Jewish journalists grapple with doing the write thing

WASHINGTON — Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of the New York Jewish Week, consulted a high-profile rabbi before publishing his investigative report about Rabbi Baruch Lanner's abuse of teenagers last year. His concern was whether the publicity of it would be considered lashon hara, slander according to Hebrew law.

"Jews are like everyone else but more so," said Rosenblatt, quoting an old Jewish saying.

Do Jewish journalists have more obligations than others? Are they responsible first to their communities, and do they need to represent Israel in their newspapers?

These questions and others were raised by the 50 participants of "Do the Write Thing," a special program for student journalists sponsored by the Jewish Agency for Israel and the World Zionist Organization at the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities held here last week.

"There are different kinds of Jewish journalists," said Rosenblatt. "Some advocate about cause. It's difficult to say I'm objective and to show two sides, and on the other hand to be passionate about the cause."

Rosenblatt said the "role is to be as objective as possible but also understand you are part of the community."

"The truth is our most powerful tool, and we must engage young people with facts before expecting them to take up the cause," he wrote in his weekly editorial.

Rosenblatt's readers are his community, but other speakers asked for the loyalty of Jewish writers in the regular media.

"In order to come to a very wide public we need a medium, a mediator," said Ephraim Lapid, the Jewish Agency spokesperson. "It's the most effective way we have to bring information to many."

Lapid was convinced of the duty of young journalists. "We need presence in the media, either by interviews or by initiative covers or letters to the editor," he said.

He urged the audience to use Israeli consulates and Jewish Agency for Israel representatives to help the Israeli hasbarah, or public relations.

Some young journalists didn't see any problem with Lapid's offers.

"On campus there is already so much anti-Israeli sentiment that we have to be careful about any additional criticism against Israel," said Marita Gringaus, who used to write for Arizona State University's newspaper. "This is our responsibility as Jews, which obviously contradicts our responsibilities as journalists." Gringaus explained her position by saying that in the campus media, "groups are set against each other rather than as objective views."

Uzi Safanov, a writer at the Seawanhaka newspaper of Long Island University in New York, agreed.

"I'm a Jew before being a journalist, before someone pays me to write," he said. "If I find a negative thing about Israel, I will not print it and I will sink into why did it happen and what can I do to change it." Safanov said that even if he eventually wrote about negative incidents that happen in Israel, he would try to find the way "to shift the blame."

Others among the participants felt uncomfortable with these suggestions.

"I personally don't agree with him [Lapid]," said Daniel Treiman, editor of New Voices magazine. "There is a mixture here between journalism and propaganda. Journalists have to realize the importance of unbiased reporting, the fairness of portraying both sides. They are not supposed to be agencies."

Deborah Meyers, who is originally from Marin County and used to work for the Jerusalem Report, agreed.

"They reinforce that, as Jews in the media, you have responsibly to help Israel. This is not reporting; this is PR," she said. "I am Zionist, but it doesn't mean you can't be critical of what happens in Israel."

Still, Meyers feels a loyalty to Jewish values. "It doesn't matter if you are a journalist or in another profession," she said. "Our Jewish values influence every aspect of our lives. Nobody can be totally objective because we all come with our own perspective, our own biases, and that is going to come through in the writing."

Leni Reiss, the American Jewish Press Association liaison to the conference, said one can never be 100 percent objective, "but (as a Jew) you can bring your unique knowledge, your unique sensitivity to the job that you do, and it's not necessarily a bad thing."

"A journalist's duty is getting the story right and meeting the deadline," said Warren Bass, director of special projects/terrorism program and a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He formerly wrote for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and others.

"Try to be a journalist and not a propagandist," he said.