December 12, 2018

Episode 99 – Spotlight Israel

Never underestimate the task of a journalist. In the maelstrom of political commentary which seems to pull every news outlet into its powerful grip, it’s probably pretty difficult to swim against the newsfeed and remain true to, well, truth. Especially in today’s endless stream of information.

Many English speakers in Israel, and around the world, turn to the Times of Israel for honest reporting on the Middle East. Reading through their articles, you get a sense that the Times of Israel is not looking to please any specific readership.

Despite their relative youth, The Times also has an impressive record of investigative journalism including the piece known as “The Wolves of Tel Aviv” written by Simona Weinglass (who was a guest on the podcast). The expose and Weinglass’ journalism are widely accredited for playing the central role in taking down the fraudulent Binary Options industry in Israel.

David Horovitz, the founding editor of the Times of Israel, began his career in 1983 at the Jerusalem Post where he eventually became editor-in-chief. After leaving the Post in 2011, Horovitz launched the Times on Israel in 2012 and has since grown the website to a reach of 3.5 million readers a month. Horovitz has also authored several books including Still Life with Bombers: Israel in the Age of Terrorism and A Little Too Close to God: The Thrills and Panic of a Life in Israel.

We’re thrilled to have David Horovitz on the podcast today to speak about Israel, Journalism and free speech.

Times of IsraelDavid Horovitz’s articles, his Facebook and Twitter

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Episode 69 – Haaretz Chief Editor Talks Journalism

Freedom of speech or freedom of the press has been a key ingredient of healthy democracies since, well, since healthy democracies have been around. But what does it mean to be a good Journalist? Where do we draw the lines between freedom of press and national security? How do you keep a newspaper’s ethics in check without compromising on its values?

As Israel’s leading liberal national daily newspaper, Haaretz and its journalists must struggle with these questions on a daily basis, particularly the person who runs the paper.

So, here to help us answer those questions is Aluf Benn, the editor-in-chief of Haaretz. Aluf Benn has been published in a number of international newspapers including The NYT, The Guardian and Newsweek.

He joins us today to discuss journalism.

Haaretz’s English website and Facebook page

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Episode 66 – Behind Bars in Iraq

Everyone loves a good adventure. Whether you’re into climbing the highest mountains, bungee jumping from the highest bridges, or in my case – going to my cousin’s Bar Mitzvah in Delaware – a little bit of a risk can bring on a rush of adrenaline that adds that excitement we all live for.

But some people take adventure to the next level. With us today is Tamara Baraaz who happens to be that kind of person.

Tamara is a journalist who travels to the most dangerous countries in the world to tell the stories of the people who live there. Her journeys led her to east Ukraine, Chad, Central Africa, Somalia, and even Afghanistan, where she couch surfed, and Iraq, where she ended up in a prison.

Tamara joins 2NJB to tell us about the extraordinary people that she met and the places she’s seen.

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Q&A with Wolf Blitzer on Muslim Refugees, ‘Fake News’ and His Favorite Journalism Movie

CNN newsman Wolf Blitzer, one of the world’s most recognizable journalists, has personal and professional connections to the Holocaust and Israel.

Blitzer’s paternal grandparents died in Auschwitz. His parents, both survivors from Poland, immigrated to the United States after the war, following the 1948 passage of the Displaced Person’s Act, which opened America’s borders to Europeans persecuted by the Nazis.

Blitzer, 69, was born in Germany and raised in Buffalo, N.Y. He was a reporter in Israel before joining the staff of CNN in 1990.

After being honored Nov. 5 by the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, Blitzer discussed today’s Muslim refugees, being a Jewish journalist at a time of rising anti-Semitism, his favorite journalism movie and more.

Jewish Journal: Can you compare the plight of Jewish refugees after the Holocaust with today’s Muslim refugees from Syria? 

Wolf Blitzer: As a son of Holocaust survivors who came to the United States as refugees after World War II, I strongly believe in refugee resettlement. This country welcomed my parents, who went on to establish a wonderful life in Buffalo, N.Y. My parents, like other Holocaust refugees, were thoroughly vetted by U.S. officials before they were granted entry visas. My dad told me about the questions he was asked. They were so grateful to this country and went on to become great American patriots.

JJ: How comparable are the situations?

WB: Refugees are refugees even as there are, of course, different degrees of oppression that made them refugees. Surviving genocide and mass murder, for example, is different than surviving a civil war. But make no mistake: Both are awful and brutal.

JJ: What can be done about Holocaust denial in the Muslim world? 

WB: The best way to deal with Holocaust denial is to get the truth out there — whether it’s here in the United States or elsewhere around the world, including in the Muslim world. And that’s where Holocaust survivors play such a critical role. They survived the horror and their stories are so powerful. Unfortunately, they are now in their 80s and 90s and there are fewer survivors every year. Their personal stories and testimony — shared at Holocaust museums on video — will remain and should be told in the Muslim world and everywhere else.

JJ: Before joining CNN, you worked at The Jerusalem Post and at Reuters’ Tel-Aviv bureau. How was the transition to CNN?

WB: It was very smooth. The folks at CNN are so nice. They really spent some time helping me during the transition. I was a print reporter and the hardest thing was learning how to write for television. It’s different than writing for newspapers or magazines. But in the end, it’s all about being a reporter and gathering the news. Those techniques are the same. My first day at CNN was May 8, 1990 — and Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait a few weeks later in August. I was CNN’s Pentagon correspondent, so I had no choice but to learn all about broadcast journalism very quickly.

JJ: Do Jewish journalists have special responsibilities at a time when anti-Semitism in on the rise?

WB: Our responsibility is the traditional responsibility: report the news honestly and fairly and get the job done. That’s what we’ve done for my whole career, that’s what journalists do and that’s what the viewers, readers and the listeners deserve — factual, honest reporting.

“Occasionally we make a mistake. If we have to correct something, we correct it, then we move on.”

JJ: In the age of “fake news,” and with President Donald Trump calling CNN fake news, how can journalists ensure that the public can continue to trust the media?

WB: Just keep doing our job and don’t get distracted. Just report the news and be honest and responsible. Look, we’re the first draft of history. Occasionally, we make a mistake. If we have to correct something, we correct it, then we move on. But it’s not that complicated: just report the news. That’s what we try to do.

JJ: What’s your favorite journalism movie?

WB: “All the President’s Men.”

JJ: What’s the likelihood of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement?

WB: We’ve been working on that a long time. Let’s see what happens.

Hot off the presses: Shalhevet’s Boiling Point takes on big issues while teaching journalism

The Boiling Point layout editor Maya Miro (seated) works with faculty advisor Joelle Keene. In the background, video editor Jordan Glouberman works on a Yom Kippur video.

In the basement office of The Boiling Point, the acclaimed newspaper of Shalhevet High School, a message on a dry-erase board from faculty adviser Joelle Keene reminds everyone on the staff how to keep the paper vibrant.

It’s her “French Fry Rule,” which dictates that a news story must be absorbing enough that a reader will continue reading even if someone with French fries passes by.

It is from this room — with her disheveled desk, walls adorned with framed front pages of the newspaper, a black leather sofa in the corner — that approximately 50 Shalhevet students every year produce an award-winning publication as writers, editors, photographers, artists and designers.

With as many as eight issues each school year, they have made The Boiling Point one of the most celebrated student newspapers in the region. For the past five years, the Columbia Scholastic Press Association has awarded it the Gold Crown in the hybrid news category, recognizing outstanding publications in print and online.

“The job of The Boiling Point is to teach journalism, which means delving into complex issues,” said Keene, a member of the school’s faculty since 2003 who also serves as the school’s choir director and music teacher.

To that end, she oversees a product unafraid to take on contentious issues and determined to cover as many topics as possible, with an online edition,, updated with a regularity that would shame larger newspapers. Its motto is “When we know it, you’ll know it.”

The boldness is apparent in the most recent edition, which was published early in the new school year and reflects at least one issue that came to — well, a boil — last spring. A front-page story delves into a controversial issue in the Modern Orthodox school: What should students call female faculty members who have rabbinical ordination from an Orthodox institution?

The front page of the Boiling Point’s most recent issue shows the variety of stories published by its student staff.


The issue also includes a feature story, “Is Reading Being Replaced?” which investigates how much students read today outside school, and a column that speculates about the Dodgers’ World Series chances.

The driving force is Keene, a former staff writer at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and Tacoma News-Tribune and music critic at the Seattle Times.

Besides her French Fry Rule, other Keene-isms are written on the dry-erase board: “GQUP,” an acronym for “Good Quotes Up High;” an explanation of what constitutes a “Cool Mistake” — such as writing, “People tragically died”; and what constitutes an “Un-cool Mistake,” like “saving things in the wrong place so they can’t be found during production.” There is a quote from the late New York Times media reporter David Carr, that says, “The more reporting you do, the more complicated the story gets.” A quote by Keene follows: “which is not a reason not to do it.”

A passage from Leviticus also appears on the board, saying, “Don’t be a talebearer [but] don’t stand idly by the blood of your neighbor,” which Keene said she believes encapsulates the responsibility of being a journalist who tells stories through a Jewish lens: Do not gossip, lashon harah, but don’t ignore the responsibility of speaking up when events demand it.

“Who says the Torah didn’t anticipate journalism?” Keene said.

Keene’s responsibilities include working with reporters on assignments, ensuring they meet deadlines, and meeting the challenge of running an independent paper while remaining sensitive to the school administration’s agenda and policies.

“We want everyone feeling comfortable reading The Boiling Point, but we don’t want to shy away from issues,” she said.

Rami Fink, 14, the son of Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, joined the newspaper’s staff this year. A freshman, he said he is interested in writing about politics, world news and in exploring the issue of kosher versus halal. On a recent afternoon, he sat down on the sofa and took out his laptop to work on his first story — one about a recent Shalhevet flag football game against local Modern Orthodox high school YULA Boys High School, a local Modern Orthodox school.

“I’m super excited to be working here,” he told the Journal.

The Boiling Point began as an all-opinion publication, providing an outlet for students to rant and vent—thus, its name.

“Apparently there was a lot of rage,” Keene recalled.

When Keene joined the faculty in 2003, the paper “was dormant,” she said. “Somebody at the time considered himself an editor but it had not come out for a couple of years.”

Now, it’s hyper-active, with a staff as committed as she is.

On some deadline days, students juggle homework and extracurricular activities, and stay in the newsroom until 2 a.m. finishing the paper. Keene recalled one time when some students even brought out an air mattress.

“The air mattress was not with me; I don’t remember an air mattress, but I remember getting home probably close to midnight on several production nights,” Leila Miller, an editor-in-chief emeritus, told the Journal. “I remember it was maybe the first night of Chanukah, one of the nights of Chanukah we were in the newsroom and people were kind of sad. Honestly, you want to spend Chanukah with your family, not putting out a paper, but you know we did it anyway because we had to, and because everyone wanted to see the paper come out. You make the sacrifice.”

Tobey Lee, the sports editor, said balancing the demands of the paper with his other academic responsibilities is worth it.

“It’s quite challenging, managing my time with my schoolwork and my other extracurriculars,” the 10th-grader  said. “I’m involved in a lot: the debate team; model congress; I’m in the choir; I’m on cross-country. I still have to do essays and tests like any other normal high school student but I think that when I have to do my job as sports editor and this big position of managing the sports section, this is one of my top priorities,” he said. “This is one of the most important things I am doing.”

To support the students’ efforts, The Boiling Point has an annual budget of $10,000 from the school and an additional $2,200 per year in advertising revenue, which helps pay for computers and cameras and anything needed to keep the website running and fresh, Keene said.

Keene attributed the newspaper’s success to the feeling of ownership the students have over the newspaper.

“It’s not my paper,” she said. “It’s the students’ paper.”

I Love You Rob Eshman

It was announced today that Rob Eshman is stepping down from his post as editor-in-chief and publisher of the Jewish Journal. When I read the news my heart paused, then I sighed, then I was sad for me, then I was happy for him, then I stared at the picture accompanying the announcement and thought about how much I love this wonderful man, and will miss him as my boss.

Important to note that my remarkable Rabbi, Naomi Levy, is married to Rob and I love her just as much, so there is no shame in professing my love for this great man. As I begin my ninth year as a writer at the Jewish Journal, I owe everything to Rob. He not only heard my voice through my writing, but fought for others to hear it, even when some wanted me to be quiet. I have built a wonderful life as a writer and I will forever be grateful to the man who started it all for me.

Rob Eshman is my hero for a lot of reasons. He loves his family in a way that makes me believe in love. He comments on my writing in a way that makes me want to do better. He inspires me to be a more informed Jew. He makes me laugh, and think, and hope, and pray. I am a better writer for having worked alongside him and will forever been honored to have been taken under his wing.

To the divine Rob Eshman, you are amazing and I am happy for you. I wish you nothing but good things on your new adventure. I look forward to buying your cookbook and seeing you in temple. You are a wonderful journalist, an exceptional human being, and I love you. Always have, and always will. Mazel Tov Mr. Eshman. Be happy, be safe, and always keep the faith.



Who is a winner at the Southern California Journalism Awards?

Who is a winner at the Southern California Journalism awards?

Lisa Niver, Photo by Curtis Sabir

Thank you! I was honored to be a finalist in two categories for the 59th Southern California Journalism Awards and delighted to receive second place in the Print Column category for “A Journey to Freedom Over Three Passovers.”

What awards did the Jewish Journal win?

“Jewish Journal senior writer Danielle Berrin was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club at its 59th Annual Southern California Journalism Awards banquet on June 25. She won in the category for print publications with circulations of 50,000 and above.

Who is a winner at the Southern California Journalism awards?

Lisa Niver and Marty Kaplan

Other Jewish Journal winners included columnist Marty Kaplan, who won first place for “Is Campaign News Necessary?” Berrin took third place in the same category for “Huma Abedin and the Real Housewives of Politics.”

Contributing editor Tom Tugend took second place for his personality profile “Looking Back at War on Memorial Day”; contributing writer Lisa Niver won second place for her column “A Journey to Freedom Over Three Passovers”; book editor Jonathan Kirsch was awarded second place for criticism of books, art, architecture and design for “Shock Is Followed by Awe Over Foer’s New Novel”; editor-in-chief and publisher Rob Eshman won third place for food and culture criticism for “Jonathan Gold on Eating Your Entire City”; and staff writer Eitan Arom took third place for hard news for his story “The Complex, Secret Path to Becoming an Orthodox Jew.”

Who is a winner at the Southern California Journalism awards?

Lisa Niver, Jessi Berrin and Danielle Berrin, Journalist of the Year

From the Los Angeles Press Club event at the Biltmore: See all the winners and all the finalists for the 59th annual Southern California Journalism Awards.

Who is a winner at the Southern California Journalism awards?

VideoMayor Eric Garcetti: “Thank you for being the light” 

Mayor Eric Garcetti: “The urgency of what you do in this moment is so important in this city, in this country and this world. Thank you for being the light. What you do is safeguarding this democracy. What you are doing is breathing life back in to what we stand for. I certainly am grateful for that. If you didn’t do your job I couldn’t do my job.”

Who is a winner at the Southern California Journalism awards?

Lisa Niver and Andrea Mitchell, winner of The Joseph M. Quinn Award for Lifetime Achievement

Who is a winner at the Southern California Journalism awards?

Lisa Niver and Daniel Berehulak, winner of Daniel Pearl Award for Courage and Integrity in Journalism

Who is a winner at the Southern California Journalism awards?

The Jewish Journal Table at the Southern California Journalism Awards

Who is a winner at the Southern California Journalism awards?

Lisa Niver, Kat Kramer and Diana Ljungaeus, Executive Director of the Los Angeles Press Club

Do you want to be a travel writer too? Enter the We Said Go Travel Summer Writing Competition! In honor of Lisa’s award, we extended the deadline! Next month, we will have our first ever photo competition.

A crash course in extremism

Via Souad Mekhennet/Facebook

Of all the dangerous situations a single woman of marriageable age could enter into, interviewing Islamist extremists could easily top the list. 

But for reasons even she cannot explain, journalist Souad Mekhennet has been spared the grim fate of so many others, including many women and journalists who have not survived their encounters with Islamic jihad. 

In the early pages of her best-selling memoir, “I Was Told to Come Alone,” Mekhennet admits that her background makes her an “outlier” among those covering global jihad and claims it has given her “unique access to underground militant leaders.”

Though she was born and raised in Germany, she is a Muslim of Turkish-Moroccan descent who is well versed in the principles of Islam and speaks both Middle Eastern and North African Arabic. She also considers herself Western, liberal and feminist. As a child, she dreamed of becoming an actress.

It was the film “All the President’s Men” that led her to a career in journalism. Today, as national security correspondent for The Washington Post, Mekhennet’s manifold identity has played a role not only in her entrée to the dangerous, unpredictable and clandestine world of jihad but in her motivations for covering it. 

“Sometimes it’s really tiring,” she said when I met her during a recent book tour to Los Angeles. “Sometimes it hurts. Because I try to challenge; I try to somehow build bridges.”

Her work is reportage, but it’s also personal. Mekhennet tries to explain jihad to the West and the West to jihadists, often finding herself in the peculiar position of mediator. Not everyone wants to hear what she has to say: that violent extremists are people too; that they have stories to tell, beliefs that can and should be interrogated but which can be accessed only if we, Westerners, would listen.

For almost two decades, Mekhennet has searched for the answers to why and how individuals become radicalized. She began her work just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when the widow of a 9/11 firefighter told a group of journalists she blamed them, in part, for why her husband was killed.

“She said, ‘Nobody told us there are people out there who are hating us so much,’” Mekhennet recalled. “And she looked at me, because I was the only person of Arab-Muslim descent there. And she was waiting for an answer, and I couldn’t give her one.”

Mekhennet’s investigation has taken her all over the world, from the insular terrorist cells of Europe to the front lines of wars in Iraq and Syria. Along the way, she has struggled to understand those who use Islam to justify violence and to explain their motivations to a stupefied West. She tries to reconcile a perversion of Islam with the one she inhabits, claiming religion doesn’t radicalize people, people radicalize religion.

Throughout her encounters, Mekhennet finds herself in talmudic-like disputes with extremists, challenging them over their interpretation of the Quran. She told one ISIS commander, “This is not the jihad, what you’re fighting. Jihad would have been if you’d stayed in Europe and made your career. It would have been a lot harder. You have taken the easy way out.”

Her methods may seem audacious, even dangerous for someone who often finds herself in isolated areas beyond the rule of law of any government. And how many Western journalists could argue like that with a terrorist and live to tell the tale? Only someone educated in Islamic teaching could even mount such an argument, and one of the lessons of Mekhennet’s book is that knowledge of one’s subject is essential to ferreting out truth.

The question is: To what end?

No explanation can justify brutality. Plenty of people have suffered injustice and not taken up weapons and killed innocents. If Mekhennet’s version of Islam is compatible with modernity, then why is it also compatible with a murderous caliphate?

“When it comes to violent acts or terrorism, it is unfortunately the reality that [some] people are using Islam or call themselves Muslims and commit acts of violence,” she said. “There is a problem that we have within our Muslim communities where we need to have an honest conversation about who is speaking on behalf of Islam, and what kinds of interpretations and ideologies are out there, and how can we deal with that [as a community]?”

Mekhennet’s book is a cri de cœur to the West to try to understand “the hearts and minds” of extremists to better defeat them. She believes current policies are misguided, and that simplistic generalizations portraying a clash of civilizations are playing into the hands of recruiters who exploit Western antipathy to Islam to indoctrinate young jihadists.

For many radicals, she says, “it’s too late; there is a point of no return.” But others, she believes, can be saved.

“This is not a clash of civilizations or religions,” she said. “This is a clash between people who want to build bridges and look at what we have in common and those who want to preach divides.”

She recounted the time she went to Mecca for the Hajj pilgrimage. Next to the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site, is another place of honor where it is believed Abraham set foot. Having spent years studying religious divides, “this was a moment, where I said to myself, ‘Why are people not getting it? We’re connected.’”

Good news about bad news

Courtesy of Pexels.

Everyone knows TV political journalism failed us during the 2016 campaign.

Everyone knows TV news was clueless about Donald Trump voters and blue states swinging red. Everyone knows anchors let lying candidates roll them. Everyone knows TV coverage hyped the horse race and gave issues the cold shoulder. Everyone knows the cable news default frame for covering controversy is he-said/she-said food fights. Everyone knows local news is all about crashes, crime and fluff. Everyone knows investigative reporting is a luxury local stations can’t afford. Everyone knows down-ballot races are ratings poison.

Well, sometimes something everyone knows is wrong.

Those charges aren’t baseless. I could program a YouTube channel 24/7 with clips that make me cringe. But I also can beat the drum for TV newsmen and newswomen who know what excellence is, who go for it every day and who make me hopeful that at a dangerous moment, TV news can countervail against propaganda, paranoia and a president who calls news media “the enemy of the people” and “scum.”

I say that confidently because over the past couple of months, together with a few dozen USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism faculty colleagues, staff and journalists, we’ve been screening the nearly 100 entries for the ninth biennial Walter Cronkite Awards for Excellence in TV Political Journalism.

Pick a knock on TV news — ignoring blue voters turning red, say — and it’s contested by Cronkite entries, such as “Ask Ohio,” a “60 Minutes” report listening to laid-off workers talk about trade, or like the Pennsylvania and North Carolina swing voters profiled on “PBS NewsHour Weekend.” I’m glad it was so hard to narrow down the entries — there’s that much good work to celebrate.

The award’s recipients were just announced. If you want to be optimistic about journalism as advocate for accuracy, an instrument of accountability and a prompt toward civic engagement, check out online what some of these Cronkite winners are up to.

• Jake Tapper, CNN anchor and chief Washington correspondent, tenaciously asking Donald Trump about his comments regarding Judge Gonzalo Curiel: “[Saying Curiel] can’t do his job because of his race, is that not the definition of racism?” Or Tapper fact-checking whoppers in Trump’s and Hillary Clinton’s stump speeches.

• Katy Tur, on the road with Trump for 17 months for NBC News and MSNBC, master of her subject matter and unflappable despite an onslaught by the candidate and supporters he got to taunt her.

• Univision News and Fusion anchor Jorge Ramos’ intimate portrait of a divided America in a chillingly candid encounter with an unmasked member of the Ku Klux Klan, and an interview with a Muslim woman beaten in a Minnesota restaurant.

• Brian Stelter’s essays grappling with post- and alternate-fact media and politics, the assault on truth and the path for journalists to regain public trust on his CNN program, “Reliable Sources.”

• Investigative reporting on Texas’ border war on drugs by KXAN in Austin; on denial of mental health benefits to veterans by WXIA in Atlanta; on the human story of medical cannabis by Sabrina Ahmed at WOI in West Des Moines; on forged voter signatures by Marshall Zelinger at KMGH in Denver; on judicial elections by Brandon Rittiman at KUSA in Denver, whose work also won KUSA a fact-checking prize, the Brooks Jackson award, which went to the Scripps chain, as well. Public station KCETLink in Los Angeles was commended for Val Zavala’s 60-second animated explainers of 17 propositions on the California ballot.

• More than 500 hours of original political programming across Hearst Television’s 32 stations and the E.W. Scripps Co.’s 33 stations, a direct consequence of those chains’ executives asking the stations they own to commit resources and air time to quality political news.

In 1972, a poll of voters in 18 states asked trust thermometer questions about a list of candidates for the presidency and statewide offices; Walter Cronkite’s name, a ringer, was included. His 73 percent rating topped the list and led to him being called “the most trusted man in America.” Sure, maybe the competition was lousy. But he earned the public trust they lacked by doing his work so well. Before he said on the air that the Vietnam War was unwinnable, he went to Vietnam, he asked questions of everyone, he saw with his own eyes what was going on, he weighed the evidence, he told the truth — and people, including President Lyndon Johnson, listened.

Since then, sources for news and definitions of news have proliferated. Hostility toward news, never absent, is being stoked to serve a nihilistic itch to blow up the state. The trust thermometer is below freezing. “Public trust in media at all-time low,” says the Financial Times about an Edelman poll. “Americans’ Trust in Mass Media Sinks to New Low,” says Gallup. An AP-NORC Media Insight Project poll finds that “only 6 percent of people say they have a great deal of confidence in the press, about the same level of trust Americans have in Congress.”

It’s always worth celebrating good journalism. But I can’t think of a more urgent hour than this to honor journalists for stepping up to their civic responsibility to face reality. 

Bret Stephens takes on Donald Trump

I’ve been to almost all of the Daniel Pearl Memorial Lectures. They take place at UCLA and feature notable journalists who speak in honor of the late Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Islamic extremists kidnapped Pearl in Karachi, Pakistan, in 2002 and later murdered him.

All of these lectures have been good; two stand out.

On March 3, 2010, the late Christopher Hitchens spoke of the rising tide of anti-Semitism. What seemed a bit of a stretch at the time now reads like an exhortation from the future, delivered in the past.

Last week, Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens gave the 2017 Daniel Pearl Lecture. By now, many of you have read the essay on the internet, or seen his delivery of it on YouTube.  For those of you who weren’t actually there, you need to know a few things.

As the audience members filtered into the 400-seat Korn Hall, a screen onstage displayed a montage of the life of Danny Pearl: Danny celebrating Passover on a train in China. Danny playing violin with friends. A 10-year-old Danny clowning around the family swimming pool in Encino.

When the speaker took the lectern, the screen behind him filled with a large picture of Danny, in a tie, looking bright, curious and open.

It’s a way of memorializing a remarkable journalist, who dedicated his foreshortened life to helping his readers better understand the world as it is. But it’s a reminder, too, that we live in a world of real danger and that many journalists risk their lives in pursuit of finding the truth.

Stephens took the podium the same week the 45th president of the United States called some of the leading journalists in this country, “the enemy of the people.”

It fell to Stephens, a conservative, to defend his profession, to fight against five dumb words with thousands of thoughtful ones.

Donald Trump, he said, “is trying to depose so-called mainstream media in favor of the media he likes — Breitbart News and the rest. … His objection to, say, The New York Times, isn’t that there’s a liberal bias in the paper that gets in the way of its objectivity, which I think would be a fair criticism. His objection is to objectivity itself. He’s perfectly happy for the media to be disgusting and corrupt — so long as it’s on his side.”

Then Stephens described what happens when people are confronted by a barrage of such untruths.

“The first is that we normalize it, simply by becoming inured to constant repetition of the same bad behavior,” he said.

We also are excited and entertained by it, Stephens said, or we judge it not by an objective standard, but by how it plays.

The fourth point, Stephens said, is the most painful. And it answers a question that has been plaguing me: Why are intelligent people, people I respect, afraid to criticize and oppose this man?

“Watching this process unfold has been particularly painful for me as a conservative columnist,” Stephens said. “I find myself in the awkward position of having recently become popular among some of my liberal peers — precisely because I haven’t changed my opinions about anything.

“By contrast, I’ve become suddenly unpopular among some of my former fans on the right — again, because I’ve stuck to my views. …  The most painful aspect of this has been to watch people I previously considered thoughtful and principled conservatives give themselves over to a species of illiberal politics from which I once thought they were immune.”

Stephens compared what is happening to many Republicans and conservatives to what happened under Communist regimes, which had a similar relation to truth.

“It has been stunning to watch a movement that once believed in the benefits of free trade and free enterprise merrily give itself over to a champion of protectionism whose economic instincts recall the corporatism of 1930s Italy or 1950s Argentina,” he said. “It is no less stunning to watch people who once mocked [Barack] Obama for being too soft on Russia suddenly discover the virtues of Trump’s ‘pragmatism’ on the subject.

“And it is nothing short of amazing to watch the party of onetime moral majoritarians, who spent a decade fulminating about Bill Clinton’s sexual habits, suddenly find complete comfort with the idea that character and temperament are irrelevant qualifications for high office.”

For these Trump supporters, Stephens said, “There’s the same desperate desire for political influence; the same belief that Trump represents a historical force to which they ought to belong; the same willingness to bend or discard principles they once considered sacred; the same fear of seeming out of touch with the mood of the public; the same tendency to look the other way at comments or actions that they cannot possibly justify; the same belief that you do more good by joining than by opposing; the same Manichean belief that, if Hillary Clinton had been elected, the United States would have all but ended as a country.

“This is supposed to be the road of pragmatism, of turning lemons into lemonade. I would counter that it’s the road of ignominy, of hitching a ride with a drunk driver.”

If you weren’t there, you would have missed the long ovation, a cathartic relief, that followed Stephens’ speech — applause for Stephens, applause in defiance of Trump, applause for Daniel Pearl, smiling on the big screen.

ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email him at You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism and @RobEshman.

Leon Wieseltier on Jewish journalism: ‘Investigate and analyze Jewish identity’

Leon Wieseltier

Leon Wieseltier is one of America’s best-known public intellectuals and has spent the better part of his career critiquing the values that underlie American culture and politics. For three decades, he served as literary editor for The New Republic, where it was common for Wieseltier to bring his Jewish background and education to bear upon the pressing issues of the day.

Educated at Yeshiva of Flatbush in New York City, Wieseltier is firmly rooted in Jewish study, even though he broadened himself in other subjects at Columbia, Oxford and Harvard. Author of the 1998 book “Kaddish,” Wieseltier has demonstrated throughout his career how a grounding in Jewish particularism is a useful lens through which to view the world, both because it encapsulates the wisdom of a long-enduring people and because Jewish values are the progenitors of universal humanism.

On the occasion of the Journal’s 30th anniversary, we caught up with Wieseltier to talk about why, in an increasingly global world, Jewish journalism still matters.

Danielle Berrin: You’ve said that Jewish journalism is essential because it gives the Jewish community a sense of itself and captures the lived experience of the Jewish people. Why does it matter to American democracy? 

Leon Wieseltier: In an open society, the reporting of unpleasant truths and the criticism of leaders is an essential feature of [democracy]. It’d be impossible to imagine democratic life without journalism, and since Jews in the United States have been among the groups that have kindled most ferociously to democratic habits and practices, Jewish journalism is our community’s way of affirming its belief in democracy and in an open society.

“In an open society, the reporting of unpleasant truths and the criticism of leaders is an
essential feature of [democracy].” — Leon Wieseltier

DB: What do you make of the argument that critical Jewish journalism makes Jews look bad?

LW: For a variety of reasons, [Jews] have had mixed feelings about airing truths about their communal realities. For a long time. they worried that the goyim would overhear and it would somehow weaken the position of the Jews in the host culture of wherever they were living. There is something about the ethic of journalism that defies certain traditional Jewish ethics — I sometimes think of Jewish journalism as the professionalization of lashon harah [gossip]. We are taught not to say bad things about people, not to circulate the bad things that we know about people even if they’re true. And then along comes this profession that basically consists of that; that has to have a critical and skeptical attitude if it is to meet its own standards. It would be a travesty if Jewish journalism consisted merely of the praise of important Jewish figures and institutions, because it would violate the principles of journalism and it would deprive members of respective communities of information that they need. People used to complain in the old days that Jews suffer from self-hatred; the problem now is that they suffer from self-love.

DB: You’ve said, “Self-criticism is the hallmark of a mature community.” But how do you encourage self-criticism when the Jewish self-understanding has been shaped, in part, by an excess of outside criticism?

LW: There’s a sentence in Maimonides that is fundamental in many contexts, including this one: Qabel et haemet mimi sh’amra — “Accept the truth from whoever utters it.” The first question is: “What is true?” Not: “Who is saying it?” It may be that this truth is being directed at us by enemies, but we cannot use the motives of certain critics to discredit what they say. If it’s true, it’s true. The American Jewish position is the strongest it has been in any Diaspora community in Jewish history — the eruption of the anti-Semitic sewer in the Trump campaign notwithstanding. If Merrick Garland had been confirmed to the [Supreme Court] as he should have been, there would have been four Jewish justices on the Supreme Court [and] pretty soon we would have had to worry about establishing a goyish seat! Given our security here, I’m not especially worried about external criticism.

DB: Since the Jewish community as a whole is more powerful than at any other time in Jewish history, should our standards for self-examination change? 

LW: Insofar as we have become more powerful, we can expect more interrogation and more hostility. [But] our security and our strength in this country doesn’t absolve us of our ancient Jewish obligation of self-reckoning. That obligation applies to the strong as well as to the weak — none of us are exempt from it, individually or communally. The Jews in the exile never used the fact that they were surrounded by hostility as an excuse to lower their standards for themselves. In the Torah, [it says] “Hoche’ah tochi’ah et amitecha — You must rebuke your fellow” — Leviticus 19:17. If anyone wondered about the ultimate license in Judaism for critical journalism, it’s in that verse.

DB: How would you characterize the landscape of American Jewish journalism today? What are we getting right and what can we do better?

LW: Oh, I think American Jewish journalism is never as good as it should be. I think there are a few islands of excellence and it’s better than it was 30 years ago. Sometimes I think there’s too much noise and not enough sharpness. And every evidence of Jewishness has suddenly become charming and fascinating. I probably wish there was less, but better.

DB: If you were running a Jewish newspaper right now, what issues would you cover?

LW: The most important subject facing the American Jewish community is the new financial and power structure of the community. The Jewish community and its institutions have never been more dependent than they are now upon the largesse of spectacularly wealthy people — families and foundations — and I think that the prestige of wealth has never been greater. So one of the things Jewish journalism should cover in a very, very strict way are the foundations [and] the benefactors. It should also make an extended effort to cover the nature of Jewishness of American millennial Jews, because they are the successor generation; it needs to cover the impact of the internet on Jewish life and identity; the condition of the various rabbinates in the various denominations; and the holy grail would be the kosher meat industry. I don’t want to read about Jewish celebrities. I don’t want to hear that some Jewish movie star or non-Jewish movie star was seen eating kreplach. I’m tired of the reduction of Jewish journalism to a celebration of ethnic tics. Enough Seinfeld. Enough Larry David. Enough Barbra Streisand.

DB: You’ve said that the people who own and operate media companies have a responsibility to publish articles with which they do not agree. But in our online age, the public finds itself in so-called “echo chambers” where we can consume journalism that confirms what we already believe and rarely do we have to confront other perspectives. How can Jewish journalism bypass this?

LW: Too many people think that the purpose of Jewish journalism is to strengthen Jewish identity. I think the purpose of Jewish journalism is to probe and investigate and analyze Jewish identity. All Jewish life cannot be an experience of affirmation.

DB: Does journalism need to reassess itself in the age of Trump? 

LW: Relations between the president and the media are going to be bad. The role of the press in covering power is adversarial, and it should be adversarial. My working rule is: The more power, the less pity. I think the media has some self-reckoning to do about the astonishing gift of free media to Donald Trump during the campaign. And the other thing they have to think about is the religion of data, and the reverence for numbers and polls. Because something went badly wrong. So they have a cheshbon [accounting] to do.

But they also have a job to do, which is to cover the new president as obnoxiously and relentlessly as they can, which, by the way, was their job in covering Obama. The obligation remains the same. The media has to be pitiless about every powerful individual in our society, because power has to be held accountable. And one of the main instruments of our accountability is public opinion, and public opinion will only be as good as its sources of information. Journalism plays a central role in that. And so, in order for Americans to have a shot at correct, knowledgeable and factual options, they need the institutions and the people that govern them to be covered ruthlessly.

A journalistic call to arms

Everyone lies.

It’s one of those curses of being human. But even though we lie, to ourselves and to others, we often hold our leaders to a higher standard. Unfortunately, they lie too.

We’ve had a succession of presidents over the past two decades who have all lied to the American public — some a little, others a lot. Bill Clinton lied about his many sexcapades; George W. Bush about those weapons of mass destruction we never found; Obama promised “you can keep your doctor” and that the Syrian war had a red line. If you crave more examples, you can visit — they’ve listed loads of ’em.

It’s a tough business, politics. It requires the sale of ideas in order to amass votes, pass legislation and garner approval ratings — so, go figure. Anything to make a sale. But perhaps no other presidential figure in my lifetime has lied as frequently, unabashedly and unapologetically as Donald Trump. According to politifact, roughly 70 percent of his statements are either “mostly false,” “false” or “pants on fire,” compared with Obama, whose falsehoods weigh in at 26 percent.

Between the current administration’s obfuscation with “alternative facts” and the phenomenon of “fake news,” this cauldron of lies is boiling over like never before, and it threatens to undermine the fabric of our democracy. Good journalism has never been more challenged — or more necessary.

In my interview with Leon Wieseltier that appears in this issue, he describes the value of “opinion formation” as essential to the health of a society. “Public opinion will only be as good as its sources of information,” Wieseltier said, “[and] there is nothing more important in a democracy than our message of opinion formation. Journalism plays a central role in that.”

I’ve thought a great deal about the idea of “opinion formation” and how powerful it is in shaping our values, our politics, our worldviews. What happens to the dignity of our opinions when sources of information are not only dizzying in volume and range, but increasingly untethered to facts? What happens when official power structures — such as the White House — present “alternative facts” as a form of truth? And erode the public trust in norms for truth-telling by portraying the media as “dishonest” and “crooked”?

I put the question to Wieseltier, who seemed a bit disgruntled with my phrasing, that, “in today’s environment, it seems very few people know what facts are.”

“Hold on, hold on,” he said, cutting me off. “Lots of people know what facts are. In fact, I daresay most of the people who make up facts know they’re making up facts, because they are trying to deceive and delude the population. This used to known as propaganda.”

The insidious upshot of propaganda was made clear in a recent interview Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg conducted with Imam Abdullah Antepli at a recent interfaith conference hosted by the Shalom Hartman Institute in New York. Antepli is the founding director of Duke University’s Center for Muslim Life and co-director, with Yossi Klein Halevi, of the Hartman’s Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI) in Jerusalem.

In a wide-ranging and fascinating interview that is well worth listening to, Antepli described how he was indoctrinated into hating Jews by consuming propaganda. He referred to himself, only half jokingly, as a “recovering anti-Semite.”

“I grew up in Turkey, not religious, but in an extremely nationalist, chauvinist, anti-Semitic environment,” he said. Anti-Semitic literature such as “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” “really made me think Jews as people, and Judaism as a religion, [was] irredeemably evil. I spent good chunk of my mid-teenage years burning Israeli flags.”

Talk about the power of opinion formation.

“I was victim of a certain narrative,” Antepli confessed, “a convoluted, increasingly religious language of dehumanizing Jews, Judaism, Israel and Zionism.”

Today, however, Antepli is a leader in facilitating Muslim-Jewish relations in the United States and Israel, where he spends a month each year. Transformed by deep study of Islam and discovering shared values with Jews, he is now quick to condemn those who do not support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state as “anti-Semitic.” He is also against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

When Goldberg asked him why such pernicious hatreds as anti-Semitism and Islamophobia persist, Antepli was clear:

“We have been feeding ourselves with so much unhealthy information — unhealthy, un-nuanced, sensationalist, reductionist, simplistic, black-and-white information.” He decried the practice in the Jewish community and the Muslim community of trotting out the other community’s religious defectors, who reinforce each group’s negative image of the other. “Why are we investing in each other’s renegades?” he asked.

Whether in our religious communities or in our politics, we would do well to remind ourselves that the pursuit of truth not only can change lives — but save them. Cultivating informed opinions based in verifiable facts can make the difference between war and peace; love and hate; democracy and totalitarianism.

Donald Trump is correct in that the media don’t always get it right. So here’s to recommitting ourselves to the next 30 years of ruthless, relentless, fact-based, objective Jewish journalism. For all of our sakes, I hope that under Trump’s administration we do the best job we’ve ever done.

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

Melvin Durslag, journalist, dies at 95

Melvin Durslag, one of the last surviving major metropolitan newspaper columnists who personified and shaped the golden age of Jewish sportswriters in post-World War II America, died in Santa Monica on July 17. He was 95.

At the peak of his career in the 1960s through the ‘80s, Durslag’s byline was published in daily and weekly newspapers and magazines with a combined circulation of some 25-million. This figure was estimated to be higher than that of popular and widely read Jewish advice columnists Dear Abby and Ann Landers.

A journalism graduate of USC, his best-known work was with the old Los Angeles Herald Examiner, as well as TV Guide and the Sporting News in the heyday of their popularity. In any given week, he would write seven daily columns for the Herald Examiner, and then serve as a contributing writer of lengthy feature articles on the leading sports personalities and events of the 20th century. Magazines to which he was a contributing writer included the Saturday Evening Post, Look, and Sports Illustrated.

His newspaper column, in particular, served as a springboard for bringing major league sports to Los Angeles. He lobbied, in writing, for bringing Dodger Stadium to Chavez Ravine, the Lakers and the Sports Arena to Exposition Park, and the Raiders from Oakland to L.A. and into a new stadium that never was to be. Durslag was one of the first journalists to focus on the business side of sports. He generally did not approve of tax dollars going into public stadiums and arenas, warning readers that they were sure-bet money losers. 

Despite his work appearing in many of the most influential and highest circulation publications of the time, Durslag’s name was not as widely recognizable as one might expect. He never considered himself a “media celebrity” even though he was a confidant of many of sports’ most controversial and high-profile owners. These included maverick Jewish NFL executives such as Al Davis, Carroll Rosenbloom, Gene Klein and Art Modell. To that list may be added non-Jewish and non-conformist owners such as Walter O’Malley, Jack Kent Cooke, Gene Autry and Charles O. Finley.

Working in the pre-Internet age of communication, Durslag was trusted by sports’ elites because he strictly abided by a code of confidentiality and ethics; still he was able to perform his job with utmost objectivity, which earned him the trust of his legions of loyal readers.

He clung to a journalistic philosophy in which he did not consider himself the center of attention; rather, the modest purveyor of the information from those he interviewed as the experts. Rarely did Durslag’s stories venture beyond his sources doing the speaking, and they were almost always written in the third person.

Joe Siegman, founder of the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and co-founder and past chairman of the Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame (which elected Durslag in 1991), said, “Mel Durslag let his typewriter tell you who he was.  Before there was Google, there was Durslag. He was especially helpful for research during the early days of the Halls of Fame.”

Writing about the Munich Olympic massacre of Israeli athletes in 1972, Durslag slightly reverted off of his journalist ethos, and wrote in the first person. “I never thought I would live to see this at a sports event. As times began to change and people started taking their philosophic differences to the streets, and they expressed themselves with bombs, with bullets, and with fire, the possibility began to develop that sports was not exempt from this behavioral pattern.”

Durslag penned these words for the Sporting News as someone who, in his career, had covered 10 Olympic Games, as well as 25 Super Bowls and 34 World Series – all potential targets for terrorists. Henceforth he was concerned about security and the high costs involved at sporting events, especially international competition.

Melvin Durslag was born in Chicago on April 29, 1921, the second of two sons of Hungarian Jewish immigrant parents. When he was a small child the family moved to Los Angeles.

After graduating from Los Angeles High School and USC, he took his first journalism job with the Los Angeles Examiner (later the Herald Examiner), one of two flagship newspapers in the once powerful chain founded by “Citizen Kane,” the legendary media mogul William Randolph Hearst.

His journalism career was placed on hold when he entered the Army Air Corps in 1942. He served with distinction in India and China. According to the Los Angeles Daily News, Durslag concluded his military service by writing speeches for legendary Air Corps Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle who gained fame for leading his airmen in daring and successful missions along Asia’s Pacific Rim.

Like many other Jewish GIs returning to civilian life, Durslag pursued — against his immigrant mother’s wishes — a career as a sportswriter. Before the war, sports writing had been previously dominated by the sons of Irish and German immigrants. After the war, Jews began making a name for themselves as national columnists, “rewriting” the rules of sports journalism. Durslag’s contemporaries who went on to the national spotlight (those born between 1915 and 1929) and that predeceased him included such names as Dick Young, Leonard Koppett, Milton Richman and Joe Reichler from New York; Jerome Holtzman from Chicago; Hy Hurwitz from Boston; Art Rosenbaum from San Francisco; Stan Hochman from Philadelphia; and Hal Lebovitz from Cleveland.  

The writing style of sports articles evolved to appeal to the emerging middle class, which was better educated, and wanted more leisure time. This led to record TV ratings, attendance and marketing revenues for sporting events. Durslag was a pioneer in composing feature stories and in-depth interviews which later evolved into the TV news magazine format.

He brought diversification to the topics to be included in the sports column, not limiting himself to football and the three B’s –boxing, baseball and basketball. He would write about golf and the Kentucky Derby to attract more affluent readers. He did not have a distinct “written voice.” He utilized many styles, tailor-made for his publication and its readers.

In 1995, Durslag was inducted into the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame.

When Durslag retired he, without fanfare, gifted his extensive career files to the Paul Ziffren Sports Resource Center Library at the Amateur Athletic Foundation in L.A., according to Joe Siegman. Ziffren, a prominent Jewish community leader, was chairman of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee.

As recently as 2007, he appeared in HBO’s documentary, Brooklyn Dodgers: The Ghosts of Flatbush.

He is survived by his wife of 68 years, the former Lorayne Sweet, three children, Bill Durslag, Jim Durslag and Ivy Durslag, and three grandchildren.

Richard Macales is a contributor to the four-volume reference/anthology work, “American Sports: A History of Icons, Idols and Ideas,” edited by Prof. Murry R. Nelson. ABC-Clio.

Writer Calvin Trillin dishes about civil rights, Judaism and the art of reporting

Writer Calvin Trillin may be most famous today for his humorous musings on food, family, travel and love.

But before he won the Thurber Prize for Humor in 2013; before “Uncivil Liberties,” his humor column for The Nation (he has lovingly called it “a pinko magazine published on cheap paper” where he was paid “in the high two figures”); and before the recent flap over his tongue-in-cheek poem about Chinese cuisine, Trillin was one of America’s great long-form journalists.

“I think a lot of nonfiction reporting is in the details,” Trillin says of his craft. “When I talk to a journalism class and someone asks, ‘How you go about describing a town or community?’ I use the old ‘ma nishtanah’ method: ‘Why is this place different from all other places?’”

Trillin, 80, began his career at Time magazine, where he covered the civil rights movement from the newsweekly’s Atlanta bureau. In 1963, he became a staff writer for The New Yorker, where his earliest article, about the two black students who integrated the University of Georgia, became his first book, “An Education in Georgia.”

His latest, “Jackson, 1964: And Other Dispatches from Fifty Years of Reporting on Race in America,” which comes out June 28, is a collection of articles he’s written the topic since then. They run the gamut from a 1964 story about New Orleans’ Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, an African-American krewe that marches in blackface during Mardi Gras, to a 1995 piece about the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, which in the 1960s and ’70s sent investigators to look into the ethnic background of suspected biracial infants.

The highly readable stories remain topical today. And taken as a whole, the book is a reminder of how graceful and seemingly effortless his prose is. Trillin has perfected the technique of exploring broad societal issues while training a close lens on a narrow yet compelling subject.

Trillin was born in 1935, in Kansas City, “Missoura,” as he calls it, traces of his Midwestern accent still in place. His father, Abe, an immigrant from Kiev — later the subject of his book “Messages From My Father” — was determined that Bud, as Calvin is known, remember he is both Jewish and an American. Abe had read “Stover at Yale,” a 1912 popular novel about undergraduate life at the school, and was determined his son become a true American and go to college there.

Trillin did. And on a whim, he signed on to be a reporter for the Yale Daily News — he just happened to walk by the paper’s office. Though he says he had no previous inclination toward journalism, Trillin took to it quickly.

Writer Calvin Trillin, center, interviewing John Lewis in Birmingham, Ala., as the Freedom Riders were boarding the bus for Montgomery in 1961. Photo from LIFE Images Collection

He eventually became the paper’s chairman, a post once held by Time magazine founder Henry Luce. Tradition at the time was that all Daily News chairmen — and they were only men then — automatically received an internship at Time. Trillin impressed the powers-that-be and landed the Atlanta bureau job.

Being in the South put Trillin in the midst of the biggest story of the time: Between school desegregation battles, sit-ins and boycotts, he was full-time on what he calls “the seg beat.”

That experience reaffirmed his career choice, he says.

“I found what I really liked was reporting not on celebrities or politicians, but regular people involved in sort of dramatic situation,” Trillin says.

There were dangers. He was knocked to the ground covering the Freedom Riders; there were expense reports for “trousers torn in racial dispute.” But one of his major concerns was remaining objective, not locking arms with protesters and singing “We Shall Overcome.”

Still, his impulse to cover these stories was at least partially motivated by his Jewish upbringing. Trillin says he was “brought up to treat people fairly and not judge people by their color.”

“On the other hand, I can’t say I wasn’t brought up in a culture where ‘schvartze’ wasn’t used as a synonym for maid, as in, ‘Don’t bother with the dishes, the schvartze will do them tomorrow,'” he adds. “[But] in my home, I think there was sort of a general feeling about justice and people’s rights.”

As it happens, his Judaism also impacted his humor writing. In fact, Trillin first realized he was funny in Hebrew school.

“I’d been a pretty quiet child,” he recalls. “But when we got to the part in the Bible where it says, ‘If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning and let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,’ I stood up and said, ‘If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning’ with my right hand laying there kind of helpless. And then I said, ‘Wet my tongue kweave to duih woof of my mouf.’

“I got a big laugh and, I believe, kicked out of the class,” he adds.

As a break from his long, serious articles, he started writing what the New Yorker calls “casuals” — lighter, funny pieces. These attracted the attention of Victor Navasky, the editor of The Nation and a former Yale classmate, who asked him to start a humor column there. Several variations of the column ran under various auspices (including in Time) from 1978 through 2001.

Since 1990, he’s also become known as the “Deadline Poet,” writing short — usually political — verses for the Nation:

If Chris and Donald form a team,
Would many voters pick it?
Could there be folks who might support
A schoolyard bullies ticket?


The comics used to say of Trump,
“His childish boasts, his hair, his money
Will surely give us lots of laughs.”
But now, alas, he’s not so funny.

Recently, Trillin came across something else “not so funny.” In rereading his old seg beat stories, he was somewhat shocked to discover that old adage “the more things change” rings true.

“I was surprised a little bit,” he says, “how a lot of them could have been written today.”

Steven Sotloff’s parents implore Obama to bring home a missing American journalist

The parents of Steven Sotloff, the Jewish freelance journalist beheaded by the Islamic State nearly two years ago, have joined the families of three other killed U.S. hostages in urging President Barack Obama to bring home a missing American hostage.

Shirley and Arthur Sotloff, in an essay published Wednesday in the McClatchy newspapers, called on Obama not to leave behind any Americans when he leaves office in January, referring to freelance journalist Austin Tice, who disappeared in Syria in August 2012. Tice is the only American reporter known to be held hostage anywhere in the world, according to Reporters Without Borders.

The other authors of the essay are Diane and John Foley, the parents of journalist James Foley; Ed and Paula Kassig, the parents of humanitarian aid worker Abdul-Rahman Peter Kassig, and Carl, Marsha and Eric Mueller, the parents and brother of humanitarian aid worker Kayla Mueller.


The families pointed out that one year ago this week, Obama “made a commitment to improve our government’s dismal record on the return of American hostages.”

“We are four families bonded together by tragedy and terror,” they wrote. “We will never fully recover from the horrific outcome of our own hostage crises. But there is something that still can be done: Bring Austin Tice safely home.”

Each family also wrote a personal message.

The Sotloffs read: “We, the family of the late journalist Steven Sotloff, remind President Obama of the following: You told us in person that if it were your daughters, you would do anything in your power to bring them home. We implore you: Bring Austin Tice home.”

Tice, now 34, was working as a freelance journalist for McClatchy and The Washington Post when he was taken captive. Besides a brief video clip posted about six weeks later showing him with unknown gunmen, there have been no other signs of life.

When reporters become the targets

On Tuesday, the organization Reporters Without Borders (known by its French acronym RSF) denounced the Turkish government for arresting it’s longtime representative in Turkey, Erol Önderoglu, on charges of “terrorist propaganda” a month after having taken part in a campaign of solidarity with pro-Kurdish media. 

It was only the latest insult against journalists trying to survive and work in the post-Arab Spring era. 

On June 12th. RSF slammed Turkish authorities when a Syrian journalist named Ahmed Abdelqader, 33, the founder and editor of the online journal Aynala al-Watan (“Eye on Homeland) who is a refugee in southeastern Turkey, just barely managed to survive a second assassination attempt. 

Islamic State claimed responsibility the drive-by shooting of Abdelqader in the southeastern city of Urfa on the evening of 12 June. He remains hospitalized. 

According to RSF, over 200 reporters have been killed since the Arab Spring erupted in 2011, and at least 50 remain missing or are held by armed Islamist militias. 

Speaking with The Media Line, Marwan Hisham, a Syrian journalist currently living as a refugee in Turkey and co-author of the upcoming book Brothers of the Gun said that in honor of the moment “I'd like to pay tribute to all brave journalists all around the world who endanger their lives to get the stories they see out, despite all challenges. Targeting journalists and restricting their movements to conceal the truth is not something new, but I believe there hasn't been a time journalists, especially independent ones, were deliberately harassed like they are nowadays. The Syrian war has exposed the unspeakable horror journalists are vulnerable to, not only in war zones but in exile also: a number of journalists were assassinated or arrested not only by violent groups but by governments also. Others had to leave this risky profession fearing persecution.” 

“Now I can't go back to work from there,” he said, about abandoning his work in Syria to save his own life.

Perhaps the Nobel Academy in Stockholm was looking eastward, far eastward, when it awarded the Russian journalist Svetlana Alexievich the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015.

Alexievich, who writes massive oral histories of suffering people, neither novels nor poems, is one of the most unusual laureates ever chosen. She refers to her work as “novels of voices, of the life of the sounds around you.” 

Yet, at a time when reporters are the targets of assassinations and oppression not only in Russia but throughout the warring Middle East, at a time when journalists are forced to flee rather than to pursue their stories, her work transcends.

On June 5th, 2016, Irina Bokova, the Director General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, decried Organization, (UNESCO) deplored the killing of Osama Jumaa, a Syrian journalist  killed in the battle for Aleppo. “I call on all parties in the conflict to respect the Geneva Conventions on the civilian status of journalists and their right to exercise their profession.”

Jumaa was killed when artillery fire hit an ambulance in which he was being treated for injuries he sustained earlier, while reporting on the bombing of a residential neighborhood for Images Live, a British photo agency.

The official figures to not take into account the dozens, possible hundreds of journalists jailed or killed by authorities in Libya, Egypt and Turkey, where the shuttering of media outlets has become routine. 

International monitoring groups estimate that over a thousand chroniclers– professional or semi-professional journalists and reporters– have fled the country when threatened by targeted persecution and by the conflict’s overwhelming violence which can come from any quarter—the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, the air force bombings of his Russian allies, armed “opposition groups” and various extremist Islamic militias such as the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra front of the Islamic State. 

Many of them face constant difficulties and continue to fear for their safety in the countries in which they seek refuge. Syria’s borders are easily crossed not only by journalists fleeing violence but also by every kind of predator. Syrian journalists must also often cope with hostility from the authorities in these countries and the restrictions that local legislation imposes on them.

Last October, Ibrahim Abdul Qader and Fares Hamadi, both reporters, were found beheaded at the home of a mutual friend. 

“Until the international community and warring sides do something serious to protect journalists,” Hisham says, “they are going to stay at risk. I myself am a refugee now, in a situation where I cannot do my job normally. Inside Syria, I had to work undercover for years.” 

‘Spotlight’ on Marty Baron’s crusade

The Academy Award-nominated drama “Spotlight” tells how a team of Boston Globe journalists uncovered rampant child sexual abuse by priests and the cover-up by the Catholic Church. The clash of institutions is high drama, but the movie’s most powerful human moments come from the istruggles the journalists confront as insiders and outsiders. 

The Globe’s Catholic reporters must face the fact that, because of their own Boston Catholic backgrounds, they ignored just how deep and widespread the abuse was. Their editor, Marty Baron, must deal with the antagonism of those who see him as a Jewish interloper on an anti-Church crusade. 

But when I met the real-life Baron last week, it quickly became apparent that while, yes, he’s indeed Jewish, his crusade has nothing to do with it.

It’s all about being a journalist. 

In fact, Baron didn’t know he stood out as the first Jewish editor of the Boston Globe until he saw himself in “Spotlight.”

Actor Liev Schreiber plays Baron as the gruff, humorless boss who pushes the Globe’s investigative team to go beyond individual stories of abuse to reveal the system that allowed it to persist.

The Church defenders whose feathers he ruffles don’t let him forget that he’s not one of them.  At their first meeting, Boston Cardinal Bernard Law gives him a welcome gift: a catechism.

That emphasis on the fictional Baron’s Jewishness caught the real Baron by surprise. He said as much during a discussion Feb. 9 at the Pacific Palisades home of Austin and Virginia Beutner, where he spoke about the movie along with “Spotlight” co-screenwriter Josh Singer and Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia School of Journalism.

“People asked me why focus on the fact that he’s Jewish,” Singer said to the hundred or so guests gathered in the Beutners’ tented back patio.  “I said, ‘Well, Boston focused on it.’ ”

But Baron, who is now executive editor of the Washington Post, said he wasn’t aware his own religion was an issue. No one mentioned it to his face, though the cardinal really did give him a very heavy copy of the catechism (the exact copy used in the movie).

“I actually considered that maybe I should read this,” Baron said. “But … it’s a really thick book. I figured I got other things to do.”   

Baron laughed — yes, newsflash — he laughed. The real-life Baron, who looks like he could be Schreiber’s older brother, has a warm, if not ready, smile. 

“There are a few friends who say I have a sense of humor,” Baron said, proving he does, indeed, have one. 

Six weeks after he walked into the Globe’s newsroom, terrorists struck the World Trade Center on 9/11. And then came the Church investigation.  

“It was a pretty tense time,” Baron explained. “And for me it was kind of a lonely time. I was not at my most joyful. Someone at the alt weekly in town asked someone at the Globe what I was all about. They said I was about, ‘the joyless pursuit of excellence.’ ”

He unleashed a big smile at that one.

So, how Jewish is this outsider?  In an interview after the public discussion, he told me his mother was born in pre-state Palestine. His father fled Germany in 1936 for Palestine, as well, where he met Baron’s mother. The couple immigrated to Paris in 1952, then moved to Florida.  Baron was born in 1954 and raised in Tampa. He considers himself, “reform, but fairly nonobservant.”

“It’s very deep roots,” he said.

Was he worried that his being Jewish might color people’s perceptions of the story?

“I did think about that,” Baron said. “But what was I going to do? Not pursue the story? That was not an option.” 

Baron put his trust in the men and women reporting it.

“They were great journalists,” he said. “I was quite confident that they would be careful in how they approached the story, and my job was to ultimately read what they ended up coming up with and offer my thoughts.”

After the abuse story broke, Baron encountered some isolated accusations that he was biased by his religion, but overall he received more gratitude than condemnation.

“In the end, people weren’t angry at us,” Baron said.  “They were angry at the Church.”

At a time when serious journalism faces a multi-front battle against clickbait, declining revenues and corporate gobble-ups, the real crusade, Baron stressed, was not against the Church, or any institution, but for serious, independent journalism.

“I think there’s been too much time spent trying to worry about, ‘What does our audience want?’ ” Baron said of today’s media environment. What they crave, he said, is the authenticity that comes from deep, straight reporting. 

“Now that we’ve actually found the facts, we’re going to lay them out for you, and we’re going to tell them to you squarely,” Baron said of the best journalism.  “I think people want that. They appreciate that.”  

Austin Beutner, who was publisher and CEO of the Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune before being pushed out by the Tribune overlords, called “Spotlight” a good example of “what it is we’re losing” when newsrooms are cut and newspapers close down. 

Baron agreed. What guided him in directing his paper’s Spotlight team had nothing to do with his faith in Judaism, but in journalism.

That’s what inspires him, and it’s what he sees in the new generation of reporters in his newsroom.

“They’re not coming into this business to be famous,” he said. “You know, to have a movie made about them.”

Then Baron smiled, again. 

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @foodaism.




Corrections: This story was changed to make the following corrections. The 9/11 attacks occured six weeks after Marty Baron entered the newsroom, not six months. Mr. Baron described himself as “reform, but nonobservant.”  

The once great Los Angeles Times

Talented, experienced journalists are now leaving the Los Angeles Times, and we alums feel depressed about the toll their departures will take on their lives and on Southern California.

Kevin Roderick reported on his LA Observed website (to which I am a contributor) that more than 70 people in the Times editorial department applied for the buyouts the Times’ owners are offering to reduce the size of an editorial staff that has already dropped from 1,000 to about 500. Daily weekday circulation, once more than a million, has dropped to 370,990, according to the Statista website. Advertising also has taken a heavy hit. If you are one of the dwindling number of home delivery subscribers, the decline is evident every time you pick up your thin morning paper or look early in the morning at the front stoops of your neighbors.

There is a real human dimension to these buyouts. Newspapers can have a lifelong hold on their workers. Not that it is always a kindly relationship. I am sentimental about these folks. Journalism can be a cruel business, even in a town where the movie business has elevated employer cruelty to Mount Everest heights. You’re only as good as your last story, the old saying goes — and it’s pretty much true.

Cynicism has helped protect me from disappointment and kept me grounded during moments of triumph. I retired from the Times as city editor after serving there for 30 great years as a reporter, editor and columnist. I got a memorable sendoff, with parties and enough speeches to make me feel I wouldn’t need a funeral. I really appreciated the farewells, but didn’t view them through rose-colored glasses. When it came time for my final words at a party the staff threw for me at Hank’s Bar in downtown Los Angeles, I rose, drink in hand, and instead of giving a teary goodbye speech, announced, “I think I’ll have another Jack Daniels.”

I thought about the Times years, as I often do, during a recent lunch with friends from the paper. It was a day when many on the staff were agonizing over whether to accept the buyout offer. One friend was taking it. She is of retirement age and ready to move on. Our other lunch partner had already left the Times and had a busy life. 

We talked about the excitement of working at the paper, with its deadline pressure and our talented co-workers, who were much more amusing and crazy than colleagues you’d encounter in a law office or even among the techies at Google or Amazon. We recalled the mixture of good and bad — more good than bad for us — that constituted a Times career. As the Times’ Las Vegas correspondent John Glionna put it in a farewell email quoted on LA Observed:  “Time to say adios. After 26 years, it’s my time to say goodbye to an LA Woman, a vexing siren who has been cruel at times, but who has held all of my professional attentions for nearly half of my life.”

Glionna is a talented and imaginative person. With his resourcefulness, he’ll no doubt find there’s plenty of life after the Times, as will others. But his departure, and that of the rest, will badly weaken the Times.

Targeted in the buyouts were the highest-paid journalists, the veterans. Buying out the most senior of the editorial staff was a dollars-and-cents decision, to counter dropping revenue and stock prices. Tribune Publishing, which owns the Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun and other papers, has as its largest stockholder the Los Angeles investment firm Oaktree Capital Management. An Oaktree source told the Chicago Tribune that the firm, which owns 18 percent of Tribune Publishing, approves the aggressive cost-cutting measures by CEO Jack Griffin to offset revenue declines.

It presumes the Times, the most profitable paper in the chain, can cut its way to more profits.

But what does Oaktree care about civic responsibility, even in its hometown of Los Angeles? What does Chicago care about Los Angeles, except for the Times’ bottom line?

I don’t know who will want to read their product. A weakened website and a thin print product already are driving away customers. And it is about to get worse. If any of those leaving are replaced, it will likely be with low-paid, inexperienced reporters, editors and interns.  

Joe Saltzman, a veteran USC journalism professor, explained what this means. In a Facebook post, he wrote, “What major news media companies haven’t learned is that once you empty the newsroom of experienced, talented, prize-winning reporters and editors, you lose the essence of who you are, and the young, inexperienced journalists have no one to listen to when it comes to learning how to become those departing journalists. That is the real tragedy of what is happening at the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers as well as broadcasting newsrooms around the country.”

Most importantly, perhaps, the Southland is losing a civic institution of irreplaceable value. The Times was once the most important force in Los Angeles government and politics — far too much so, actually. In its prime, its coverage became fair and deep. In a mix of news, columns and editorials, the paper served as a watchdog and a force for civic good. Experienced reporters, skilled at their craft and knowledgeable about their turf, made the paper a powerful influence. Covering the news in a manner that accomplishes this, and editing the reporters’ stories, is a job beyond the capabilities of most rookies and the resources of the now-diminished Los Angeles Times.

Every part of the paper is losing, from sports to fashion, from government beats to entertainment. Experienced editors who can teach and guide youngsters are going. So are many copy editors, who have given the paper flawless professionalism and saved city desk editors like me from many mistakes.

People ask me why there are so many mistakes in the paper. It takes me a while to explain about copy desks and what they do; about the other desks and editors; their relationship to reporters.

As I tell them this long story, I invariably get mad. For what I am telling them is the story of the death of a newspaper I believed in, and the scuttling of the careers of talented journalists who made it great. 

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for The Jewish Journal, Truthdig and LA Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).

What’s a dollar a month worth?

People love the Jewish Journal. They love picking it up, at a shul or deli or cafe or market, and flipping through the stories of the Jewish world. There’s nothing quite like it in Los Angeles — a gathering place where all the voices of our community can be heard.

I can’t tell you how often I hear: “I love the paper. I’m hooked. It’s my weekly read.”

That kind of response gratifies me to no end, because I think good journalism is essential to the Jewish future. Where else would Jews regularly connect to their world and their community if not in a community paper? What other Jewish institution can claim to build as much Jewish connection, every week in print, and every day online — at no cost, and with access to all?

Some of you already know that in addition to my obsession with the Los Angeles Lakers, I’m obsessed with Jewish unity. Not Jewish uniformity, but unity within diversity — the idea of Jews of all colors and denominations coming together and uniting in a spirit of exchange, where we can learn and receive from one another.

I love being at the Shabbat table of a Persian friend and tasting a new cuisine, or seeing Sephardic Jews singing Chasidic nigguns at the Happy Minyan. This is a privilege my ancestors didn’t have. During the centuries that they lived in Morocco, how often did they get to meet Jews of different traditions?

I can walk down Pico Boulevard on a Shabbat afternoon and, in one block, encounter more Jewish diversity than my grandparents experienced in a lifetime. It’s true that sometimes that diversity can get on our nerves. Human beings prefer the familiar. I get that.

But it’s worth appreciating this grand family reunion that is now happening in the Jewish world.

After so many centuries of being mostly in our own bubbles, here we are in this great, amorphous city called Los Angeles, where we can discover each other. Persian Jews learning about Russian Jews, South African Jews learning about Tunisian Jews, Israeli Jews dancing with Latino Jews.

Our wish is that by Thanksgiving 2016, we will have tens of thousands of readers becoming patrons of the community paper they own and love, in whatever amount they’re comfortable with, even a dollar.

This is unity within diversity, and I think it’s a major reason why people so love the Journal. We cover it all. We inspire curiosity. We inspire connection.

Of course, none of this comes cheap. It costs a lot of money to hire reporters, to print and distribute thousands of papers each week, and to stay current on the Web. So, to use our CFO Adam Levine’s favorite question: “Are you sure we can afford all this?

Well, that depends on you — which is why I’m writing this Thanksgiving column.

As many of you know, the Journal is a nonprofit. It is distributed free because we don’t believe in charging for Jewish connection. We’re fortunate that we can cover a lot of our expenses through advertising —  but because advertising hardly covers it all, we’ve always depended on donations to help us continue to serve you.

This year, because we are a community paper that belongs to the community, we want to give everyone a chance to chip in. So, we are asking 100,000 readers and fans to join the Jewish Journal family and help keep us strong with a monthly donation of $1 or more. 

We have about 150,000 readers a week in print in Los Angeles, and another 3 million worldwide each month at If 100,000 of our readers each chip in $1 a month, that will cover our printing costs for the whole year — all 52 issues — and will enable us to continue growing and serving you. If 50,000 readers chip in $2 a month, or 10,000 readers chip in $10 a month, we also reach our goal, and so on.

We call it our “One dollar or more” campaign. Our wish is that by Thanksgiving 2016, we will have tens of thousands of readers giving back to the community paper they own and love, in whatever amount they’re comfortable with, even a dollar.  

To make your tax-deductible donation now, choose the amount below and then click on the “Donate” button below. Or, if you're old school, call Adam Levine at (213) 368-1661, ext. 131.

What will you get in return? The satisfaction of contributing to the Jewish institution  that keeps us all connected — week after week.

I think that’s worth being grateful for.

Happy Thanksgiving.

*Your tax-deductible donation to the Jewish Journal provides high-quality, independent journalism that connects, informs and inspires the community. We can't do it without you!

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

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

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


In Jerusalem, examining global press freedom

As governments increase restrictions and casualties mount for journalists worldwide, the relatively new Jerusalem Press Club hosted the city’s first International Conference of Freedom of the Press, with participants demanding protection for reporters in war zones, authoritarian states and in the developing world.

The conference is the brainchild of Uri Dromi, known in the United States for his frequent television appearances as the confident spokesman for the Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres governments in the years Israel negotiated agreements with the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Kingdom of Jordan. (Dromi is also an occasional contributor to the Journal.)

Despite a difficult media environment for today’s Israeli government, Dromi has marshaled an independent effort to establish a vibrant international press club in Jerusalem. The conference attracted journalists from Africa, Latin America and Asia and demonstrated the Jerusalem Press Club’s global reach just two years after inception (see sidebar). 

“There are similar conferences on the issues of press freedom, but it struck me that too frequently Europeans and Americans are talking about the problems in the rest of the world,” Dromi told the Journal.

“Only 14 percent of the population of the world lives in societies which enjoy freedom of the press. We want to put the spotlight on the other 86 percent,” Dromi said.

Indian-born Muslim journalist Asra Nomani shared vignettes about her friend Daniel Pearl at the opening-night remembrance ceremony for the slain Wall Street Journal reporter. Muslim terrorists kidnapped Pearl shortly after he left Nomani’s home in Karachi, Pakistan.

“We carry as our own responsibility the fact that journalists are being kidnapped, harassed and persecuted,” Nomani said. “Particularly since Danny’s murder, a new reality has emerged where journalists are considered combatants and we are even more at risk.” Nomani now coordinates reporter-training courses for the Daniel Pearl International Journalism Institute, founded in 2013 by the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. 

At the conference, African reporters including Lungu M’theo of Malawi, Emile Toruray of Ivory Coast and Kenya’s William Oloo met for the first time with collegues such as Alexey Simonov and Yavuz Baydar, who have run up against the increasingly authoritarian governments in Moscow and Istanbul. 

“Everybody is going to have the time to present their case and report from their country,” said Dromi, who succeeded in convincing American funders, including the recently deceased Los Angeles philanthropist Gil Glazer, to support his initiative to bring Third World journalists to the Jerusalem Press Club conference. “We’re giving these people whose voices were not heard in international forums a chance to speak up.”

Firsthand testimonies of press repression were backed by research data presented by Robert Ruby, a veteran foreign correspondent now serving as communications director for Freedom House. Ruby briefed participants on this year’s Press Freedom Index.  

Global press freedom declined in 2014 to its lowest point in more than 10 years. And it is the largest one-year drop in a decade,” Ruby said.

The Freedom House report concludes that the deteriorating environment has been caused by a surge in restrictive laws against the press — frequently justified as “security measures” — and the increased effort by governments to make conflict areas and protest sites inaccessible to journalists.

Israel, the host country, did not escape its own share of scrutiny. 

“In our most recent report, Israel hovers just on the better side of free versus not free. We consider it to have a free press because there is pluralistic media. It is privately owned. It is not shy about reporting on official corruption. There are good protections for journalists against libel, and journalists have strong labor rights,” Ruby said.

“On the other side of the ledger, the military censor became more active in [the] 2014 war with Hamas,” he continued. “Israel Hayom’s business model of free distribution puts a lot of pressure on other newspapers. It’s forcing them to lower their advertising rates, and Freedom House does not think that is a plus.” 

Israel fares much better in the Freedom House report than in the Reporters Without Borders ranking, where it fell by five places this year, largely because of the deaths of 15 journalists and media workers during Operation Protective Edge.

“While we’re talking about Russia and Turkey and Argentina, we should also look at what’s going on in Israel,” said Dromi, who has taken Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to task for reserving control over the Communications Ministry. “One of the worst things in the coalition agreement is the clause insisting every party joining this government is pledged to approve whatever legislation is proposed by the minister of communications.

“It’s obvious that Netanyahu has made up his mind that when it comes to the so-called hostile media, he’s going to either shut them up, shut them down, buy them or regulate them in a way that he will be able to rule without a watchdog,” Dromi said. “I am worried.”

Free press in Egypt under attack

This story originally appeared on The Media Line.

It’s dangerous to be a journalist in Egypt these days, according to several human rights groups. In a statement this week to mark World Freedom Day, Amnesty International said there are at least 18 journalists who have been arrested and imprisoned for their work. One Egyptian photographer known as Shawkan has been held without charges or trial for more than 600 days.

Rights groups say that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has launched a crackdown after the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood that has strangled freedom of expression.

“The situation for media in Egypt is the worst it’s been in at least ten years,” Michele Dunne, an Egypt expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told The Media Line. “Since July 2013 and the coup against Morsi, the government has closed all Islamist media including newspapers and satellite channels, leaving an extreme situation of closed media space.

According to Amnesty, “anyone who challenges the authorities official narrative, criticizes the government or exposes human rights violations is at risk of being tossed into a jail cell, often to be held indefinitely wihout charge or trial or face prosecution on trumped-up charges.”

The Egyptian foreign ministry said that all of the journalists were arrested based on a warrant from the public prosecutor and afforded due process, and called Amnesty’s allegations “politicized nonsense.”

The most famous case is of three journalists from Al-Jazeera who were jailed for more than a year at the end of 2013. One, Peter Greste, an Australian citizen was recently released and the other two men are awaiting a retrial.

“We’ve seen the Al-Jazeera journalists given prison sentences based on very flimsy evidence,” Nadine Haddad, an Amnesty campaigner for Egypt told The Media Line. “We’ve seen journalists arrested in their homes with no solid evidence. There is a trend against any journalists who are critical of the state narrative.”

Dunne agrees, saying that after all of the Islamist outlets were closed, most others decided to toe the government’s line, for fear they would be closed too. All of that has sparked a sharp increase in internet and social media use as a source of news. According to Mada Masr, an independent website, internet use in Egypt has tripled and Twitter use has expanded tenfold s the crackdown on print and TV has worsened. About half of Egypt’s population of 87 million is under the age of 25.

The crackdown on media has led to increasing polarization in Egyptian society, says Dunne.

“The remaining media that has been allowed to operate is strongly pro-military and pro-Sisi, and has engaged in a systematic campaign of demonization of Islamists, especially the Muslim Brotherhood”, Dunne said. “We see a lot of violent action that is fueled by the media.”

The pro-democracy protests from 2011 that led to the resignation of long-time autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak fueled hopes that Egypt would become a democracy with a vibrant free press. Instead, any media that criticizes the government is summarily closed and journalists are thrown in jail with impunity.

The real sins of network TV anchors

Brian Williams has fallen from grace for fabricating some pseudo heroics in his past Iraq war coverage, but the real problems of network news anchors are of a different kind.

The British counterparts of Williams (NBC), David Muir (ABC) and Scott Pelley (CBS) are called newsreaders or presenters, which is precisely the job description for their work. American anchors, however, have morphed into something akin to effusive masters of ceremony at testimonial dinners.

A good part of each 30-minute broadcast, after deducting 10 minutes for commercials, is devoted to repeating the correspondent’s location and assignment before and after each report, the network’s call letters, and finally in profusely thanking him or her for sticking with the story and doing such a great job.

A parallel custom in the newspaper business would be if, following each article, the editor would express his gratitude to the reporter for a wonderful piece of work.

Each of the network news anchors has a little shtick that, over time, can drive the listener up the wall. For Williams it is (was) such habitual phrases as “thank you – as always,” “reporting for US” and constant emphasis on the persistence of his people in running down the story, night or day.

At one time, we had high hopes for Scott Pelley and David Muir when they took over the anchor chair at CBS and ABC respectively.

Pelley had repeatedly shown his journalistic chops in his “60 Minutes” assignments and Muir had done credible work as weekend anchor for ABC.

Both, however, have quickly fallen into line with what I assume is a network rule that a new anchor must adopt some trademark phrase, akin to a nervous tick.

For Muir, it’s the habit of introducing the next in-studio reporter with “As you told me before the broadcast…” and then proceeding to tell her report in encapsulated form.

Pelley, in turn, has become the champion of the “thank you VERY much” cliché after each correspondent’s report, however bland or routine.

I have been asked why, if the network anchors annoy me so much, I continue to watch them. The answer is that the 6:30 p.m. newscast (5:30 p.m. on weekends) has become such an engrained pre-dinner habit for my wife and me that we can’t seem to break it.

I generally manage to get through the week by anticipating the weekend when the straightforward news presenters take over – Jim Axelrod or Jeff Glor at CBS, Cecilia Vega at ABC and, until now, Lester Holt at NBC.

Now that Holt is occupying – permanently, we hope – Williams’ weekday anchor chair, let us pray he will resist the temptation to descend into cuteness and cheerleading.

In the meanwhile, thank you very much for reading this article.

I miss Yemen

I miss Yemen.

That may come as a surprise since whenever the country makes headlines — as it has over the past few weeks — the overwhelming themes are war, violent radicalism, the impending doom of failed statehood and whatever other ominous sounding crisis (water shortages, national drug addiction) can be thrown into the mix.

I find that most Americans assume that the country is seething with anti-American sentiment. Yet, that is far from the truth, and I miss Yemen, my home from 2009 to early 2012. I’m not alone. Most foreigners who have been fortunate enough to experience the warmth, humor and kindness of Yemeni people miss it too. 

I miss waking up in the old city of Sanaa, Yemen’s 3,000 year old capital. I would slowly make my way across uneven stone floors that cooled the soles of my feet and into my mafraj, a square room with blue-patterned low cushions lining its perimeter. I would take a moment to stare out into the narrow alleyway below through a green, blue, and red stained glass window, the kind that decorate nearly every building in Sanaa. 

I lived on the top floor of a skinny, four-story, brown brick abode with white gypsum outlining its edges. Many have likened these structures in the old city to gingerbread houses. Out the window, I saw men walking to work, elbows linked, donned in long white robes that hung to their ankles, suit jackets, and a curved dagger secured right at their waistline. There were also the elderly women draped in red and blue intricately patterned blankets overtop their black abayas and carrying puffy loaves of bread in clear plastic bags. They’d chat so quickly in clipped sharp Arabic that I could never understand them—even though I’m comfortable in the language. My ears would then catch the sound of the gas merchant who strolled the neighborhood banging with a wrench on a large cooking gas canister. The harsh dinging warmed me in the same way the sounds of Manhattan must warm someone who’s happy to call that city home.

At about 8 am, I would make my way down the incongruent steps of the house and past the doors of apartments where other foreigners lived, and then I’d pull a small metal lever that opened the heavy wooden slab on the ground floor to the outside world. The sun would be strong and the air bone dry at 7,500 feet. I would walk the 10 steps or so to a hole-in-the-wall canteen, a Yemeni bodega, known here as a bagala, and buy a tub of plain yogurt for about 50 American cents that I would mix with Yemeni honey (some of the best in the world!) for breakfast. This was in lieu of the typical Yemeni breakfast of lamb kabob sandwiches or stewed fava beans. The two young guys at the bagala would light up upon our daily meetings. 

“Good morning, Laura!” they’d say.

“Good morning! How’s it going?”

“Praise be to God! Did you watch the president’s speech?” Mohamed, the older, would ask, or otherwise comment on the political happenings du jour, which were many since part of my time living in Sanaa covered the Arab Spring protests of 2011.

“I did. What do you think?” I would ask. 

“Everything will be fine, God willing. We want stability for Yemen,” he’d answer. Then another friend whose face I recognized from the neighborhood would rush up, give me a nod, and shove approximately 10 cents at Mohamed so he could bring back piles of pita bread for his family.

I would head back home, comforted to know that if anything ill ever befell me, these friends would have my back, as happened when they cornered a cab driver who was requesting $200 to give me back the phone that I had left in his taxi (I got it back free, thanks to my neighbors). You give Yemenis a smile, and they give you so much more in return, always bending over backwards for guests of their country. It was an unfair transaction that benefited me most of all.

I miss walking through the narrow cobblestone streets of the old city and seeing faces I recognized. We waved hello along the way, and perhaps shared a sentence or two about the day. My mood always brightened when I passed the old men who sipped creamy tea sitting outside one tiny cafe, who wore thick glasses that magnified their eyes, turbans round their heads, and held canes in their hands. They laughed and told jokes to pass their days. They’d seen it all—including war worse than the current one. They knew the ebbs and flows of time.

Despite that one greedy cabbie who tried to keep my phone, one of the things I miss most of all are the discussions with taxi drivers, waiting stalled in traffic due to the post-lunch market rush. Yemenis love to talk—and so do I. They often gave me a handful of soft green qat leaves, the mild narcotic widely consumed in the country. I remember when one driver explained that Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh was like Marie Antoinette. “Let them eat cake!” the driver exclaimed. 

A different cab driver once told me he had worked at the Yemeni embassy in Cuba as a driver and missed the rum like you wouldn’t believe. Alcohol is available in Yemen, at Chinese restaurants that double as brothels, or from Ethiopian smugglers who get their bottles on boats from Djibouti. Of course, getting it involves risks—the social shame of being caught with alcohol for an average Yemeni would be damning not only of his reputation, but of his family and his tribe. I took that taxi driver’s number and the next time I left a diplomat’s party in the fancy part of town where sheikhs and foreigners live behind tall walls, I called him to pick me up. I snuck him a beer, which he uncapped with his teeth and drank during our drive back to the old city.

There are things I don’t miss, like the lack of electricity. Or wading through a foot high of muddy, trash-strewn water because the drainage system wasn’t working fast enough for the rainstorm. I certainly don’t miss needing to flee my home in the old city because the war came too close in September 2011, when Yemen’s divided armed forces began to fight one another. I didn’t want to live alone when random artillery fire had fallen nearby. And then there was the gnawing guilt that came with remembering that my suffering was nothing compared to Yemenis who couldn’t afford a generator or the rising prices for basic goods, and who didn’t have another home to which they could flee. But the good always outweighed the bad for me in Yemen, and that’s why I stayed for nearly three  years. I left when I realized that reporting during wartime, being so close to explosions, death and violence, had clouded my thoughts so that I was incapable of making safe decisions.

As the country, now leaderless, fractures with little hope of reconciliation, I watch with a breaking heart. Yet, I am confident in this: if the Yemeni government fails to restructure itself into a sustainable organization, and rather continues to mirror a scenario from an apocalyptic future, Yemen will not be a land where every man is for himself. There is a social contract in Yemen more ancient than the one that exists in the United States, and the ties that bind people to one another can step in when the government fails. As an outsider who was fortunate enough to have called Yemen home, I put my hope in that. 

Laura Kasinof is an author and freelance journalist. Her book, Don’t Be Afraid of the Bullets: an Accidental War Correspondent in Yemen, is about her time reporting for The New York Times during Yemen’s Arab Spring. This post originally appeared on Zocalo Public Square.

Slain journalists Foley and Sotloff honored in memory of Daniel Pearl

James Foley and Steven Sotloff, American journalists who were killed by ISIS, were honored with an award in memory of the murdered Jewish journalist Daniel Pearl.

The ADL Daniel Pearl Award was presented to the parents of Foley and Sotloff on Friday during the organization’s National Executive Committee meeting in Palm Beach, Fla.

Foley, an Illinois native, was killed in Syria in August after being held hostage by the Islamist State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, for nearly two years. He was captured while reporting in Syria, near the Turkish border. He had worked in northern Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.

Sotloff, a Florida native who held dual U.S.-Israel  citizenship, was killed in early September after being kidnapped a month earlier by ISIS while working in Syria. He had worked for media outlets such as Time magazine, The Jerusalem Post, The National Interest, Media Line, World Affairs and Foreign Policy, notably covering the Arab Spring. His friends and family made efforts to remove references on the Internet to the fact that he was Jewish, had dual citizenship and had studied in Israel.

Pearl was a Wall Street Journal reporter who was abducted and killed in Pakistan in February 2002 while pursuing a story about international terrorism.

“In many ways, James and Steven followed in Danny’s footsteps,” Abraham Foxman, ADL national director, said in presenting the awards. “It was their thirst for knowledge, their quest for answers, their interest in understanding more deeply that impelled them into journalism.”

Foxman added that rather than being interested in the “big stories” that would advance their careers, “They were more interested in the people behind the stories, in finding the humanity behind the headlines.”

Local education politics has a watchdog in LA School Report

With her strong background in journalism, Jamie Alter Lynton strongly considers the ethics of covering stories such as the hackers’ release of confidential information from Sony Pictures Entertainment, where her husband, Michael Lynton, is the chief executive. On the one hand, it is a news story that needs to be written about; on the other hand, a lot of the information is highly personal. Where do you, as a journalist, draw the line between reporting and participating? 

It is a question Lynton has asked herself repeatedly since her 2012 founding of LA School Report (, a news website that covers exclusively local education politics. Although often described as a philanthropist, Lynton is a journalist and self-proclaimed citizen-activist whose site — which has broken news stories such as former Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Superintendent John Deasy’s departure — has brought unprecedented scrutiny upon the seven LAUSD board members and has been ahead of the curve in its coverage of the scandal surrounding LAUSD’s $1 billion iPad program.

By her own admission, Lynton, 55, a member of Ohr HaTorah synagogue in Mar Vista, did not have a firm grasp on how public education worked in Los Angeles until relatively recently. She spent the first 15 years of her career at CNN, CBS, CNBC and Court TV, where she ultimately served as vice president and Los Angeles bureau chief. In the years between leaving journalism and starting LA School Report, she raised her three daughters, sat on a few boards and became a prominent figure in fundraising. She is currently a trustee at CalArts, and in 2007 and 2008, she served on the Obama for America National Finance Committee. 

It was not until 2011, when a friend mentioned to her that school board races can cost a few million dollars, that Lynton took a first look at the minutiae of education politics. In the year that followed, she repeatedly asked herself: “How is it possible that the public has no way of finding out about these races?” At the time, no news outlet in Los Angeles covered LAUSD on a daily basis with a high level of scrutiny. To remedy this, she began devising a news site whose first goal would be to demystify the inner workings of public education. Her other goals, she said, were “to push the mainstream media to cover the story more,” “to have the principal players in this universe read us and take us seriously” and “to awaken a deeper conversation amid the public and among stakeholders.” 

Early in 2012, she hired Alexander Russo, a well-known education blogger, to assist her in shaping the new online outlet. Bankrolled entirely by Lynton — she declined to say how much she has invested in the venture or how many readers it now has — LA School Report launched in July 2012 with Russo as editor and with one freelance reporter, Hillel Aron; Lynton wrote mostly commentary pieces. Since its inception, the website has posted a combination of aggregated, reported and editorial content. Its official objective is, as stated on the site, “to look beyond the ‘reform vs. union’ debate” and “to provide information and context with one primary question in mind: what is in the best interest of students?” 

Lynton is adamant that she has never tried to promote any particular solution to any given problem. “I’m not advocating iPads or no iPads,” she said. “I’m just trying to look at what the inconsistencies are with the elected officials who make policy and with the administrative officials that are executing them — pushing them to be accountable and pushing them to find answers is my role, not solving it for them.” 

In addition to covering the usual day-to-day occurrences of LAUSD politics, Lynton’s team has paid particularly close attention to a few important stories: the effects of glitches in the MiSiS (My Integrated Student Information System) data management software; the scandal surrounding the misuse of funds by nonprofit charter network Magnolia Public Schools and Deasy’s tumultuous final year as LAUSD superintendent. Lynton also claims that LA School Report was the only local outlet to have a reporter in the courtroom last year during Vergara v. California, a case in which a judge ruled in favor of students challenging the constitutionality of state laws governing teacher seniority, tenure and dismissal (and which is now being appealed). Mark Harris, the reporter, published daily summaries of witness testimony, which the website supplemented with commentary every few days from an assortment of voices.

“LA School Report’s coverage of the trial itself helped to shape and drive what became a media firestorm. Eventually the story took on a life of its own, and it ended up not just shaping the legal landscape of education politics, but orienting the entire national conversation toward how to best serve children,” said Ben Austin, a reform advocate who worked with the plaintiffs, Students Matter, in preparing for the case. 

Michael Escalante, executive in residence at the USC Rossier School Of Education and former superintendent of Glendale Unified School District, said he’s found the website to be an invaluable source of insight into what’s going on in L.A. schools.

“LAUSD is such a large influence on California education, those of us who follow decisions in Sacramento need to know what’s happening in LAUSD,” he said. “It is my hope that LA School Report continues the in-depth observations of what’s happening in LAUSD. No one else seems to have some of the details that are being provided.”

Although Escalante said he believes it provides accurate information, the project hasn’t always been free of controversy. Soon after launching LA School Report to deliver “journalism in the public interest,” Lynton took a personal financial stake in the volatile arena of public education. In December 2012, she donated $100,000 to the Coalition for School Reform, a political action committee started by then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, to support school board candidates without ties to the teachers union, and ultimately to elect a board sympathetic to Deasy’s reform efforts. Despite spending about $4 million in the March 2013 election cycle, only one coalition-backed candidate won a seat on the board. Although LA School Report was first to report Lynton’s contribution to the Coalition for School Reform, it permanently troubled its relationship with union officials and members of the board of education. 

“That was a mistake,” Lynton said. “I quickly realized after making the donation that not only can I not give money to education issues, I can’t give to anything local.” 

Numerous union leaders, including United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) President Alex Caputo-Pearl, UTLA Vice President Cecily Myart-Cruz and former UTLA President Warren Fletcher, either declined or did not respond to requests for comment for this article.  

LAUSD board member Steve Zimmer, who was among the candidates attacked in the 2013 election cycle, said, “When LA School Report started, they were very, very aggressive, and kind of unapologetic about their slant.”

Although Russo said Lynton was not part of the day-to-day editorial process at the time, some of her commentary pieces were sharply worded and politically divisive, such as those over a controversial measure introduced by Assemblymember Felipe Fuentes that would have rewritten teacher evaluation laws. Lynton wrote a strongly worded piece in opposition, noting that its passage would be “catastrophic for the future of education in California.” With political resistance mounting, Fuentes withdrew the bill. 

As the editorial makeup of the site changed over time, Lynton brought Michael Janofsky, a longtime New York Times reporter, on board as managing editor, tasked with improving and expanding the website’s content. 

“It was a blog in the beginning, and I wasn’t really sure what it was going to turn out to be. But ultimately, I really wanted it to be a news site,” Lynton said. 

What Janofsky offered was a strong understanding of how to report a story’s significance and implications over time. 

“It was sort of skimming. I didn’t get enough of the why of things,” he said of LA School Report in its first year. “Since this is such a strong public policy arena, it deserved a little more context and perspective. I wanted to make it serious journalism.”

Lynton and Janofsky hired reporter Vanessa Romo, formerly of Los Angeles public radio station KPCC-FM, and increased the size of the freelance staff. Even Zimmer acknowledges that Janofsky’s and Romo’s résumés lent LA School Report credibility, and that with their arrival it became “less of an opinion blog” — though he still considers the quality to be less than that of a newspaper.

“Not every journalist gets everything right all of the time. I think with a blog — and [LA School Report] really is a blog; I don’t see it as an online newspaper — I think that the rules of engagement and the processes are a little bit different,” he said.

Lynton readily acknowledges that she has her own opinions and that Internet journalism is its own medium, but she disputes the claim that her opinions affect LA School Report’s coverage. 

In the coming year, “We want to refine what we’re doing,” she said. “We want to really get a handle on this space, and see if we can make this grow in a way that would start being self-sustaining. Microjournalism is not a profession to make money on, but I’m just passionate about not having journalism just go away.”

Why Judaism needs journalism

There’s a tendency in the Jewish world to look for big solutions to big problems. One of those problems is the disheartening fact that most Jews today are simply not that interested in Judaism.

This problem isn’t made up — it’s real. We live in a world where the options are so abundant that Judaism is seen as a choice, not an obligation. This is radically different from the world I grew up in, where every Jew in the Jewish neighborhoods of Casablanca would go to synagogue on Shabbat and follow the major rituals. Judaism wasn’t a choice — it was a way of life.

Here in America, in the land where we overdose on choices, Judaism has to compete for people’s time, and, more often than not, it loses. Why would someone go to a prayer house on Saturday mornings when they can take a beautiful hike in the canyon or have coffee with an old friend or go to a gym or yoga class? If the great American question is, “What will make me happiest?” is it that surprising that Judaism so often loses?

In response to this crisis of competition, the organized Jewish community invested enormous resources in recent years to try to get more Jews to “choose” Judaism. What most of the initiatives have in common is that they want you to “go to” Judaism — go to a class, a program, a concert, a synagogue, a camp, a school or on a trip.

The most ambitious and talked-about “solution” in this go-to arsenal has been Jewish education. If you’re ever in a meeting with Jewish professionals and you want to see everyone nod feverishly in unison, just say, “The most important thing is Jewish education!”

Of course, there’s one little problem with this solution: It’s not realistic. If so many Jews have trouble committing a few hours of their precious time to a synagogue or Jewish event, how much more so with a decision as big as enrolling in a day school?

Which brings me to what I believe is the most nimble, diverse and powerful connector in the Jewish world today: Jewish journalism. When I say journalism, I’m thinking especially of the unique, weekly experience of going through a rich and vibrant community newspaper. Why do I believe this is so powerful? 

Well, for one thing, it’s incredibly convenient. A newspaper doesn’t ask you to go out of your way. You might notice it at a local café or deli or shul or supermarket, or on a friend’s coffee table, or at your doorstep if you get it at home, and all you’re asked to do is pick it up. That’s a lot easier than shlepping to some Jewish event and looking for parking.

But, more importantly, once the paper is in your hands, you are empowered and in control. No one tells you what to do or read or believe. It’s Judaism on your terms. You get to choose whatever you’re in the mood for — whether it’s news, opinion, religion, culture, arts, spirituality, humor, history, tikkun olam, community stories, poetry, Israel, Torah or whatever else helps define your Jewish identity. At its best, journalism also puts up a mirror to our community that keeps us honest and encourages progress.

In short, no other Jewish institution can offer this breadth of Jewish experience in such a convenient and mobile package. 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.  

And yet, tragically, journalism may be the least-respected institution in the Jewish world. Why? Maybe because journalism doesn’t promote a specific agenda, which, ironically, is precisely its strength — by promoting all the flavors of Judaism, journalism gives people true freedom of choice.

Isn’t that, after all, what the new generation craves — choice? At a time when so many Jews are not choosing Judaism, the wide-open nature of journalism is ideally suited for Jews who hate having anything rammed down their throats, and whose definition of doing something Jewish is watching Jon Stewart.

Jewish foundations and donors who worry about the future of Judaism are making a huge mistake by not investing in journalism. These donors should put journalism at the top of their giving list. In fact, I can even see creating a national $100 million “Jewish Journalism Outreach Fund” to train a new generation of journalists and maximize the reach and quality of Jewish journalism nationwide.

The dream of giving every Jewish kid a Jewish education is just that— a pipe dream. A smarter dream would be to get a quality Jewish paper in the hands of every Jew in America. At the very least, that would keep Judaism in the game for the multitudes that now ignore it.

One Jewish spark may be no big deal. But ignite millions of Jewish sparks every week throughout the Jewish world, and you have one helluva big solution.

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

How Jewish reporters in Muslim lands hide their identity

Don’t bring it up. If it comes up, change the subject. If you can’t change the subject, consider an outright denial.

Those are some of the strategies used by Jewish reporters working in the Arab and Muslim Middle East to conceal their religious heritage.

The dangers facing Jewish journalists in the region became evident this week after the beheading of a dual American-Israeli citizen, Steven Sotloff, by the jihadist group Islamic State, or ISIS.

It’s not known whether ISIS was aware that Sotloff was Jewish. Colleagues believe his kidnapping by ISIS-affiliated terrorists in 2012 in Syria was one of opportunity and not a deliberate targeting. James Foley, another journalist kidnapped by ISIS and beheaded last month by the terror group, was Catholic.

However, Sotloff’s family in South Florida, his friends and colleagues — indeed much of the journalistic community — went to lengths to conceal his family’s deep involvement in the Jewish community and his Israeli citizenship in order not to draw his captors’ attention to a factor that may have exacerbated his ordeal. JTA did not report on his captivity for the same reason.

The captors of Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal correspondent kidnapped and beheaded by terrorists in Pakistan in 2002, made a point of his Jewishness. In the video showing his execution, they included Pearl saying “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish. I am a Jew” among his final words.

“We send our deepest condolences to the family of Steven Sotloff,” Pearl’s parents, Judea and Ruth, said in a statement emailed to JTA. “We know too well the pain of such horrific loss. Once again the world has seen the horror of terrorism in action. We continue to find strength in the belief that united, civilization will triumph and humanity will prevail.”

As ethnic and sectarian origins loom large in every encounter, keeping Sotloff’s Jewish identity under wraps made sense, said Janine Zacharia, who has reported in the region for the Washington Post.

“For me, the first question whenever I met anyone in the Arab world was ‘where are you from,’ and they weren’t asking whether it was the United States or Canada — it was ‘are you a Muslim or a Jew?’ ” said Zacharia, who was based in Jerusalem for the Post from 2009 until 2011 and who now lectures at Stanford University.

“I would say, ‘I’m from New York or D.C.,’ and if they persisted, I would say ‘My grandfather is from Greece,’ which is true. I didn’t want to say what my religion was,” she said.

Another Jerusalem-based correspondent who asked not to be named because she is still reporting throughout the region said she drew on the experiences of extended family who are Christian to pretend she was as well.

“You hear it in conversation. ‘You’re not a Jew, are you?’ ” said this correspondent, who knew Sotloff. She said it was especially pronounced in Libya during the overthrow of Muammar Gadhafi there in 2011. “There was so much indoctrination against Jews, but they didn’t know Jews.”

Suspicion of Jews is not straightforward, correspondents said. Often it is wrapped into other issues — for instance, being based at  Jerusalem, which hundreds of foreign journalists are. Many governments in the region tend to ban entry to correspondents, regardless of religious heritage, who are based in Israel.

When they are allowed in, Jerusalem correspondents traveling to Arab countries go to lengths to cover up any Israel ties: ripping tags out of clothes, leaving Israeli cash with trusted friends in transit cities, shutting down social media accounts.

It’s not just an Israel address that can raise mistrust. First impressions in the region often take into account one’s background and presumed loyalties.

Aaron Schachter, who was based in Lebanon and Jerusalem for the BBC in the last decade, said that in Lebanon, asking one’s background was a natural opening conversational gambit. But when the answer was “Jewish,” he said, there was a patina of suspicion that he called “creepy.”

“In Lebanon it was slightly threatening because everyone pays attention to what you are — Sunni, Shia — and it’s not unusual for someone to call attention to it, but at a point it’s vaguely threatening” for Jews, said Schachter, now an assignment editor for The World, a Public Radio International program.

“I know what you are,” he recalled an interlocutor affiliated with Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based group that repeatedly waged war with Israel, as saying. The man drew the conclusion, correctly, that Schachter was Jewish from his first name.

“I know they’re going to try to figure out who you are, whether a Maronite Christian or Orthodox Christian,” Schachter said. “But when you have someone say ‘I know what you are,’ what is the purpose of that in the course of the conversation we’re having?”

One thing journalists quickly learn is that the Jewish “tells” in the West don’t mean much in the Middle East. Jewish names obvious in the West are not at all so in the region, and stereotypical “Jewish looks” among westerners are indistinguishable from the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern features that are common throughout the Middle East.

“My name might have been Miriam Leah Goldbergstein, and I wouldn’t have worried,” said Lisa Goldman, who reported for various outlets in Lebanon and then in Cairo during the Arab Spring in 2011.

A non-Jewish Baghdad correspondent for a major U.S. outlet recalled that in 2009, she and another American staffer were alarmed when they learned that a U.S.-based staffer for the outlet was on his way in for a reporting stint. From his looks and name, she said, they immediately surmised he was Jewish.

Stoking their alarm was the fact that local Iraqi hires were unabashed in their anti-Jewish hostility, at least in conversation with the non-Jewish American staffers, said this correspondent who asked not to be named to speak freely.

So she and the other American devised a plan: The incoming reporter would be met in Amman, Jordan, by the local Iraqi hires and taken out for dinner before traveling to Baghdad. Neither the incoming reporter nor the Iraqis knew the true agenda of the dinner, and the Iraqis were not told that the reporter was Jewish.

Afterward, she recalled, she casually asked the local hires for their impressions of the newcomer — would he fit in? Their reactions were universally positive; no one had guessed he was Jewish.

“It’s an issue,” said this correspondent, who knew Sotloff and after his kidnapping obsessively tracked on the Internet whether his Jewishness was exposed.

“There’s so much conspiracy indulgence,” she said. “There’s so much suspicion about spies, Israeli spies.”

Jamie Tarabay, a senior staff writer for Al Jazeera who is not Jewish, said the anti-Jewish hostility alarmed her during her reporting in Baghdad for a number of major U.S. outlets.

“All I know is that people who might have been Jewish in Baghdad, you kept it quiet, you did not talk about it,” she said.

Goldman said that the educated professionals she encountered in Lebanon and Egypt were at pains to distinguish between Jews and Zionists.

“People’s minds are very muddled, they talk about the people of the book, the tolerance that the Prophet had for the Jews, but they are aware most Jews support Israel as an identity issue,” said Goldman, now the director of the Israel-Palestine initiative at the New America Foundation, a think tank.

Goldman recalled a casual conversation she had in her pidgin Arabic with a cab driver in Cairo in 2011, during the uprising. The mood was festive and it began well, she said.

“’Where are you from?’ ‘Canada.’ ‘Walla! Are you a Christian?’ ‘No I’m Jewish,’” Goldman recounted. “He must have changed color five times and went silent.”

She asked an Egyptian friend later about the encounter and was told that years of anti-Jewish government propaganda had left its mark.

“ ‘He was probably wondering where your horns were,’ ” her friend told her.

Jewish student press group convenes in L.A.

More than two dozen Jewish high school student journalists from Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco gathered on Oct. 24 for a four-day convention and Shabbaton that aimed to build students’ practical journalism skills while addressing the intersection of news reporting and Jewish ethics.

The inaugural convention of the newly formed Jewish Scholastic Press Association (JSPA), held at B’nai David-Judea Congregation in Pico-Robertson, included workshops and lectures that covered issues such as Jewish journalism ethics, Israel coverage in the college press, freedom of the press in religious high schools, copyright law, photojournalism, layout techniques and more.

The conference was co-sponsored by Shalhevet, a Modern Orthodox school on Fairfax Avenue, and the American Jewish Press Association. It was organized by Joelle Keene, adviser to Shalhevet’s prize-winning newspaper, The Boiling Point. A total of 28 students — all but seven from Los Angeles — attended.

On Thursday, the conference’s first afternoon, students chose among several workshops. One was led by Los Angeles-based New York Times national correspondent Jennifer Medina, who is an Orthodox Jew. She gave students a glimpse into life as an observant Jewish journalist at The New York Times.

“The most difficult thing for me is Shabbat,” Medina said to a group of about 20 students in B’nai David’s beit midrash. “We work in a news system that goes on 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“It’s quite unusual for any journalist to say, ‘There’s going to be 25 hours in a week where, not only will I not work, I won’t check e-mail or answer my phone,” Medina continued.

Students asked Medina questions ranging from her coverage of Israel during her brief stint as the paper’s Jerusalem correspondent to whether she has had to compromise her Jewish and halachic values as a journalist.

After Medina’s talk, Ricki Heicklen, a senior at the Modern Orthodox SAR High School in Riverdale, N.Y., told the Journal she learned how her religiosity is “going to shape my life later on” if she pursues a career in journalism. Heicklen is the editor-in-chief of her school’s newspaper, The Buzz. 

Students from out of town stayed at local families’ homes and attended B’nai David for Shabbat meals and services. They also had an opportunity to sample the various kosher restaurants lining Pico Boulevard.

The event’s keynote was given by Dana Erlich, Israeli consul for culture, media and public diplomacy in Los Angeles. 

In one session, journalist Kathleen Neumeyer, the adviser of the student newspaper at L.A.’s Harvard-Westlake School, addressed the issue of covering controversial news within one’s own community. She discussed the balance needed in reporting significant news while trying to not unfairly hurt anyone. 

“What are stories that maybe you could tell, but maybe they could be harmful to somebody?” she asked the students.

Adam Rokah, a junior at Shalhevet and the arts editor for the school’s newspaper, The Boiling Point, said that Neumeyer’s workshop gave him insights into “what names you can use and what has to be anonymous.”

Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of the Jewish Week of New York, was among others who participated in the conference, along with several representatives from TRIBE Media Corp., the parent company of the Jewish Journal. They included Rob Eshman, publisher and editor-in-chief; David Suissa, president; and Susan Freudenheim, executive editor.

Deena Nerwen, a student at SAR, was awarded the JSPA’s inaugural prize for Jewish scholastic journalism for her story on the Tav HaYosher, an Orthodox initiative in New York that aims to improve working conditions in kosher restaurants.