent entity and continue publication. The group founded Los Angeles Jewish Publications as an independent nonprofit to serve the Jewish community, and the Journal lived to fight another day.

jj_cover_092900Brennglass soon became publisher, and, over the decade of his tenure, he stabilized the paper, which slowly established a solid reputation and started to make a profit. After Brennglass’ death in 1997, Hirsh, an influential businessman and Democratic heavyweight, took over as publisher.

However, by 2000, strong editorial and personality differences between publisher and editor led to a parting. Lichtenstein resigned and was succeeded by the managing editor, Rob Eshman, who had first joined the staff as a reporter in the mid-’90s.

Changing of the guard

The transition from Lichtenstein to Eshman represented a generational shift in the leadership of the Journal. In addition, Eshman was a local, from a family deeply rooted in the Los Angeles Jewish community. Eshman, a fluent and prolific writer whose interests and expertise range from politics to food, also had lived in Israel and spoke Hebrew.

At the turn of the century, Hirsh’s health deteriorated, Irwin Field took over as acting publisher, and, upon Hirsh’s death in 2003, Field became publisher.

Following on the heels of managing editors Amy Klein and Howard Blume, Susan Freudenheim, previously a longtime arts editor at the Los Angeles Times, joined the Journal as managing editor in 2005, eventually becoming executive editor before departing in 2016 to run Jewish World Watch.

Always forward-thinking, Eshman recognized early on that the future of journalism was rapidly evolving beyond the printed page. His vision was to use digital technology to turn a small, local paper into a media enterprise that reaches deeply into the community, as well as around the world.

“Jews see the world through a particular set of values, and those values shape our journalism,” Eshman said. “The digital revolution has suddenly made it possible to share that point of view with everyone, instantly, Jews and non-Jews.”

The Journal had already launched its first webpage in 1996, but that early effort served primarily as an electronic reprint of the articles and columns running in the weekly print edition.

But gradually, especially with the appointment of Jay Firestone as web and multimedia editor in 2009, jewishjournal.com has evolved into a 24/7, constantly updated news machine with original writing, foreign reporting, videos and dozens of blogs.

After Firestone went on to a post at Facebook, his successor, Jeff Hensiek, oversaw a complete renovation of the site — which goes live this week.

“As the Jewish Journal moves into the next 30 years, we are staying ahead of the curve by drastically expanding our multimedia efforts,” Hensiek said. “We are introducing a new digital media team, partnering with content producers and even entering the world of virtual reality.”

The next chapter

With millions of page views from around the world each month, jewishjournal.com is among the most-viewed Jewish news websites and by far the largest Jewish website in Los Angeles, according to Google Analytics.

In the midst of the 2009 financial crisis, local philanthropists Peter Lowy and Art Bilger, along with Irwin Field and an anonymous donor, stepped in to make major contributions to shore up the paper’s recession-battered finances and to help position it for more aggressive growth.

Lowy and Bilger said they were inspired by the growth of the Journal beyond its original scope and audience, and by its record of community service.
“The future for print media isn’t the rosiest, but this is a way we can add philanthropy to a business enterprise,” Lowy told the Los Angeles Times at the time. “This is an experiment in what I would call a community media group. The Journal is very important to the Jewish community. But we think this might work for any communal group.”

With the addition to the board of Lowy, Leon Janks, an additional member and Bilger (who has since stepped down), the Journal  undertook a major reorganization and diversification of its corporate structure, forming TRIBE Media Corp. to reflect its broader vision and ambitions.

Part of the changes included hiring columnist David Suissa as president of TRIBE Media Corp. when Eshman was made publisher/editor-in-chief.

Suissa, with 30 years of experience in advertising as founder of Suissa/Miller, and deep roots in Jewish life, increased the paper’s advertising and fundraising efforts.

jj_cover_110708“[N]o other Jewish institution can offer this breadth of Jewish experience in such a convenient and mobile package,” Suissa wrote of the Journal. “This makes Jewish journalism — whether offered digitally or on paper — the ultimate modern-day vehicle to ignite Jewish sparks and keep us continually connected to our community, our tradition and one another.”

Suissa and Eshman’s often contrasting points of view have made news themselves. During the Iran nuclear deal debate, JTA reported on how the Jewish Journal stood out among Jewish news outlets for offering sharply divergent opinions in its pages.

Who we are now

Led by Eshman and Suissa, TRIBE Media Corp. consists of four divisions. They are the weekly Jewish Journal; jewishjournal.com; the production of live events and videos; and JewishInsider.com.

TRIBE acquired Washington, D.C.-based Jewish Insider in 2015. Founded and edited by Max Neuberger, Jewish Insider (JI) provides breaking news, curated sources and politcal analysis. Its Daily Kickoff newsletter has become a must-read for diplomats, journalists, activists and philanthropists around the world. This year, JI expanded to include full-time New York and Capitol Hill correspondents.

In 2016, Julia Moss joined TRIBE as director of community engagement as the company seeks to bring its content to the community through events and video.  TRIBE’s many online videos and live feeds have attracted millions of viewers, including its annual live cast of Nashuva congregation’s Kol Nidre services, which last year attracted 90,000 views. A 2016 Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund grant will enable TRIBE to develop a dedicated video production team.

Moss also has increased the Journal’s fundraising efforts among foundations and individuals.

None of this has weakened the Journal’s devotion to its founding principles of independent, high-quality journalism.

Over the years, it has been the big story — often an unpredictable disaster — that pushes Journal reporters and editors to battle deadlines and transmit the first drafts of history to their readers. To mention only a couple of examples, in the 1990s there were the Northridge earthquake and the shooting spree by a white supremacist at the North Valley Jewish Community Center.

In the first decade of this century, the Journal broke news on the killing of Daniel Pearl by terrorists and murder at the Los Angeles International Airport’s El Al ticket counter.

In its coverage, the printed and electronic Journal count on a large roster of experienced and diverse correspondents in the field, be it an Egyptian reporter filing from Cairo or Israeli journalists tracking the crises and achievements of Israeli politicians, entrepreneurs and average citizens.

jj_cover_120304In another category are the long-range investigative and analytical stories, such as the lengthy survival battles of the Los Angeles-area Jewish community centers or the successes and weaknesses of institutions such as the Simon Wiesenthal Center, American Jewish University and Federation.

During the Iran nuclear debate, the Journal conducted a national scientific poll that made international news, showing that a plurality of American Jews supported the deal. Its coverage of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France earned the Journal a special commendation from the Los Angeles Press Club (LAPC).  And senior writer Danielle Berrin’s 2016 cover story on sexual harassment made international news.

As a model, the new corporation “is redefining community journalism for the digital age,” Eshman said, and outside observers seem to agree.
The Jerusalem Post, Israel’s English-language daily, noted that “The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles … is truly cutting edge in pursuing a 21st century platform mix.”

Former Los Angeles Times media critic James Rainey wrote in a column in 2010, headlined “New Life for Jewish Journal,” that the paper is successfully meeting the tough challenges posed by the economy and the general media market.

“If [the Journal’s] experience holds lessons for other ethnic and religious-oriented publishers, it’s that you can do good by being good,” Rainey concluded.

The quality that marked the original Journal’s writers and columnists continues to this day.

Media expert Marty Kaplan’s biweekly political analysis has earned two Columnist of the Year Awards from the LAPC. Former reporter Jared Sichel received an LAPC Journalist of the Year Award in 2014. Dennis Prager, Gina Nahai, Raphael Sonenshein, Bill Boyarsky, Judea Pearl, Danielle Berrin and Jonathan Kirsch — yes, that one — all contribute regular columns from across the political and cultural spectrum.

In addition, a rowdy Letters to the Editor section, a weekly Torah Portion and a contributor-driven Opinion section ensure that the Journal remains the most lively and diverse gathering space for the Jews of Los Angeles and beyond.

David Duke blames Trump U controversy on Jewish control of media


White supremacist David Duke blamed the current controversy over Donald Trump’s now defunct unaccredited university on Jewish control of the media.

Duke said Tuesday on his radio show that media coverage of the Trump University case is “very illustrative of the Jewish tribal nature.” Duke also said: “They’re like a pack of wild dogs when they go after someone who they see as a threat to the Jewish agenda, as the neocons see Trump as a threat as a non-interventionist.”

According to Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard, an “overwhelmingly Jewish” firm is behind a fraud lawsuit against Trump University. Trump has been slammed for saying he does not believe the judge in the case, an Indiana native of Mexican descent, can be impartial due to Trump’s stated views about building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

He also said “the powerful Jewish establishment that dominates international banking and finance, that dominates media, and dominates our political system” is “absolutely zeroing in now on Donald Trump.”

“The viciousness of these Jews is unbelievable. I think this whole Trump University case really exploited, can really expose the entire Jewish manipulation of the American media, the American political process,” Duke said.

Duke singled out CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, who is Jewish, for leading the attack on Trump, as well as the network’s host Jake Tapper, also Jewish, and pointed out the network is run by Jeff Zucker, who he called “another Jewish extremist.”

In February, Duke endorsed Trump on his radio program, telling his listeners to volunteer for and vote for Trump.

In an interview days after the endorsement on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Trump told host Jake Tapper: “Just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke, OK? I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists.”

Trump disavowed the endorsement hours after the “State of the Union” interview, for the second time in three days, after refusing to do so on the program.

Duke is who has publicly asserted that Jews control the Federal Reserve Bank, the U.S. government and the media.

Sheldon Adelson revealed as mystery owner of Nevada’s largest newspaper


Billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson is the new owner of Nevada’s largest daily newspaper, the Las Vegas Review Journal confirmed.

Adelson’s son-in-law Patrick Dumont reportedly arranged the $140 million deal to purchase the Review Journal at Adelson’s request, the newspaper reported late Wednesday, citing unnamed sources close to the Adelson family. The newspaper was purchased last week by News + Media Capital Group LLC, which is backed by “undisclosed financial backers with expertise in the media industry,” the newspaper reported.

Adelson on Tuesday told CNN that he had “no personal interest” in the newspaper.

A major donor to Republican candidates, Adelson spent at least $100 million in the 2012 presidential election. Tuesday night’s GOP presidential debate was held at his Las Vegas casino. Adelson is also the owner of the pro-Netanyahu Hebrew-language daily newspaper Israel Hayom, which is distributed widely for free in Israel.

Fortune first reported that Adelson was the newspaper’s primary buyer on Wednesday afternoon, citing “multiple sources familiar with the situation.” Adelson had made an attempt earlier this year to purchase the newspaper.

Adelson has not officially acknowledged the purchase.

Sitting shivah for Grantland


Human beings get attached to all kinds of things. We have our favorite cafes, our favorite parks, our favorite shows, our favorite people. Take them away and something inside of us dies.

I lost my favorite website this past week, Grantland.

Grantland was a quirky, literary, sports and pop-culture site that belonged to ESPN, the giant sports network that pulled the plug. Thankfully, the archives will remain online, so Grantland junkies like myself can occasionally reminisce and revisit great stories, like a Civil War buff might revisit a famous war site.

Grantland was the brainchild of Bill Simmons, a longtime sportswriter from Boston who loved sports and pop culture in equal measure. Although he’s a diehard Celtics fan and I’m a diehard Lakers fan, I was addicted to the breezy intimacy of his sports columns. He wrote these long pieces that went off on humorous tangents, mixing deep knowledge of his subject with pop analogies and personal references. He was like an expert jazz musician, jamming away and enjoying himself, while we inhaled every note. His podcast was similarly intimate and addictive.

Although he’s a diehard Celtics fan and I’m a diehard Lakers fan, I was addicted to the breezy intimacy of his sports columns.

Simmons intuitively understood that sports and pop culture are both part of that same package we call “entertainment.” It’s not the part of our lives that worries about climate change, peace in the Middle East or paying our medical bills. It’s more like what recess was in grade school — a break from the serious and the tedious.

Although they look and feel different — sports is real-life competition with clear winners and losers; pop culture is the product of our imaginations — both can inspire us and bring us pleasure. We consume the brilliance of “Breaking Bad” just as we consume the brilliance of LeBron James.

Still, there’s a reason why you rarely see a hybrid site like Grantland. Culture junkies and sports junkies are often not the same people. It’s a lot easier to create niche sites for each crowd. Grantland broke the mold by being a hard-core site for both crowds. On its elegant and lively home page, you could see an erudite critique of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel featured right next to a 3,000-word analysis of why the Golden State Warriors offense is so lethal. 

Simmons, of course, is not the “niche” type. His site was a reflection of his deep attachment to all kinds of entertainment. It’s poignant that his contribution to the world he so loves was to cover it in a way that would be entertaining in its own right. He wanted the coverage of a show to be just as quirky and delightful as the show itself.

This is where Grantland really broke the mold — redefining how a culture site entertains. Instead of settling for popular, traffic-chasing gimmicks such as top-10 lists and juicy headlines, Grantland entertained with irreverent and literary prose. It celebrated long-form features, not Twitter-happy items. It hired talented writers who brought sophistication to mass entertainment, without being elitist. It was like watching Wolfgang Puck create the world’s best hamburger. Slowly.

No subject was immune to this ethos. Here is Grantland staff writer and author Brian Phillips on the pro wrestler Andre the Giant: 

“You open in rural France in the late 1950s. Andre at 12 is the size of a large adult. The driver has banned him from the school bus, so to get to class he depends on rides from a neighbor, Samuel Beckett, who has a truck. Yes, that Samuel Beckett. You can be the author of ‘Waiting for Godot.’ It’s still useful to have a truck. By his early twenties, Andre is working as a mover in Paris, toting refrigerators by himself. He gets noticed by wrestling promoters. Of course he does, a kid that size, with his crooked grin and those hazy piles of black hair.”

This kind of sophistication was a breath of fresh air from the macho swagger that colors so much of sports reporting, or the newsy gossip that colors so much of pop-culture reporting. Ironically, without resorting to the usual tricks of the trade, Grantland at its height was able to attract close to 7 million unique visitors a month.

But never mind all that. Today, Grantland is no more.

It’s clear that Simmons’s bosses at ESPN didn’t share his passion for his creation. After they decided not to renew his contract last May, it was just a matter of time before they would lose interest and shut down the site. I don't buy the excuse that the site was not profitable. A multibillion-dollar juggernaut like ESPN could certainly afford to support a site that adds so much prestige to its brand, or at least use its enormous sales leverage to make the site profitable. 

My gut is that ESPN killed Grantland because the very idea of the site was too subtle for its taste. ESPN has made its billions by sticking to sports and serving it up in a generally predictable way. Given that ESPN admitted a discomfort with covering pop culture, it’s telling that they couldn’t even bring themselves to keep the sports side of Grantland, which in itself would have been a breakthrough site.

In the end, as good as Simmons was, he was probably always doomed to leave the network because the man and his ideas are anything but predictable. Now that he’s at HBO, maybe he can get me addicted again.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Director Dror Shaul isn’t afraid to spoof the Iranian threat, or prank Tel Aviv


With tensions high over the Iran nuclear deal this summer, a billboard appeared at a busy intersection in central Tel Aviv announcing: “Soon opening here: Iran’s Embassy in Israel.”

The sign featured Israeli and Iranian flags and a local phone number, which took callers to the supposed embassy voicemail.

After weeks of speculation – and international media coverage – the sign was revealed in late August to be a public relations stunt for the new comedy film “Atomic Falafel,” which opened in Israel on Sept. 10.

What’s funny about a deadly faceoff between Middle Eastern powers, with nuclear implications? Plenty, according to the film’s Israeli director Dror Shaul.

To Shaul, the bellicose rhetoric of Israeli and Iranian leaders is more absurd than the prospect of the two countries establishing diplomatic relations.

“The civilians on both sides can be friends,” he told JTA. “The enemy of Israeli and Iranian citizens is both of our irresponsible leaderships.”

Israelis protesting a United Nations nuclear inspector in a scene from

Israelis protesting a United Nations nuclear inspector in a scene from “Atomic Falafel.” (Courtesy of Dror Shaul)

Making light of Israel’s often-precarious security situation is just another day at the office for Shaul, who has built his career in Israel’s tradition of black anti-establishment humor.

Israeli films in this vein date back at lease as far as 1976’s “Givat Halfon Lo Ona” (“Halfon Hill Doesn’t Answer”) directed by the son of famed Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, Assi Dayan, who died in 2014. The film tells the story of Israeli army reservists watching the Egyptian border in the Sinai Peninsula and gently satirizes Israeli military culture.

Until recently, Shaul was best known in Israel for his 1999 cult-hit “Mivtsa Savta” (“Operation Grandma”), about the absurd lengths to which three brothers go to bury their deceased grandmother on her kibbutz in a faux military-style operation.

“Atomic Falafel” similarly follows young people on a mission. In this case, two teenage girls, one from Israel and the other from Iran, team up online to prevent nuclear war between their respective countries. The film’s laughs come at the expense of the Israeli and Iranian political and defense establishments.

“In Iran, the leadership is making irresponsible threats that Israel won’t exist in another 25 years. What purpose is served by saying something like this?” said Shaul.

“At the same time, former Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the other week that Israel had planned to bomb Iran in 2012 to take out its nuclear program. This creates a sort of Catch-22 situation where the Iranians can say, well, if they were planning on attacking us, it means that we really do need a nuclear weapons.’”

Some in the film press have called “Atomic Falafel” the Israeli “Dr. Strangelove” – American director Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 sendup of Cold War nuclear fears, which was controversial in its day.

An Israeli army officer eating falafel in a scene from

An Israeli army officer eating falafel in a scene from “Atomic Falafel.” (Courtesy of Dror Shaul)

Dror explained that he chose the film’s name to capture the contrast between Israel’s immense technological capabilities and the often-slapdash way of handling things here.

“Falafel is something not quite a meatball made from paste that is deep fried in oil,” he said. “You don’t really know what is in it besides the chickpea powder. It could be bread crumbs or God knows what else.”

At the same time, though, Shaul is hopeful that technology may help today’s youth come together to solve their problems in a way their parents and grandparents’ generations could not.

“A teenage girl today whether she is from Tel Aviv, London, Tehran or Cairo cares about the same things, like whether she is popular, has a boyfriend, how uncool her parents are, etc.,” he said.

My city isn’t a tawdry reality TV show


Every few years, Salinas grabs national media headlines for the wrong reasons: Police killings of criminal suspects caught on camera. Or maybe a sensational courtroom drama like that of our local convicted murderer Jodi Arias. Each story draws the major corporate media outlets to town, eager to shoehorn some reference to Salinas native John Steinbeck into the narrative.

Maybe we look like a real-life version of a tawdry reality TV show to them.

It wasn’t always like this. I’ve covered the town for more than 20 years, largely as a features writer and columnist. I also served time as an education and city reporter for two local publications, The Monterey County Herald and the Salinas Californian. Other local media outlets covering the town include the Monterey County Weekly, the NBC/ABC affiliate KSBW-TV, CBS affiliate KION-TV, and Univision affiliate KSMS-TV.

Once upon a time the juiciest national story about Salinas might have involved an E. coli outbreak linked to one of our produce giants. The town has changed, as violent crime reports in town have fed the media’s appetite for sensational headlines.

Salinas calls itself the Salad Bowl of the World, which sounds like a healthy thing, but our multibillion-dollar lettuce economy is complicated—maybe more complicated than outsiders care to understand—and our struggles are a window into California’s future.

As Silicon Valley is to software, Salinas is to lettuce: We didn’t invent the salad bar, but we introduced the world to bagged salad. We are the model for modern agricultural technology and production. There’s a 90 percent chance that bagged salad you bought for dinner was produced here. But the innovations in lettuce growing, packing, and shipping that brings you a “healthy” meal also includes a lot of unseen hands. And these hands belong mostly to Mexican migrants who make up about 34 percent of our town’s population, according to recent U.S. Census Bureau data.

What do you think happens when one of California’s richest industries conducts business in, and culls its workforce from, a highly concentrated immigrant community? You get changes of the kind that aren’t sensational – and thus are underreported if they are reported at all: the ripple effects in a community of low academic achievement numbers among English language learner students. Or the problems caused by overcrowding and high population density in certain parts of town. Or stories that get reported as something other than what they really are.

For instance, Forbes recently named Salinas the second-least-educated city in America. Media outlets latched onto the story and the study it was based on, and repurposed them as a list of the dumbest towns in the country. Among several indicators, the list factored in the number of available jobs that require a college education.

But really, how unexpected is this? When so much of your workforce is devoted to manual labor, you can bet that there won’t be a load of workers sitting on college diplomas.

When I read those lists, I saw them as a grand insult to the delicate skill and craft of our local farm laborers. 

The idea that Salinas is a dumb town is pretty inaccurate. Harvesting produce doesn’t require an advanced degree, but it’s no job for dummies. Have you ever attempted to pick a strawberry field? I haven’t, but I understand from growing up here the careful technique required not only to pick the produce gently, but also to do it at a rapid fire pace. Our farm workers move fast and efficiently. You have to be smart and know the land to be successful in the fields. Forbes didn’t have the time or just didn’t bother to report that any of this context. 

Ironically, Forbes did have time to host an agriculture technology summit in town recently. Billed as “Reinventing America: The AgTech Summit,” the conference brought together Silicon Valley and Global Ag leaders, many based here in the Salad Bowl, for breakout sessions on the booming AgTech industry. It was an invitation-only event. I mention that because it shows the contrasting sides of this town’s image. We are uneducated enough to make top 10 lists, but somehow industrially sophisticated enough to host big business think tank sessions.

In this dichotomy and others, Salinas may provide a window into the future of this state. We are a rural community steeped in Old West tradition (we host the biggest and oldest rodeo in the state). At the same time, the town is changing, with its economic and cultural divide widening by the year. And Salinas, according to a recent study, was one of the most segregated cities in the nation. For that study, professors at Brown and Florida State University created a dissimilarity index that identifies the percentage of one group that would have to move into a different neighborhood to eliminate segregation; Salinas had a 60.9 percent white-Latino dissimilarity rate, the 21st highest number in the country. Combine our modern social challenges with our old-school agricultural labor practices and our recent emergence as a Silicon Valley bedroom community, and you have a town that offers a bit of everything that people relate to the California experience – sunshine, soil, and sync.

That’s part of what makes covering news in Salinas a tough gig. Everything is sneaky complex. The gang violence that generates so many local headlines isn’t the result of a reckless immigrant population, as Donald Trump would have you believe. It’s a condition that grew out of many decades of cultivating an impoverished and underserved migrant community. Yes, Salinas has poverty, but it’s also a place where rents are so high that sometimes two or three families must pack into a single apartment unit to afford a place to live and survive. During the harvest, these families can work 10-to-12-hour shifts, six days a week to provide for their children. Those children in turn sometimes suffer from the unintentional neglect of busy working parents. This makes them vulnerable to the streets.

Local media does what it can to tell these stories. Investigative journalist Julia Reynolds recently published the book Blood in the Fields: 10 Years inside California’s Nuestra Familia Gang, that analyzed the emergence of one of the most sophisticated criminal organizations in the U.S. It also shed light on efforts from community members and law enforcement in the fight to curb gang violence. 

But for the most part, gang violence is something that is understood only on the surface by locals, and is never portrayed with any complexity by national media. And that leads to a lot of misunderstanding about the town’s image and identity. Largely, that this town is unsafe and people are in danger of violence on every corner. 

It’s tough to recover from the blow of bad media coverage every few years. (It’s certainly not good for economic development). This town is still learning how to adapt to reputational blows. People do their best to shrug it off and carry on. 

I like to keep it positive and remind my neighbors about something John Steinbeck said late in his life, right before he decided he wanted to be buried in his hometown. 

“Not everyone has the good fortune to be born in Salinas.”

Marcos Cabrera is the public information officer for the Alisal Union School District. He is a founding member of the theater company Baktun 12. This essay is part of Salinas: California's Richest Poor City, a special project of Zócalo Public Square and the California Wellness Foundation

 

The Washington Dread and Denial Association


“Don’t do it!”

Stories, whether torn from history or made from whole cloth, can make us want to shout that. Don’t open that door at the top of the stairs. Don’t get on that boat. Don’t believe that president, general, journalist, preacher, cop. 

This packs a punch in a short story Delmore Schwartz wrote when he was 21, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.” The narrator tells us he dreamed he was in a movie theater, watching an old film of his parents’ courtship. His father asks his mother to marry him, she says yes — and the narrator is galvanized to stand up and shout, “Don’t do it!  It’s not too late to change your minds, both of you.  Nothing good will come of it, only remorse, hatred, scandal and two children whose characters are monstrous.” The whole audience is annoyed; the lady next to him tells him to be quiet, “and so I shut my eyes because I could not bear to see what was happening.” He awakens from the nightmare to the morning of his 21st birthday.

We can’t stop Othello from trusting Iago or Antigone from burying her brother.  We can’t stop America from swallowing President Lyndon Johnson’s lie about the Gulf of Tonkin, or President Franklin Delano Roosevelt from interning Japanese Americans. (Richard Reeves’ new book about that, “Infamy,” is horrifying.) But in real time, we want to forestall new bad things from happening, and the same bad things from happening again. When we fail, sometimes it’s a failure of clairvoyance, which is forgivable; sometimes it’s a consequence of our ignorance or impotence, and sometimes it’s because our default hardwiring is denial. 

Did you watch any of the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) dinner? Politico called it an “orgy of everything people outside the Beltway hate about life inside the Beltway … clubby backslapping, carousing and drinking between the press and the powerful.” The event, as usual, was crawling with celebrities. Cable panelists hammered the association for going Hollywood. President Barack Obama and comedian Cecily Strong seemed hip to how bizarre the evening was, “bizarre” being what NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen called it on his blog, Pressthink, just before the red carpet glam began. He compared the press corps to a “big extended family with a terrible secret that cannot be confronted because everyone knows how bad it would be if the discussion got real.” That terrible secret: the Iraq war. 

“For a press that imagines itself a watchdog,” Rosen writes, “failing to detect a faulty case for war, then watching the war unfold into the biggest foreign policy disaster in memory … is an event so huge and deflating that it amounts to an identity crisis.” 

That crisis hasn’t happened. Instead, the festive crowd at the Washington Hilton looked pretty much like it did in 2002 and 2003. Getting real about that terrible secret ought to be a prerequisite for the press to serve as watchdogs of today’s wars, as educators of citizen choices between “Don’t do it!” and “Do it!” Instead, the Beltway press says, as Obama did of the malefactors of the Great Recession, “Let’s move on.” In principle, history should guide us. In reality, Dick Cheney — “the worst president in my lifetime,” Obama called him at the dinner — is as belligerent about Iraq today as he was when he got Colin Powell to fool us at the United Nations.  

I think there’s a second terrible secret those playahs in that ballroom and those corporate after-parties also can’t face: the complete corruption of our political system by money. 

Much of the dysfunction that now poses a lethal threat to our politics and government is, ultimately, about money and the media it buys. From time to time, campaign-finance reform comes up — Hillary Clinton says it’s a big issue for her — but the Washington press corps treats the cesspool like old news. Maybe they’ve just gotten used to the smell. If the press weren’t in denial, if it truly functioned as a watchdog, that corruption would be BREAKING NEWS, and a public informed and therefore outraged about how far gone our self-governance is would be shouting “Stop! Don’t do it anymore!” But as the 2016 race begins, it’s normal — not bizarre and scary — when the Koch brothers say they’ll spend nearly $1 billion on the election, when Hillary Clinton’s supporters talk about her raising $2 billion. There is no brake on this train, nothing — not even the Constitution — to stop runaway oligarchs and deep-pocketed industries from hijacking American democracy.

The trouble, of course, is that we’re in denial about other terrible secrets as well. Our failure to prevent another financial meltdown. Or a global cyberwar. Or climate change. Or earthquakes. The devastating news from Nepal is prompting Californians to check our emergency water and batteries, but soon we’ll forget again that, at any instant, the worst earthquake in thousands of years could forever mark the biggest Before and After in the lifetimes of everyone who lives through and comes after it. 

I don’t blame us for wearing blinders. I think our brains would explode if we faced the realities of risk and mortality all the time. Yes, I know that climate change will be irreversible unless the world puts a price on carbon pollution and changes what we grow and eat. But thinking about that makes me feel depressed and helpless. Luckily, the human brain has a built-in proclivity for processing tragedy with magical thinking, for believing we’re being rational rather than actually being rational. That helps with the pain.

When Jon Stewart told a Guardian writer why he’s quitting “The Daily Show,” he said that his job — which requires him to watch news all the time — “is incredibly depressing. I live in a constant state of depression. I think of us as turd miners. I put on my helmet, I go and mine turds, hopefully I don’t get turd lung disease.” Our best satirists — Stewart, John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, whose genius 2006 routine the WHCA received like a turd — try to wake us from our sleepwalking, to shake us from our amnesia. But there’s only so much reality you can take before — hey, is that Bradley Cooper with Justice Scalia?

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear Professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. He can be reached at martyk@jewishjournal.com. 

Netanyahu meets the press


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is famously media shy, avoiding interviews with Israeli journalists, declining televised debates with his opponents and communicating almost exclusively via speeches and official statements.

But with his Likud party trailing in the polls just a few days before Israel’s election on Tuesday, that all changed. Netanyahu conducted a series of interviews with Israeli journalists over the weekend in an effort to shore up votes from his right-wing base.

He spoke to Israeli news website Walla, the Jerusalem Post, the Times of Israel and twice to Israeli Channel 2. The second Channel 2 interview even began with a short, impromptu and somewhat awkward debate between Netanyahu and Isaac Herzog, whose center-left Zionist Union is leading the polls.

The debate — an unexpected treat in an electoral system usually devoid of such tete-a-tetes — lasted all of three minutes, with Netanyahu speaking via video feed while Herzog sat in the Channel 2 studios. Netanyahu managed to keep the conversation focused on his perceived forte — security and diplomacy.

He accused Herzog and Zionist Union co-chair Tzipi Livni of angling to cede East Jerusalem to the Palestinian Authority and opposing Israeli construction there, which Herzog denied. When Herzog tried to change the subject, asking Netanyahu if he’d give up the premiership should Herzog receive more votes, Netanyahu didn’t answer.

“Their policy is to capitulate to every dictate,” Netanyahu said. “Someone in the international community demands something, they bow their heads right away and say ‘OK, we’ll capitulate,’ because they aren’t able to really take a stand, and to take a real position on our essential interests.”

Herzog shot back that Netanyahu doesn’t have the world’s ear and said the prime minister’s conduct has driven the Palestinians to abandon bilateral talks with Israel.

“The international community knows you’re weak,” Herzog said. “The international community doesn’t accept your position. Essentially, the Palestinians evaluated your weakness, and that’s why they’re doing unilateral moves.”

In his various media appearances, Netanyahu focused his messaging on three assertions: Right-wingers need to unite behind Likud, rather than its satellite parties; he’s trailing in polls because of an “unprecedented” international campaign against him, and he accused his opponents of wanting to yield to international pressure.

Netanyahu said several times across the interviews — accurately, according to polls — that a majority of Israelis deems him more fit to be prime minister than Herzog. His party is lagging, he said, because traditional Likud voters have chosen to vote for parties like Jewish Home, Israel Beiteinu and Kulanu — right-wing or center-right parties all headed by former Netanyahu deputies who left Likud. For him to get reelected, he said, those voters need to come back to him and his party.

“People don’t have a privilege of splitting their vote, to vote for Jewish Home, because Likud’s seats are falling,” he told Walla. “We’ll get [Livni and Herzog] as prime ministers.”

Netanyahu blamed his campaign troubles on “tens of millions of dollars” from foreign donors to fund campaign strategists opposing him, and he mentioned one organization by name — V15, which is aiming to increase center-left voter turnout.

Netanyahu told Channel 2 that most Israelis back him “even after these huge efforts, the giant campaigns they did, the powerful money coming from abroad … There are governments helping NGOS with ‘Anyone but Bibi,’ to get out the Arab vote, to get out the left-wing vote.”

He also admonished publications that have criticized him, in particular Yediot Aharonot, which has run critical coverage of his term in office. Supporting Netanyahu is Israel Hayom — a free daily paper bankrolled by American casino mogul and Netanyahu backer Sheldon Adelson. Even though Israel Hayom is the country’s most-read newspaper, Netanyahu told the Times of Israel it was a “drop in the bucket” compared to the myriad efforts against him.

The bulk of the interviews dealt with local issues, with Netanyahu’s characteristically aggressive Israeli interlocutors pressing him on Israel’s housing crisis, excessive spending at his personal residences and a Likud video that compared Israeli government workers to Hamas — for which Netanyahu apologized.

Netanyahu sounded most confident when it came to opposing the Iranian nuclear program and taking a hard line on concessions to the Palestinians. The prime minister claimed that while he’s willing to stand up even to allies — as he did in his speech to Congress earlier this month — Herzog and Livni have less backbone.

“The trouble is, the Palestinians, half are controlled by an Iranian power in Gaza and half are on their way there,” he told Walla. “I said sincerely that any proposal for withdrawal, if we execute it, will give us not peace, not coexistence, not a demilitarized [Palestinian] state, but an armed state that will threaten Israel.”

The interview circuit even contained a pair of gaffes — once each from Netanyahu and Herzog. Netanyahu,speaking to the Jerusalem Post, blamed the now-defunct centrist Kadima party for withdrawing from Gaza in 2006. In fact, it was Likud that withdrew from Gaza in 2005, ahead of Kadima’s founding — a move Netanyahu supported at the time.

And responding to the prime minister during the debate, Herzog accidentally declared he would “ensure a united Netanyahu under Israeli sovereignty,” giving his opponent a hearty laugh. Presumably, Herzog meant to say a united Jerusalem, though he did not seem to catch his mistake.

Opening the floodgates of Israel bashing


Commentary magazine called it “flood libel.” HonestReporting.com described it as “dam busted.” And Camera headlined it “Dam Lies.”

Agence France Presse’s report earlier this week falsely alleging that Israel intentionally opened a large dam in the South in order to unleash floods upon Gaza’s already beleaguered residents has released a torrent of puns. But it also opened the floodgates for Israel bashing (as if they weren’t already opened), with numerous other publications, blogs and other sites repeating the claim as fact. One of those, Al Jazeera, officiallyretracted its story on Wednesday, noting, “In southern Israel, there are no dams of the type which can be opened.”

Gaza does indeed suffer frequent flooding this time of year, and this isn’t the first time the dam rumor has, ahem, surfaced. The Palestinian Maan News Agency made the claim in 2012, as did Middle East Monitor in 2013.

BuzzFeed, one of the first non-Israeli and non-Jewish outlets to report the claim as false, quoted a Palestinian official speaking on condition of anonymity as saying the rumor “could be traced back more than a decade”:

“It is easy to say it is dams, easier than saying that the problem is infrastructure — not having infrastructure, having bad infrastructure, having what little infrastructure Gaza destroyed each time there is war — that is the truth,” said the official, who spoke with Buzzfeed by phone from Gaza. He asked to remain anonymous as his statements did not coincide with those made by Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. “If we could rebuild Gaza, we could build a system that dealt with these horrible floods. But Gaza is in ruins, there is nowhere for the water to go, and each year it will be the same unless someone helps us.”

No word on whether the flooding has damaged any remaining Hamas tunnels into Israel.

Discovering that Israeli troops aren’t made of Teflon


My children have been following the Gaza operation since it began 15 days ago.

They really have no choice, our television is turned to news reports of the operation during all of my waking hours, which are longer than theirs. My son staring at his iPod this evening complained that he wishes that there was more on his WhatsApp feed and Facebook page than the operation in Gaza. What else would you like to see, I asked him. Anything else, he replied.

The real wake-up moment for my sons, ages 12 and 15, however, came yesterday morning when the Israel Defense Forces announced 13 soldiers killed in Gaza overnight and then in the evening when another seven soldier deaths were confirmed.

Because all of the coverage we are watching is designed for an Israeli audience, we see rockets fired from Gaza getting shot out of the sky by Iron Dome missile batteries, and Israeli streets clearing in 30 seconds when the rise and fall of the warning siren begins. When we do see the aftermath of a rocket crashing through a house or a school building in Israel we are told that no one was home or the building was not occupied at the time of the rocket strike.

Why would my kids believe that our soldiers going into Gaza would suffer a worse fate?

From their incredulous expressions when they learned of the soldiers’ deaths, I could see that they thought our soldiers are covered in personal Teflon, kind of like Bruce Willis in any number of his action movies, when hundreds of bullets are shot at him yet none actually hit him.

My children have been carried away with the wave of vocal Israelis, many of them our friends and neighbors, who had been calling for our troops to enter Gaza ever since the start of Operation Protective Edge. But they didn’t realize that it meant that our soldiers would die.

What if we really knew what media does to us


What if we knew that the fictional rapes in HBO’s mega-hit “Game of Thrones” caused real “>obituary noted that he was awarded the FBI’s highest civilian honor for being “an icon who inspired a generation of FBI agents.”  As Jane Mayer “>prostate cancer, the fossil fuel industry wouldn’t spend millions on spots claiming (falsely) to produce clean energy, candidates wouldn’t fork over billions of dollars to local TV stations for (pants-on-fire) political ads if all their money could buy were some wispy correlation.

Anecdotes aren’t data, and there’s always the risk that a confirmation bias – a stacking of the evidentiary deck – is at work in citing examples like these.  But it would be odd to ignore what “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” did to abolish slavery, what “On the Beach” did to increase awareness of the threat of nuclear war, what Fox News narratives are doing to undermine the scientific consensus on climate change. 

Today, because so much content is consumed digitally and shared socially, and because there is so much data to be mined about our knowledge, attitudes and behavior, there now exists an unprecedented opportunity to quantify the impact of media.  It won’t be a true science of cause and effect until neurobiology makes some big leaps forward, but the methods and tools for measuring the differences that media make are dramatically evolving, with consequences that are both encouraging and discomfiting.

What if it were possible to fine-tune the content, marketing and distribution of a documentary or news story to maximize its impact on a target audience?  What if a soap opera or a telenovela, a Bollywood feature or a Nigerian video, a Chinese social media site or an American advertising campaign, were able to finely calibrate their effects on what people knew, believed and did after they encountered them?

The answer depends on what moral and political values you hold.  I think that family planning, vaccination, voting, access to health care, human rights, renewable energy and sustainable agriculture are public goods, and that promoting them makes the world a better place.  If media can improve the odds that the societal needle moves in those directions, I’m all for it.  But other people may think that ethnic cleansing, consumerism, state censorship, fracking, machismo, oligarchy and theocracy are good things; they would call the content I favor propaganda, and I would return the favor.  One person’s pro-social media is another person’s psyops and agitprop.  If you increase the power of media to move audiences, you do it for white hats and black hats alike. 

That worries me.  I’m also concerned about the potential consequences for freedom of expression, especially artistic expression.  What would happen if data demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that parts of our popular culture were toxic – that the connections between song lyrics and misogyny, video games and violence, rape on TV and rape on campuses and in the military, were as strong as the connections between air pollution and asthma, coal ash and birth defects, fluorocarbon gases and skin cancer? 

We have laws banning child pornography and marketing cigarettes to kids.  How would we regulate entertainment found to be harmful without turning good intentions into a witch-hunt, without pulling art from museum walls and literature from library shelves?  How would we draw a line between news that covers violence and hatred, and news that incites violence and hatred?  I do want a world where my kind of do-gooders have more tools to increase the good they do, but not at the cost of empowering algorithms that score media against someone else’s idea of a moral yardstick. 

I come down on the upside of this dilemma.  I’ve cast my lot with efforts to use media to repair the world and to improve how we measure their effectiveness.  That’s been a big part of my work for a number of years (have a look at what the Norman Lear Center’s “>Media Impact Project, are up to), and I’m grateful to the foundations and agencies and donors who support it.  But when it comes to the mystery of how words and images affect what people know, what they feel and how they behave, there’s always something to be said for a little pre-emptive paranoia.

Marty Kaplan is the founding director of the Norman Lear Center at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.  

Palestinian journalist gets jail term for Abbas insult


A Palestinian Authority court sentenced a local journalist to a year in jail on Thursday over a picture posted on Facebook that was deemed insulting to Mahmoud Abbas.

The ruling against Mamdouh Hamamreh, who works for the al-Quds TV channel in Bethlehem, is the second this year in which Palestinians have been given jail terms over caricatures of the president.

Journalists and media watchdogs, saying Hamamreh was only “tagged” in the photo and did not create it, criticized the ruling and curbs on media freedom by the Western-backed Palestinian Authority.

The offending image juxtaposed Abbas beside a similar-looking man who plays the part of a collaborator with French colonial forces in an old Syrian television drama.

“They resemble each other in everything,” a caption read.

Many Palestinians perceive Abbas as too conciliatory to Israel and resent coordination between Israeli and Palestinian security forces overseen by Abbas.

Palestinian rights groups were critical of the ruling.

“(Hamamreh) didn't even publish the picture. When images online are criminalised, it's a very serious violation of basic rights of expression,” criminalizedaid Riham Abu Aita of the Palestinian Centre for Development and Media Freedoms.

“We don't have a king, we have a president,” she said.

“This issue is between the prosecutor and the court, and the president has nothing to do with its proceedings,” Hassan al-Ouri, legal adviser to Abbas, told Reuters of the Hamamreh case.

A court in the northern West Bank city of Nablus in February sentenced a local man to a year in prison for creating a picture of Abbas to make him look like a football player, and entitled it “the new striker for Real Madrid”.

Anas Awad, 26, denied he had intended any offence and the president promptly pardoned him.

Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta; Editing by Michael Roddy

Merkel takes Morsi to task over Jew comments


German Chancellor Angela Merkel used a meeting with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi to criticize his past remarks on Jews.

During their meeting Wednesday, according to German media, Merkel raised the issue of recorded remarks Morsi made in 2010 in which he called Israeli Zionists “descendants of apes and pigs.” Morsi responded that the comments were taken out of context and said that, as a religious Muslim, he is “not against Judaism as a religion. I am not against the Jews who practice their faith,” according to the Austrian newspaper Der Standard. Morsi reportedly said he is against religious practices in which blood is spilled.

Merkel's criticism of Morsi's remarks drew praise from Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, who was in Berlin to address a controversy over the center's Top 10 list of anti-Semitic statements of 2012 — which included the work of rominent German journalist Jakob Augstein.The list was topped by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.

Cooper said Thursday he hoped Merkel's confrontation of Morsi would “send a signal not only to Egyptians but to leaders in Europe who show up to commemorations to dead victims of the Holocaust but unfortunately are all too absent when it comes to standing up for the rights of Jews.”

Morsi blames ‘certain forces’ controlling media for bad U.S. press


Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi told U.S. senators that he gets bad U.S. press because “certain forces” control the media.

The senators who met last week with Morsi understood him to be referring to Jews and “recoiled,” one of the participating lawmakers, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), told The Cable, a blog on the Foreign Policy magazine website.

The conversation grew heated, but Morsi never specifically named the Jews as responsible for his negative media and the senators decided eventually to move on to other topics.

At at a news conference afterward, the senators said the overall meeting was positive. They had raised among other topics the revelation last week that in 2010, Morsi had referred to Zionists as descended from “pigs and apes” and “bloodthirsty.”

Morsi's spokesman said that the slurs had been taken out of context and Morsi respected those who belong to monotheistic religions.

Since assuming the presidency in June, Morsi has maintained his commitment to peace accords with Israel and helped broker a cease-fire with Hamas that ended last month's war in the Gaza Strip, earning kudos from U.S. and Israeli leaders.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said last week that Morsi's spokesman's statement affirming respect for other faiths was a “good first step.”

“That statement was an important first step to make clear that the type of offensive rhetoric that we saw in 2010 is not acceptable, not productive and shouldn’t be part of a democratic Egypt,” Nuland said. “That said, we look to President Morsi and Egyptian leaders to demonstrate, in both word and in deed, their commitment to religious tolerance and to upholding all of Egypt’s international obligations.”

Hamas forbids local journalists from working with Israeli media


The Hamas government in Gaza has forbidden local journalists from working with Israeli media outlets.

The weekly Cabinet meeting in Gaza decided to ban Palestinian journalists from working “with all Zionist media and journalists,” which it declared “hostile,” it announced in a statement, the French news agency AFP reported.

The Cabinet has forbidden the local journalists from working for Israeli media and television stations.

It is the first time the Hamas government has required such action, according to AFP.

There is no similar requirement in the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority.

Hamas has ruled Gaza since 2006.

In a Facebook post, The New York Times' Jerusalem bureau chief, Jodi Rudoren, reported that Gaza journalist Abeer Ayyoub confirmed the ban and said that Hamas also announced that permits for foreign journalists would now go through the internal security office.

Rudoren wrote that Israeli media outlets rely on local Palestinians for news from the coastal strip, since Israelis are forbidden from entering Gaza.

OPINION: Don’t know much about history


The reason that our financial system isn’t going to crash and burn again, the reason that taxpayers won’t have to fork over another trillion dollars of no-strings-attached bailout money, is – well, I forget.

I haven’t forgotten the reason, because there isn’t any.  What I’ve forgotten is that there is no reason it can’t happen again.  I’ve forgotten the bipartisan sliminess that enabled this catastrophe, like the demolition of the Glass-Steagall wall between banking and stock speculation.  I’ve forgotten the battalions of Wall Street lobbyists armed with limitless campaign cash that decimated Dodd-Frank’s attempt to regulate derivatives. I’ve forgotten the obscene bonuses, underwritten by our rescue money, that plutocrats have kept on awarding themselves to celebrate escaping accountability. 

I know: I haven’t really forgotten them.  In fact, I’m enthralled and repulsed by accounts of what went wrong, from the terrific three-part ” target=”_hplink”>Michael Lewis, ” target=”_hplink”>William D. Cohan and other chroniclers of greed, criminality and a political system addicted to legalized graft.

But if more people were paying even a modicum of attention to the past, the economic debate in the 2012 presidential campaign wouldn’t be between one political party beholden to big money that dreamily depicts investment bankers and oligarchs as jobs creators, and another political party, also beholden to big money, that wants applause for fixing the problem.  If more people remembered which policies worked and which failed during the Depression – as Paul Krugman documents in his new book ” target=”_hplink”>quotes the Cato Institute’s Christopher Preble, “I can’t name a single Romney foreign policy adviser who believes the Iraq war was a mistake.”  This doesn’t mean that Iran isn’t a serious threat, but it does mean that the Republican presidential nominee’s brain trust has suffered a catastrophic foreign policy brain fart.

But of course amnesia is the existential basis of Mitt Romney’s campaign.  He takes it for granted that we’ve forgotten everything he said 20 minutes ago about immigration, contraception, student loans, climate change, letting GM go bankrupt, letting the foreclosure process “run its course and hit bottom” and the rest of his Tea Party-friendly positions.  He assumes that when he calls for eliminating regulations, we’ll have no recollection of the BP Gulf oil spill and the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch mine disaster.  He believes that when he embraces Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget, we won’t remember that it dismantles Medicare. 

What makes us so amnesiac?  Schools struggling to do more with less aren’t turning out the informed citizens that Jefferson said democracy requires.  Paranoia, anti-intellectualism, the war on science and the postmodern deconstruction of reality into “narratives” have devalued the currency of truth. The mainstream news media, fearing that unsexy disputes about accuracy will drive audiences away, are wary of fact checks, let alone of running the same fact checks each time the same myths and falsehoods are repeated.  The ideological media – Rupert & Friends—use memory as a subversive weapon; revisionism is a tine on their pitchfork.  The paid media – campaign ads – drive out good information with bad.  By outsourcing our historical memory to the Internet, we dull our native instincts for critical thinking.  By confining our common culture to the contents of next week’s People, we forfeit the presence of the past.  And by basking in the pleasures that the bedazzlement industry amply provides us, we can reliably medicate our rage.  Forgetting what you were angry about in the first place turns out to be one of the abiding joys of civic amnesia.

Marty Kaplan is the ” target=”_hplink”>USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Military rulers spread fear throughout Egyptian media


The ousting of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak one year ago was supposed to be the harbinger of an era of democracy, freedom, justice and, ultimately, freedom of press. But only a few days removed from the anniversary of Mubarak’s “departure,” journalists – foreign media and locals alike – are facing the heavy hand of the Egypt’s governing military council as they seek, day-by-day, to do their jobs.

On Saturday, the military again showed its face by detaining Australian journalist Austin Mackell, Egyptian translator Aliya Alwi and American graduate student Derek Ludovici in the Nile Delta town of Mahalla. The three were then transported hundreds of kilometers over two days, charged with “incitement of violence” and “bribing” local residents to demonstrate. All three deny the charges.

The incident triggered new widespread outrage, with activists and professional media colleagues demanding that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) release the trio immediately while calling for an end to the near constant crackdown on journalists in the country.

For the Australian, the detention has affected his entire life. Locals from his neighborhood ransacked his flat, increasing his fear for his personal safety while in Egypt.  Mackell told The Media Line, “I don’t feel safe. This is not just affecting my work; it’s my entire life.”

[RELATED: Felice Friedson talks with Nadia Al-Sakkaf, Editor-in-Chief of The Yemen Times]

Late Tuesday evening, Mackell, Alwi and Ludovici were barred from leaving Egypt while an investigation is ongoing.

The situation of Mackell and the others was the latest in a string of attacks against media in the country. In December, this Media Line reporter was beaten and detained for 13 hours in downtown Cairo while attempting to photograph the barbed wire fence that had been erected near the Cabinet building. Like Mackell – who described citizens being tortured and beaten in the cell nearby – the military at that time also appeared unfazed by a foreign presence; attacking, assaulting and eventually killing one protester in plain sight.

But the crackdown on media in Egypt goes farther than the detention of foreign journalists. Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently published an extensive report in which it documented at least fifty cases of intimidation, arrests, summons and attempts to silence what many believed last March were indicators of nascent freedoms.

According to Egyptian journalists, the message the SCAF is sending through the systematic arrests and detentions during the past 12 months is “don’t criticize the military.” 

The beginning of what many media professionals are calling the “full-on assault” in conversations with The Media Line came last May when activist Hossam Al-Hamalawy, who blogs at arabawy.org, and two journalists were summoned by the army after they were critical of the military’s actions during two separate broadcasts carried by popular independent television station OnTV.

Program host Reem Maged and reporter Nabil Sharafeddine, along with Hamalawy, were questioned personally by Adel Morsi, the head of the Military Justice Authority.

Maged, whose program is called “Baladna Bil Masry,” told reporters that the army claimed she was not being investigated, but that it need to “clarify” statements made on the talk show. On the program, Hamalawy had accused the military police of rights abuses, claiming he had proof of violations committed by officials he named. He said after his interrogation that the military demanded that he provide all documents pertaining to the alleged violations. The quizzing of Sharafeddine was related to his comments regarding the military that were made on the same program.

Although the three were not detained, they insist the message was made clear by the military: criticism will not be tolerated. Weeks before, the military council had issued a formal communiqué stating that media could face fines and possible jail time for criticizing the military’s actions – a policy that continues to this day. 

In April, an Egyptian military court sentenced Internet activist and blogger Maikel Nabil to three years in prison for criticizing the armed forces. He was arrested on March 28 after posting on his blog comments that were critical of the army’s role during the massive protests throughout the country that resulted in the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.

Nabil, 26, was a prominent secular activist who gained notoriety for his movement on Facbeook called “No for the compulsory conscription.” He was the first blogger to be jailed following the fall of the Mubarak regime; his case in retrospect a sign of things to come. Nabil was released in January, ahead of the one-year anniversary of the uprising.

One leading editor speaking to The Media Line under the condition of anonymity because of fear for his safety said bluntly that, “it’s not the civil prosecution to be worried about, it’s the military.”

The editor asserted that currently, “things are touchy. More people are facing military interrogations over insulting the military and most of [what they said] isn’t even that bad.”

But for media professionals, the military’s long reach has led to censorship, with even the most outspoken independent newspapers seemingly acquiescing under the military’s might. Late last year, Al-Masry Al-Youm – the leading non-government run publication – refrained from publishing an interview with U.K. journalist Robert Fisk and an editorial in its English language sister publication for fear it would stir the wrath of the military junta.

Both incidents, coupled with dozens of incidents in which reporters were attacked while covering protests – at least five photographers have lost sight in at least one eye – and the fear of being arrested or summoned because of what he or she writes, has led to an outpouring of anger.

Ahmed Aggour, a leading protester, argues adamantly that the problem facing Egypt and its media was state television.

“Look at what they are showing,” he began. “The state tells the people lies about what is going on, talks of foreigners’ involvement, and this hurts the country.”

This coercion of media has been seen following every violent outbreak in the country over the past 6 months, with the military detailing how protesters “used excessive force;” “were being directed by invisible hands;” followed by the assertion that “the military does not use force or kill its citizens,” despite evidence to the contrary. If a reporter speaks up, or a publication writes negatively about the military, they face charges of “insulting the military.”

For the mainstream Arabic press, reporting and discussing military initiatives or actions, is fraught with self-censorship. Adel Hammouda, a leading editor with Al-Fagr newspaper – who has experienced being summoned by the military – told The Media Line in a recent interview that now when media cover the military’s actions, they have begun to remove anything that is critical of its performance.

“There’s too much fear going around right now,” Hammouda said. “Nobody wants to have their names revealed when dealing with the army, so it is frustrating. And now we are already censoring our work because we don’t want to have our reporters get detained or face charges for anything that they write.”

How the media can help heal Gilad Shalit


For five long years, a media campaign swirled around the abduction and internment of Gilad Shalit, gaining momentum with every passing day. Without a doubt, it was the media that helped keep his story alive and contributed significantly to his release, creating public pressure in favor of the historic (though unsettling) exchange of more than 1,000 convicted terrorists for Shalit’s freedom.

But now that he has been freed, will the media claim its “pound of flesh”?

Aside from the interview he was forced to give Egyptian television immediately following his release, Shalit has yet to speak publicly about his 1,941-day ordeal. His father, Noam, continues to serve as his mouthpiece, and his family and friends have formed a protective shield around him, disallowing any media contact. As they see it, the media can only harm Shalit at this point, slowing his recovery and reintegration into normal life and society.

But is that true?

The experiences of survivors of captivity, maltreatment and torture from many parts of the world teach us that the phase of re-entry into society plays a critical role in the quality of recovery. The societal attitudes and the degree of acceptance and assistance available to survivors as they return from an ordeal determines their success in psychologically reintegrating their traumatic experiences into a sense of themselves that feels continuous and consistent.

When survivors are met with a “conspiracy of silence” where society and even relatives are not able to listen to their experiences, as with many survivors of the Holocaust, the survivors do not speak of their trauma. And when war veterans and prisoners of war are met with negative attitudes toward the war in which they participated, as was the case with Vietnam veterans, they also refrain from sharing their experiences.

In such cases, where the trauma cannot be discussed and shared in an accepting and truly empathic context, survivors attempt to cope by hiding or denying their distress. Paradoxically, the more dissociated the traumatic experiences become, the more they interfere with daily life.

Newly acquired scientific insight into brain functions and structures have illuminated much about how trauma is registered, stored and remembered. Extremely traumatic events are initially stored in nonverbal images, sensations and feeling states. As such, they can continue to remain vivid and timeless, disturbing the survivor’s habituation and integration into normal life for years.

The presence of supportive, empathic listeners who are genuinely interested in hearing what the survivor has to say is critical to the healing process. Such listening must be truly motivated by sensitivity and deep care and attuned to the needs of the survivor. Listening that is motivated by other, voyeuristic or self-serving interests will lead to additional trauma.

From what they have stated, this is the concern shared by Shalit’s family and friends regarding his exposure to the media. There are no guarantees that the media will be the sensitive, empathetic listeners he requires, and it simply isn’t worth the irreparable damage.  

Furthermore, because he was only a teenager when he was abducted, he has a lot to learn in order to catch up with his 25-year-old self, a great deal to re-learn about normal life and a tremendous amount to unlearn from his years in captivity. Most important, he has to regain a sense of ownership and control over his life and the freedom to explore who he is.

Exposure to the media, even in the best of circumstances, is often accompanied (true or not) by a feeling that one’s words were “twisted” to mean something else and that the message intended was hijacked and misrepresented. While generally irritating for the masses, such experiences might be truly damaging for an individual attempting to achieve a personally meaningful integration of his own traumatic experience, and might constitute a repetition of loss of control over one’s words, self-definition and life.

It goes without saying that a relentless pursuit by the media would interfere with Shalit’s ability to explore and re-establish his personal life. Many bereaved individuals express feeling an added burden of having to live with the image that others project upon them as “the bereaved.” Having become recognizable to every Israeli, he will have a difficult enough task returning to normal life. Having the paparazzi chase him and “experts” volunteering their interpretations for every move he makes will only make the transition that much more difficult.

However, the media could play the hero if it so chooses. 

It has been shown that the method of giving testimony has particular value for survivors of captivity and torture. Even decades after their traumatic experiences, survivors of the Holocaust showed significant positive changes after giving testimony. While the processing of traumatic experiences in therapy and other private settings might confront the survivor with feelings of fear, loss of control, irreversible damage and shame, the process of testifying restores the right order of things, as it establishes who did what to whom and places the moral burdens where they belong, with the aggressor. Due to its public format, testimony creates a social and cultural context for the individual trauma and accelerates the healing process. 

This might be a benign role that the media can play, providing Shalit, at his own pace, with the opportunity to heal and add his personal story to Israeli society’s collective narrative about the painful cost paid by everyone’s children in war.

So, now it’s up to the media, the very entity that helped bring about Shalit’s release. Will they move in for the “scoop,” or do whatever they can to help free him from his painful past?

Irit Felsen is a clinical psychologist and trauma specialist, and an adjunct professor at Yeshiva University’s Ferkauf School of Psychology.

How did this happen to America?


It was while I was explaining to an Australian student that Rupert Murdoch was the reason America had gone batty that I realized how inadequate my answer to his question was.

“How did this happen to America?”  I was in Australia just after the debt-ceiling debacle, and by “this” the student meant the highchair spoon-banging in Washington that had nearly caused a world financial tailspin. 

As we talked, I saw that “this” also meant other jaw-dropping news that had reached them down under – like the near-unanimity among Republican presidential candidates that global warming is a hoax; the Gallup finding that 40 percent of Americans believe “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years”; the Tea Party signs saying “Keep Your Government Hands Off My Medicare”; the surging number of American children living in poverty; the gap between the rich and the rest growing so extreme that the U.S. is now the 42nd most unequal country in the world, below Cameroon and the Ivory Coast, and only just above Uganda and Jamaica. 

During the three weeks I traveled in Australia, I was often asked, with genuine bafflement and considerable sympathy, how the world’s greatest nation had become captive to a band of ideologues and fundamentalists, how the American dream – a beacon to people everywhere – had become so powerless to deliver on its promise of opportunity for all.  From kids in the classroom, from journalists and executives, from people on the boat to the reef and in the van to the rain forest: virtually everyone wanted to know what caused America to take such a sharp wrong turn.

So I gave them my usual answers.

Our political system has become the problem, not the solution.  Our Founders could not have known that campaigning and governing would turn out to be all about ads, and the money required to pay for them, and the special interests tapped for that cash, and the quid pro quos inherent in those transactions, not to mention the profits raked in by the TV stations that get free licenses to use the public’s broadcast spectrum because they promise to serve the public interest. 

The profit to be made from monetizing attention has transformed our republic from one where education was declared the bedrock of democracy, to one where entertainment has pretty much swallowed up every other domain, including news, which has abandoned its obligation to sort through competing claims (“we’ll have to leave it there”), replacing journalism with propaganda and civic discourse with food fights. 

But as I went on in this vein, I realized that my account was missing something, and it took a taxi driver to show me what it was.  Yes, I know that The Taxi Driver is straight out of Cliché Central – the character who conveniently supplies an apt quote making a point that a columnist would prefer to attribute to some salt-of-the-earth guy instead of himself.  So I don’t expect you to believe me when I tell you what happened.  But it’s true; you just can’t make up stuff like this.

I had just finished speaking in a class on media and politics at the United States Studies Centre on the University of Sidney campus.  I’d wrestled with the question of how America had reached this dispiriting moment.  And then I went out to City Road and hailed a cab. 

Usually I’m not much of a talker in taxis.  But the driver, an Australian who looked to be in his early thirties, asked me if I’d been doing something at the university, and I told him about the class – not in detail, but enough to indicate that America’s predicament in the time of the Tea Party and the climate-change deniers had been on the table.

For a bit, we rode in silence.  Then he said, “Do you happen to know of a fellow named Noam Chomsky?” 

“Yes, I do,” I said, trying to conceal my astonishment. 

“By any chance,” he asked, “are you familiar with his concept of ‘spectator democracy’?”

Once I got past the out-of-body experience of having this particular conversation with my taxi driver at this particular moment, we talked about “spectator democracy” as he drove across Sydney.  Now I suppose it’s hopeless to discuss anything Chomsky ever said without first taking a stand on whether he’s anti-Semitic, so I’ll stipulate that whatever you think about that, you’re right, and that (but that) it’s (still) very much worth engaging with his take on history.

Framed approvingly by Walter Lippmann in the early 20th century, “spectator democracy” is the idea that the U.S. public is a “bewildered herd” that needs to be benevolently directed, manipulated and controlled by elites with the tools of propaganda and disinformation.  As they consume content about politics, people gain the (false) impression that they’re actively participating in democracy – that they’re empowered, not bludgeoned, by the media.

What Chomsky adds is that spectator democracy is now on steroids not because of technology, or because the media industry has figured out how to make a tidy profit from political spectacle.  It’s because more than ever before, the functioning of the American economy requires distracting the herd from the immensity of corporate power.

Fox News doesn’t rile the Republican base because Karl Rove tells Roger Ailes what to do.  It does it because the investment banks and the war industry and Rupert Murdoch and the Koch brothers and the rest of the oligarchs need to divert the public’s attention away from their economic power, their ownership of the political system, their plunder of public resources. 

How did this happen to America? is the wrong question.  After decades of corporate triumphalism, which has put wealth in fewer hands than ever before, and after generations of government being so demonized and compromised that it is no longer capable of checking that power, the better question may be: How could it not have happened?

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear chair in entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.  Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Opinion: Jews becoming commonplace in conservative ‘new media’


Many reviews already have appeared of “The Undefeated,” the soon-to-be-released documentary about Sarah Palin’s tenure in Alaska.Yet none of them—even in The Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post or The Washington Post—mentions that nearly all of the film’s many pro-Palin media talking heads are Jews.

The dominant meme that Jews as a group are uncomfortable with Palin or her views seems less than convincing after viewing prominent Members of the Tribe defend her politics and record in elected office. Internet news mogul Andrew Breitbart, nationally syndicated radio talk show host Mark Levin and L.A.’s radio phenom Tammy Bruce, a gay Jewish Palinista with a Tammy’s Army of followers, all deliver full-throated tributes to one of America’s most conservative political figures.

Following a recent Manhattan screening of the director’s cut of “The Undefeated,” I mentioned this to filmmaker Stephen Bannon. He replied that he had not taken note of their Jewishness in choosing to include them. That in itself is significant: Jews have become so commonplace in the conservative new media that the fact of their Jewish identity fails to garner much notice.

One reason may be that Jews tend to be “early adopters” of innovations and were present at the birth of the conservative new media.

Start with Maryland-born muckraker Matt Drudge, the granddaddy of the conservative new media. Since his website’s launch in the mid-1990s, the Drudge Report has retained its place at the top of the new media right and now averages an astounding 30 million “hits” daily, or close to a billion a month. It has a huge influence in setting the agenda for national talk radio and for the conservative commentariat in general.

But Drudge’s influence doesn’t stop there. A Washington Post editor recently conceded that 10 percent to15 percent of his newspaper’s daily online traffic is driven by links from Drudge.

Soon after, conservative voices began emerging within explicitly Jewish new media precincts themselves, notably the pioneering Jewish World Review, started in the mid-1990s by Binyamin Jolkovsky, and IsraelNationalNews.com, an organ of the settlement movement, which had also operated a pirate radio network.

Significant relative newcomers include bloggers such as Ted Belman of IsraPundit, Dan Greenfield of SultanKnish and Ruth King of Ruthfully Yours, along with sites such as Israel Matzav, YidWithLid, Yeshiva World News and the Yiddish-titled but English-language Vos Iz Neias? (What’s New?).

Since the emergence of conservative talk radio in the 1980s, Jews again are playing a prominent role. Besides Levin and Bruce, and the top-rated Michael Savage, two of the national talk hosts on the Salem Radio affiliate where I broadcast—Dennis Prager and Michael Medved—are Jewish, and both serve on the board of the GOP-oriented Jewish Policy Council, along with a third Salem host, Bill Bennett, who “happens to be a Catholic.”

The nation’s largest talk station, New York’s WABC—home base for Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and Mark Levin—now features highly rated Sunday programs with investigative journalist Aaron Klein, who once edited the Yeshiva University Commentator and now reports from Tel Aviv, and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (politically centrist, but with an Orthodox point of view) who got his start as a Lubavitch emissary, founding the immensely popular L’Chaim Society at Oxford University.

Recent years also have witnessed the emergence of a whole class of crusading Internet journalist-activists, many of them Jews, such as Klein, who is also senior correspondent for the mega-site WorldNetDaily, anti-Islamist activist Pamela Geller (AtlasShrugs.com) and repentant “Radical Son” David Horowitz (FrontPageMag.com).

Probably the most high profile of these crusaders today is Breitbart, a leading publisher of conservative websites such as BigGovernment.com (focusing on national politics), BigPeace.com (foreign policy), BigHollywood.com (the film industry) and BigJournalism.com (the Fourth Estate). It was Breitbart who pursued the Anthony Weiner affair and caused the corruption-tainted voter and housing activist group ACORN to lose billions in federal funding.

Industry insiders say Breitbart is now looking to launch a site that would be devoted to Middle East coverage named—what else?—BigJerusalem.com.

Another important development is the shift of Jewish “old media” conservatives to new media platforms. William Kristol is now better known as a Fox Television commentator than in his role as founding editor of The Weekly Standard. Charles Krauthammer also reaches a far larger audience at Fox than even as a syndicated columnist based at The Washington Post. Jennifer Rubin, formerly of Commentary, now reaches a much larger readership with her Right Turn blog at The Washington Post, and Jonathan Tobin, executive editor of Commentary, has transitioned to being full-time editor of its web log, Contentions.

In Israel, Jerusalem Post deputy editor and columnist Caroline Glick last year launched Latma TV, already a highly popular political satire site, whose send-up of the Gaza flotilla radicals—“We Con the World”—had 3 million “hits” in one week during last year’s crisis.

Certainly there is another reason why Jews, per se, have attracted so little notice in the conservative new media: the change in American conservatism itself. Ethnically diverse and intellectually formidable, today’s conservatism is reliably pro-Israel, comfortably Judeo-Christian and for the most part promotes a nuanced social conservatism.

In a movement that is credible and hospitable to American Jews, and from which the ethno-centrism of yore is largely absent, Jewish journalists will flourish.

Benyamin Korn, formerly executive editor of the Jewish Exponent and the Miami Jewish Tribune, hosts Jewish Independent Talk Radio in Philadelphia and blogs at JewsForSarah.com.)

Turkey’s Erdogan, others hint at Jewish control of media


Turkish leaders including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan blamed Israel and its supporters for what they said was international media hostility to the country’s ruling party.

“This international media, as they are supported by Israel, would not be happy with the continuation of the AKP government,” the Turkish Daily News quoted Erdogan as saying this week. “Of course, they have their hands on Turkey nowadays.”

Erdogan was responding to The Economist’s endorsement of the opposition party ahead of next week’s elections.

The respected British newsweekly cited Erdogan’s crackdown on the media among other reasons to push back against what it said were his repressive measures.

Another minister, Egemen Bagıs, described “international dark elites who control the international media.”

Marty Kaplan: The Naked Nielsens


The metrics are wearing no clothes.

How would you react if you found out that the basis of your business model was bogus?  That’s the nightmare that the television industry is finally waking up to, and I bet that online media won’t be far behind.

The TV business is built on advertising.  Except for premium cable, the money that networks get for selling audiences’ eyeballs to advertisers is the mother’s milk of the industry.  Networks set the price of ads on their shows using demographic information about the age and sex of those shows’ viewers.  And the company that pretty much has a monopoly on furnishing those metrics is Nielsen.

So a few weeks ago, at the Marriott Marquis in New York, it must have felt like pitchfork time when a respected TV network figure in charge of analyzing ratings, CBS Corp. Chief Research Officer David Poltrack, ” target=”_hplink”>Ad Age, Nielsen executives at the convention reported that “ratings demographics by age and sex had a… 0.12 correlation with actual sales produced by exposure to TV ads, where 1.0 is complete correlation and 0 signals no relationship whatsoever.”  Zero-point-one-two! You’d do better using a Ouija board than Nielsen demos. 

It’s particularly ironic that this paradigm-popping confession came from CBS.  From 1955 to 1976, before any network thought in terms of age cohorts, CBS “was the undisputed king of the ratings hill,” writes Neal Gabler in ” target=”_hplink”>Wall Street Journal, “which made them without value to the networks.”  The numbers tell the story: A 30-second ad on Fox’s young-skewing Glee costs $47 per thousand viewers, while a spot on CBS’s The Good Wife, 60 percent of whose audience is 55-plus, costs about half that. 

But now the jig is up.  “Reliance on the 18 to 49 demographic,” Ad Age reports Poltrack saying, “is hazardous to all media and marketers.”  It may be just a coincidence that CBS, which these days runs about even with Fox in overall prime-time viewership, is now being killed by Fox in 18 to 49.  But it’s no coincidence that 80 million baby boomers are aging out of the desirable demo.  To sell air time to reach the fastest-growing part of its audience, the industry needs a new metric. 

So exit demographics, and, just in time, enter psychographics.  That audience-segmentation tool, which collects people into taste and behavior clusters, has been around for a while; if you want to try an online-era version, check out hunch.com. CBS and Nielsen, in what Poltrack calls a “historic move,” have now come up with six audience segments to sell to advertisers instead of age and sex cohorts:  TV companions; media trendsetters; sports enthusiasts; program passionates; surfers and streamers; TV moderators.  The developers of those segments claim that when ad agencies start buying spots on TV shows using these metrics instead of the ones that were fabulous until five minutes ago, there’ll actually be a relationship between seeing ads and buying products.

It can’t be any worse than what they’ve been using until now.  If you talk to network executives privately, and to account managers at ad agencies, doubt about the utility of Nielsens is a poorly-kept secret.  I’m not talking about weaknesses like undercounting racial and ethnic groups, and missing out-of-home viewing in airports and bars, and being clueless about online TV viewing, both legal and not.  I mean the conspiracy of silence about the whole premise of demographics.

Why hasn’t anyone blown the whistle?  Because the whole network-advertising-marketing-research village is in on it, and they’ve been afraid to burn the house down without some new roof to put over their heads.  Poltrack’s salvo suggests that CBS and Nielsen are confident enough about what they’re touting now to admit that their old model was built of straw. 

I suspect that this new metric won’t be nearly as useful as the “taste community” analytics still waiting to be born – a transnational audience analysis that mines all the rich new data available about socially-networked online entertainment consumption.  But for that to happen, the Web analytics that currently pass for measuring engagement – hits, clicks, visits, visitors, pageviews, uniques, repeats and the rest—may also have to bite the dust. 

Marty Kaplan holds the ” target=”_hplink”>USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.  Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com

The Importance of Being Michael


“Why aren’t you talking about Michael Jackson more?”

The question, from a caller to Larry Mantle’s KPCC-Pasadena public radio program “AirTalk,” interrupted a ” title=”study” target=”_blank”>study by the Project on Excellence in Journalism.  At the start of the week, nearly a third of the stories monitored – 58 outlets, covering print, online, network, cable and radio news – were about the protests in Iran.  By the end of the week, the velvet revolution wasn’t the only story that had largely been abandoned by journalism.  The economic crisis, health care reform, the energy and global warming bill: you’d need an FBI investigator to find coverage of them.  Only Governor Mark Sanford’s soap opera could compete, barely, with the death of the King of Pop.

By going all-Michael-all-the-time, cable news wasn’t jamming this story down America’s throat.  Even though nearly two-thirds of Americans said last week that the Jackson story was getting too much coverage, the same HCD Research “>“Planet Money” guys on National Public Radio, you know that credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations can be as interesting as Natalee Holloway’s disappearance.  When Arnold Schwarzenegger suggests that negotiations on California’s fiscal crisis should be broadcast (“Budget talks as a reality TV show?” was the ” title=”story” target=”_blank”>story about the daily 4 p.m. meeting where the paper’s editors decide what stories warrant front-page treatment.  In The Times’s Page 1 conference room, “the belief remains that editing isn’t tyranny but perhaps a little closer to curating.  Pick whatever metaphor you like: wheat from chaff, signal from noise, gold from dross.  Without that process of selection, one is left to find the news on a Borgesian online map that is as big as the world itself.”

I’m glad that anyone who needs to can Google the meaning of Borgesian.  I’m just a teeny bit less glad that no one on the planet needs to Google Michael Jackson. 

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear Professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication.  Reach him at {encode=”martyk@jewishjournal.com” title=”martyk@jewishjournal.com”}.

The CNN-NPR-NY Times Middle East Conspiracy


Have you noticed that when people complain about bias in the media, it’s always bias against their own point of view and never bias in favor of their side?

When press accounts confirm your interpretation of events, they’re fair, accurate and objective. When the upshot of a news story is that your team is the bad guys and the other team is the good guys, it’s obvious that the reporter or paper or network or corporation is in the tank for the other side. And when articles and broadcasts balance ammo for your side with ammo for the other side, they’re guilty of the fallacy of false equivalence, which turns righteous battles between right and wrong into vapid he-said/she-said standoffs.

Nowhere is this more true than in coverage of the Middle East.

Supporters of Israel are furious that when pictures of Palestinian casualties are shown, the causes and context of the war are left out—Hamas’ rocket attacks on southern Israel, which precipitated the attack on Gaza; its cynical use of civilians as human shields, which is a war crime; its intention to destroy Israel and Jewry, which amounts to genocide—all get scandalously short shrift from the press.

Supporters of Hamas are just as enraged about the inhumane living conditions in Gaza, which Israel has blockaded; the Israeli refusal to allow the international press into the battle zone; what they believe is the original sin of Zionism, the displacement of Arabs, and that when Israel is portrayed as a victim, the suffering of the Palestinian people is conveniently omitted.

And what if you’re not a partisan of either side, but think of yourself instead as an independent advocate for human rights and peace? Then not only will you bring down on yourself the opprobrium of both sides for failing to take a stand at a moment that demands a choice, you will also find in the prevailing media narrative no hook to hang your conciliatory analysis on, no peg for your empyrean perspective, no patience for your it’s-all-so-complicated heartsickness.

Any news story can be successfully picked apart from any vantage point. Why does the Los Angeles Times disparage the Israeli point of view as ““>anonymous mitigating hearsay about a Hamas sniper? Why aren’t the networks airing the “>Israeli scholar’s assertion that Palestinian casualties aren’t excessive because “so far well over three-quarters have been armed gunmen, and that is a percentage which is very rarely attained in urban warfare”?

In fact, two reasons make it really hard to conclude (but not to claim) that a mainstream media outlet is biased—on the Middle East or on anything else. And a third reason makes the whole enterprise of watchdogging the press somewhat quixotic.

One is the sheer quantity of content. The stories and pictures you saw may be plenty to convince you, say, that the Associated Press is unfair to Israel, but the plural of “anecdote” is not “data.” The only way to determine anything defensible about bias in reporting is to analyze a scientific sample—to examine a slice of stories that’s large enough to be representative of all stories and to choose that slice randomly, without knowing what’s going to be in it.

Some people may feel that they watch CNN so much or read The New York Times so regularly that they have plenty of data to base conclusions on. Not so. That’s why pollsters are paid big bucks: The methods they use to construct the universe of people they survey are even more important than the questions they ask them.

Second is the difficulty of coming up with an objective measure of bias. One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. If you can show me a journalistic scoring system that Alan Dershowitz and Noam Chomsky can agree on, then I’d like to show you how to earn 12 percent a year in a very special investment fund.

But even if you had a scientific sample; even if you devised a neutral litmus test for bias, the strange truth is that media spin probably matters a lot less than we assume.

Yes, public opinion is an important element of public policy. Nations care what people think about them. But the audience for cable news is astonishingly small, maybe 2 million people on a good day; the daily readership of a prestige newspaper is hardly more than that, and the only way that public radio can claim north of 20 million listeners is to count all the people who listened to any of its programs during a week.

Sure, the Internet has surged as a source of news, but its audience is fragmented into niches. If you want to get really depressed, chew on this: For decades, Americans have said that their number one source for news is local television news. Not only is that audience scattered among a thousand stations in a couple of hundred media markets, the amount of attention those stations give to international news is a tiny fraction of the airtime they give to celebrities, freak accidents and crime.

There’s no question that some elite media set the agenda for much of the rest of the press. And some nonnews programming, like talk radio hotheads, get demonstrably big listenerships. But it’s next to impossible to prove a cause-and-effect relation between these bloviators and public opinion, and the same is true of the impact of the mainstream press on public attitudes and beliefs. In the end, why Americans think what they do about Israel and Hamas is as much a mystery as how they decide who to vote for or what toothpaste to buy.

I get just as steamed as anyone else when I see a Middle East news story that I think is wildly unfair. I’m just unwilling to ascribe it to a conspiracy or to think it matters as much as the frustration and fury I feel.

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear Professor of Entertainment, Media and Society at the USC Annenberg School. His column appears here weekly. He can be reached at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Survey: Fewer Americans think Jews control Hollywood


Forget Spielberg. Forget the Weinsteins. Forget “Seinfeld.”

The majority of Americans no longer believe that Jews control Hollywood. This is the news from a new poll released by the Anti-Defamation League that also suggests there remains a widespread conviction that there is an organized campaign by Hollywood and the national media to undermine religious values.

In the October 2008 survey of 1,000 American adults, “American Attitudes on Religion, Moral Values and Hollywood,” conducted by the Marttila Communications Group, 63 percent of Americans said they do not believe that the movie and television industries are “pretty much run by Jews.” This finding contradicts not only the prevailing myth, but also a 1964 survey in which half of the respondents agreed that Jews controlled Hollywood. It seems the era depicted in Neil Gabler’s book, “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood,” is over.

“It’s interesting that it’s fallen that much; it’s a mark of the decline of anti-Semitism in this country,” said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. However, Sarna was quick to point out that the statistics may not be entirely reliable. Telephone polls, he said, tend to skew older because they are the ones who are at home to answer calls, and because the prohibition against cold-calling cellphones precludes most younger perspectives.

Sixty-one percent of those polled said they believe religious values are under attack, and 63 percent said religion as a whole is losing its influence on American life.

Fifty-nine percent of respondents do not believe Hollywood shares the religious and moral values of most Americans. Of those, 70 percent identify themselves as religious Americans who attend religious institutions one or more times each week. Conservative Protestants agreed with this statement most strongly (68 percent), followed by traditional Catholics (60 percent) and moderate Catholics (55 percent).

Forty-three percent of respondents said they believe there is an organized campaign by the national media to “weaken the influence of religious values”; 62 percent of that group said they attend religious institutions one or more times per week. Among them, those who identified themselves as traditional Catholics agree most strongly (65 percent), followed by Protestants (56 percent) and liberal Catholics (41 percent). However, 59 percent of non-affiliated people surveyed disagree with this statement.

The idea that certain forms of entertainment are antithetical to religious values predates Hollywood. In early American history, Protestant groups were deeply opposed to theater. When motion picture “talkies” were introduced to America in the 1930s, the Production Code (also known as the Hays Code) was quickly created, establishing explicit censorship guidelines for the film industry.

“Ambivalence towards entertainment is a bit like ambivalence towards sex,” Sarna said. “And they’re related; things that give one joy are often deemed to be suspect, and I think we’re seeing that.”

The poll also revealed some support for censorship. While a clear majority does not think books containing dangerous ideas should be banned from public school libraries, 38 percent support censoring books.

The study’s data indicates that people who attend religious institutions regularly are decidedly more conservative in their cultural views. They are also more likely to vote Republican. While the majority-vs.- minority groupings do not surprise Sarna, he is skeptical of the poll’s numerical conclusions.

“If 43 percent of Americans decided not to go to the movies, the movie industry wouldn’t be the size it is in this country,” he said.

In a statement accompanying the poll’s release, ADL director Abe Foxman said, “The belief that religion is under attack underlies the drive to incorporate more religion into American public life.”

Yet, Sarna countered that if the majority of Americans really believed religion was under attack, Sen. John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin would have won the election.

“The very fact that Obama’s ticket won — and won big — reminds us that there are all sorts of other issues that are important. Nobody voted for Obama because they thought he would inject more religion into public life,” Sarna said.

Compassion + patience + art = hope for a teen father


She leans in to listen. Today’s challenge is one of the many Dylan Kendall has helped John through in the last two-and-a-half years, and it won’t be the last.

Kendall, 38 and not much over 5 feet tall, presses against the balls of her feet, craning to hear what the 6-foot-4 teen, who was once her foster child, is saying to his social worker. The two are framed by the doorway of her small office. Inside, her assistants hurriedly prepare a fundraiser. In the large adjacent room, homeless youth are taking a fashion-design class put on by Kendall’s nonprofit.

John isn’t saying much. At the other end of the phone line, his social worker cuts him off. He places his free hand atop his short gold-rust hair. “But Kathleen …,” he tries.

He hands Kendall the phone. “She hung up on me,” John says. Kendall shakes her fire-red mane of hair. There is a warrant out for John’s arrest. He missed a court date because a worker at his group home in Van Nuys told him he wasn’t on the docket. And his social worker is unwilling to help.

He slouches into a chair pushed against the wall of the tight office. His blue eyes, often inscrutable, are sad. Everything is moving fast for him. Kendall touches his head tenderly.

Two weeks ago, John turned 18. Two weeks before that he was arrested for threatening to beat up a boy in his group home. And it has only been six weeks since his 19-year-old girlfriend gave birth to his baby. The arrest warrant is the most immediate problem. But looming greater is the day, coming soon, when he ages out of the foster care system and the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) will terminate his case.

There are a few options for young people like John. There are a handful of private transitional housing programs, some vocational training, but only 384 DCFS beds for the 1,400 foster youth who walk out of Los Angeles County’s care every year.

In the back parking lot of Kendall’s Hollywood Media and Arts nonprofit, John lights up a cigarette. He is angry that his social worker hung up on him; that she gave up on him. “When I came back from jail I seen my social worker, and she said you’re gonna be homeless and its gonna be your fault; not my fault, it’s gonna be your fault. After that I just gave up. I said I’m done with DCFS. They are done with me, and I am done with them.”

But while John’s case is replicated by many of the thousands of other children who have passed through DCFS’s gates, he’s a lucky one. He has someone special in his corner. He has Dylan Kendall.

Kendall’s life changed when she was 28, living in Oakland and working on her bachelor’s degree at the California Academy of Fine Arts. She rented a cheap loft in a bad part of the city. Every day she woke up to poverty. She saw emaciated pit bulls and kids listlessly spending their days on the stoops of dilapidated homes. “Everyone has an epiphany movement,” she says. Seeing the extreme poverty “began the process of me being less self-invested. And from that point on I sought out ways to make myself stronger, so I that I was able to effectively cause change against injustice.”

Kendall is one of those people who can’t stop giving, even when the odds seem impossibly against the causes she takes on. In the spirit of tikkun olam — healing the world — it’s in her nature to invest in people.

Part of her self-divestment meant coming home to Los Angeles to study education at UCLA. Kendall, 38, says she was driven to make the world a gentler place. Raised by parents with strong Jewish traditions, Kendall came closer to her Judaism as she moved further from herself.

“I fundamentally believe that everyone should do something. If we don’t, there are too many people that are hurting, and I don’t like to see pain. That really frustrates me.”

What she quickly found was that to alleviate hurt, people need safe places. For herself, Kendall could find safety and nourishment from a passage in the Torah, or a service at her synagogue, Temple Israel of Hollywood. For John, Kendall’s presence and her openhearted offering to let him into her world was — and is — helping him build a life.

Back in her office, Kendall calls John’s public defender. She looks for housing that will take in a good kid with a not-so-good record. She calls John’s girlfriend, Karina, in South Los Angeles, and asks how the baby is doing. (Both teens have asked that their last names be withheld to protect their privacy.)

Kendall looks out through the Plexiglas separating her office from Hollywood Media and Arts’ common area. Ten or more black, Latino and white homeless young men and women work on the computers Kendall raised the funds to buy. Behind a screen, past the monitors, another group is taking a class on mythology. And if you listen carefully enough, you can hear homeless youth banging on a drum set through the heavily padded walls of the studio on the second floor. For Kendall they are all important.

But the most important one is standing outside, looking at a hard road ahead, with a cigarette dangling from his lips.


Eric Garcetti (Los Angeles City Council President ) and Dylan Kendall (Hollywood Arts Executive Director) speak at “A Night of Magic and Inspiration” in 2006

Federation’s Entertainment Division debuts first YouTube video


Here’s how YouTube member EntDiv describes the video:

The Entertainment Division of The Jewish Federation is a dynamic group of entertainment and media professionals who participate in a wide variety of educational, social, and volunteer opportunities to benefit the Jewish community locally and aboard. If you are interested in philanthropy, the Jewish community, networking or simply having fun, the Entertainment Division has something for you. Whether you are a media mogul or an up-and-coming young executive, we hope you will join us in giving back!

 

 

A birthday gift


Here we are, Jews in every corner of the world, awash in a frenzy of celebrations for Israel — all because of a birthday. And not just any birthday, mind you, but one that ends in a zero.

In a marketing-obsessed world, milestones give us an easy way to promote our brands. For lovers of Israel, promoting the brand of Israel is important business, especially since the country has taken a real beating over the years. So naturally, when a chance comes up to give that brand a little shine — like a 60th birthday — we run with it.

That’s why this year, Israel@60 has become the hot Jewish brand.

Every Jewish newspaper in the world has devoted a special section. Every Jewish community is doing multiple celebrations. Israeli embassies and consul offices are busy squeezing every ounce of Israel@60 good will from their local communities. World leaders are sending messages of congratulations. Elites from everywhere are gathering in Jerusalem at the invitation of President Shimon Peres. And, of course, every Jewish writer of note is weighing in with their personal reflections on the state of the Zionist project. (My favorite is Yossi Klein Halevi’s piece in this week’s issue.)

There’s something intoxicating about all this activity. I feel like I’m getting drunk on Israel. The Jewish world is rising up and giving my cherished Israel a celebration for the ages.

So why, then, do I also feel a certain emptiness?

Is it because I’m too aware of the growing dangers that Israel faces? Or that I know most of the world will go right back to hating us once the party’s over, or that these kind of big-bang celebrations just leave us with one big hangover?

Maybe, but I think there’s more. I see a missed opportunity. I love the sense of pride that the celebrations have fired up, but I wish someone had launched the Israel@60 campaign with this theme: “What will you give Israel for her birthday?”

That’s right: What will you give Israel for her birthday? What I think is missing from all the hoopla is a birthday gift from each of us to the Israel we love.

And I don’t mean money. Money is the gift for normal times. A 60th anniversary is not a normal time. It’s a time to celebrate, yes, but also to reflect, take stock, look deep inside of ourselves — and offer a special gift.

Imagine going to celebrate your parents’ 60th wedding anniversary. What kind of gift would you bring? Would it be personal? Would it have special meaning?

Now imagine going to celebrate Israel’s 60th anniversary. What’s the most personal and meaningful gift you can make? What is your unique passion or talent? What can you bring to the party to show your love for the honoree?

Whatever your thing is, it’s worth bringing. If you’re a musician, organizer, writer, artist, environmentalist, cook, teacher, activist, comedian, doctor, architect, rabbi, Web designer, business tycoon or filmmaker, whatever your passion, it can become your personal gift to Israel.

Make a film. Write a poem. Start a Web site. Help at a soup kitchen. Organize a trip to Israel. Find a cause dear to your heart. In short, look at what Israel needs, and see how your talents match up.

So, what about me, what’s my “thing” for Israel?

These days, the advertising guy in me would love to promote a side of Israel the world rarely sees — the good side. God knows the anti-Israel propaganda machine has done a remarkable job of turning Israel into a globally reviled country. And God knows Israel has more than enough critics who expose her many mistakes and weaknesses. But who is balancing the picture? Who is showing the other side? Who is spreading the word on Israel’s many contributions to the world?

Of the $1 billion a year in Jewish philanthropy, how much do you think goes to advertise in the mainstream media the numerous contributions Israel makes to humanity? Virtually zero.

So this is my birthday gift to Israel: Ads4Israel.com.

It’s a new organization whose mission will be to create and run ads worldwide that show Israel’s incredible gifts to the world, in such areas as combating disease, developing alternative fuels, fighting world hunger, creating life-changing technologies, revolutionizing agriculture and much more. There are literally hundreds of areas where Israel has helped make the world a better place, and Ads4Israel will do its share to let the world know. The Web site will offer a variety of ads that donors will be able to support and help run.

Why ads? They’re dramatic, quick and efficient. You can reach 100 million people with a powerful message in a few seconds. Grass-roots efforts, conferences, articles, books, Web sites, etc., are all valuable, but when 99 percent of the planet has been poisoned by three-second visual sound-bites about Israel, the best way to fight back is with equally powerful sound-bites.

Will this solve Israel’s image problem overnight? Nothing can. But we can at least raise immediate awareness of Israel’s value to the world, and that’s a gift.

We each have a gift. What will be your birthday gift?

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.


Nation might not be safest but it’s the most interesting


Not too far from my home there’s a street named for the German poet Heinrich Heine, a baptized Jew and metaphorical Marrano. Sometimes on Shabbat afternoons, I take a long Jerusalem walk with my son, soon to be a soldier, and Lizzie, our German shepherd, a breed of dog that in my wildest Diaspora dreams I could never imagine owning.

We walk past the Heine Street sign by the Montefiore windmill and gaze at the Ottoman walls of the Old City and the Tower of David, a Crusader structure made over into a mosque. Behind us is the King David Hotel, blown up by Jewish fighters in 1946 and occupied by President Bush in 2008. Beyond us are picturesque Arab villages and the biblical landscape of the Judean Desert.

My son and I look around each time with renewed wonder and gratitude and say to one another, “Can you believe we live here?” Israel is a place you never take for granted, even if you were, as he was, born here. All else is commentary.

In an 1852 essay, Heine observed wryly: “The Jews, who know a thing or two about valuable things, knew very well what they were doing when, during the burning of the Second Temple, they left the gold and silver sacrificial vessels, the lamps and the candelabras, even the breastplate of the high priest with its large gems, and saved only the Bible. This was the real treasure of the temple….”

Elsewhere, Heine called the Bible the “portable fatherland” of the Jews. Even today, after we have returned to the Land of Israel and built a modern democracy on the rocky foundations of antiquity, the notion of a virtual homeland remains an attractive concept, particularly for Jews who are dismayed by Israeli militarism.

As the French-born Anglo-Jewish literary critic George Steiner put it in a 1985 essay called, “Our Homeland, the Text”:

The man or woman at home in the text is, by definition, a conscientious objector: to the vulgar mystique of the flag and the anthem, to the sleep of reason which proclaims ‘My country, right or wrong.’

Twenty years later, I sat politely in a Jerusalem auditorium and heard Steiner expand on this lofty notion. Two millennia of powerlessness, he said, had conferred a “moral aristocracy” upon the Jews.

“It made us the princes of life like no others,” he declared. “We did not torture another human being.”

The Israelis, he noted, can make no such claim. Jews and all other people, Steiner said, “must learn to be each other’s guests,” to be “tossed into life.” “The homeland of the Jew,” he told a hall full of unimpressed Israelis, “may be that of exile.”

The following year, in the spring of 2006, I sat at my desk in Jerusalem and raptly watched the online video of the 100th anniversary celebration of the American Jewish Committee in Washington, D.C., at which the Israeli author, A.B. Yehoshua, affronted his hosts by insisting that secular Israeli Jewish identity is by definition thicker, more complete, than Jewish identity in the Diaspora.

“It’s my skin, not my jacket,” he said. “You are changing countries like changing jackets. I have my skin, the smell of the territory, the smell of the language.”

American Jews who dwell on texts are “playing” with Jewishness, he charged. “The problem is not text, it’s life,” he said. He was right, of course, but for Jews, the two are never disentangled.

And this spring, as Israel marks its 60th birthday, the Atlantic monthly runs a cover story titled, “Is Israel Finished?” Its author, the respected American journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, writes with great skill about Iran and Hamas and the dwindling viability of the two-state solution, the urgent stuff that all of us writers who care about Israel write about all too often.

Goldberg, a veteran of the Israeli army, asks Prime Minister Ehud Olmert flat out why it is that Jews today are physically safer in America than in Israel.

“Jews are not safer in Israel than they are in other parts of the world, but there is only one place that Jews can fight for their lives as Jews, and that is here,” retorts Olmert, banging on his desk, adding for good measure the traditional Zionist refrain that “Jews in Germany — and I don’t draw any comparison at all — Jews in other parts of the world were very successful all their lives, and that didn’t provide them with safety.”

Often when I speak about Israel in public or in private to American Jews, I’m asked why Israel’s “message” in the media is less clear-cut and effective than that of Israel’s adversaries. Aren’t we the people of the Book, the word, the text? Why aren’t we better at public relations? Why after 60 years is it so hard to sell Israel to the world? Why do so many intelligent people wonder if the “Israel Lobby” has too much power in Washington? How can we combat a former American president who warns of “apartheid” in the Holy Land and chats cozily with Israelis’ sworn enemies?

By way of an answer, let me add to the text above — each of them good food for a spirited Independence Day discussion, fueled by a world-class bottle of Israeli cabernet — a profound Jewish joke:

Elderly, ailing Mr. Rabinowitz has demanded to be moved from St. Luke’s hospital to Mount Sinai. His new doctor wants to know why.

“Was the medical care inadequate at St. Luke’s?”

“No,” says the old man, “it was all right.”

“How about the nurses?”

“The nurses were nice; I can’t complain,” he says.

“The food? You didn’t like the food there?”

“Nah, the food was OK; can’t complain.”

“So why,” asks the doctor, “did you demand to be switched to Mount Sinai?”

Diversity lost


Forgive me for going on about this. I keep promising myself I’ll stop being outraged, turn off the radio and stop reading the papers. But if you’ll permit me one more question here:

Whatever happened to the Democrats being the party of tolerance and diversity?

These days, it’s gotten so people are afraid to say they still support Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y). They wait till they know if you’re a comrade before they say anything at all, and even then, they lower their voice and lean closer, as if confessing to some tell-tale mark of moral depravity, some innate but previously undetected propensity for corruption and vice and — God forbid — ambition.

She’s shameless she’ll stop at nothing to win she’s destroying the party Bill has lost it he’s playing the race card she should just go away and let Obama win.

All this from fellow Democrats, and I’m standing there thinking, Al Sharpton is threatening marches and demonstrations throughout the country if Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) doesn’t get the nomination. African American superdelegates who had pledged support to Hillary months ago and haven’t changed their mind are getting threatening messages from anonymous Obama supporters, something like 90 percent of the African American vote is for Obama and we blame Bill and Hillary — up until recently embraced by the African American community, Bill having been called “our first black president” by Toni Morrison — for bringing race into the equation?

Something like 14 million Democrats have voted for Hillary, given her their time and money, placed in her candidacy so many of their hopes and aspirations, and yet we blame her for the fact that the primaries have taken as long as they have?

If we have to find someone to blame, why not blame the Democratic Party’s proportional system? Michigan and Florida for breaking rules and being made to sit in a corner? Hell, why not blame Obama for getting into the race in the first place? Or the superdelegates who won’t declare themselves until they’re good and sure which side their bread is buttered on?

The notion that Hillary (or anyone else, for that matter, who still has the resources and the stamina and the faith to stay in the race) should just “go away” so that another candidate can coast to victory smacks of a sense of entitlement that, I dare say, is more suitable to a monarchical system than a democratic one. So does the argument that Obama’s record or abilities should not be scrutinized, held to the same high or low standards as those of other candidates throughout history. He’s been called a “unifier” and a “post-racial” candidate, and whatever little chink has appeared in his glossy image is being blamed on the fact that Hillary “just won’t go away.”

Are we electing a candidate based on his or her ability to lead the country, or are we crowning a king who looks good in pictures and who is above criticism, examination and challenge?

But the questions that have been raised about Obama in the past few weeks are ones that would have surfaced with time — during the primaries or the general elections. The fact that he became a phenomenon as quickly and unexpectedly as he did perhaps delayed the kind of scrutiny that other candidates are subjected to. But it seems to me that Obama supporters are doing exactly what Bush voters did in the last two elections: back him because he’s raised the most money; is likable and charming (I cringe when I say that, but there’s no accounting for taste); and promises them the world — No Child Left Behind, democracy in the Middle East, a permanent Republican majority.

True, there is a sense among young Democrats that Obama represents them better than an establishment candidate like Hillary. There’s equally a sense within the African American community that “our time has come.” Fair enough. They’re all entitled to their sentiments and entitled to support Obama as much as they want.

But by the same token, there is a sense among some of us woman folk in our 40s and 50s that our time has come, as well — that Hillary is the one female candidate with the brawn and the brain and the money and whatever else it takes to have a realistic chance at the presidency. That were she to lose — and I grant you, that seems more and more likely — there won’t be a female president in our lifetime. This may not seem like a big deal to our daughters’ generation, for whom women’s rights’ issues seem quaint. They’re energized by Obama’s message and the rock-star rallies. Fair enough. Go ahead and vote for him if you want, I say. Just don’t tell me that it’s OK to pick your candidate because he’s African American or young or a good speaker, but that it’s a betrayal of the party and a ruinous choice to pick her because she’s a woman who we believe is qualified.

Call me cynical, but I like Hillary in spite of the fact that she’s not Florence Nightingale. I think she’s as ethical or unethical as anyone else who has managed to navigate the treacherous waters leading to candidacy. On one level, I believe Gore Vidal when he said: “Any American who is prepared to run for president should automatically, by definition, be disqualified from ever doing so.” I think that applies as much to Hillary as it does to Obama or Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), that, again in the words of Vidal, “By the time a man gets to be presidential material, he’s been bought 10 times over.”

Yet, every time she’s attacked by the other Democrats in the media, every time a superdelegate previously pledged to her switches sides, every time New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson smirks into the camera and bashes Hillary in order to ride on Obama’s coattails (sorry, Bill, we all know the benefits of betting on a winner), anytime she digs her heels in and promises to keep going, I feel a sense of pride.

Here’s a woman who fights for what she wants to the bitter end; who doesn’t abandon her own dreams and the faith of people who have voted for her; who has the daring and the ambition to do what no other woman has been able to do in this country. And if that inconveniences anyone else — superdelegates, party bosses or Mr. Obama — it’s nothing that hasn’t been done, every election cycle in memory, by men.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.