By:  | 

A Messenger and a Mirror

“Our job in this age, as I see it, is not to serve as cheerleaders for our side,” wrote James Reston, the New York Times journalist and author of The Artillery of the Press, “but to help the largest possible number of people to see the realities.” Reston was circling around a metaphor commonly used in the industry and first articulated by Joseph Pulitzer, that journalism holds a mirror up to society. Journalism, at least the way journalists see its most ideal form, becomes a mediator of “true” reality by standing above the fray in the face of government, corporate, and intellectual forces.

OU-intern-ad_commentator_may9This metaphor presents journalists as neutral observers, without preconceived notions and without visions for the future. In the world of journalism theory, journalists can (with effort) be neutral informers, interpreters, and instruments to institutions and corporations. Their mirror is clear and flat. But there is another more aggressive notion of the press as critic and advocate, as watchdog and fourth pillar of democracy. Here the mirror is angled and magnified. It reveals ugly features hidden by layers of makeup. At best, this mirror will point society to ills that must be repaired; at its worst, it can invert and distort reality.

We student journalists are, thankfully, shielded from many of the special interests of mainstream journalism that would angle, polish, or otherwise tint that mirror. Contrary to popular belief, we aren’t rewarded for sensationalist content since we aren’t paid by the word, by page views, or by story (We aren’t paid at all!). We are not journalists, and the vast majority of our writers and board members do not plan on going into journalism. We don’t sell newspapers. We aren’t bound by contracts to advertisers. Because The Commentator is an independent newspaper—we don’t receive a cent from the university—we aren’t beholden to the whims of student council presidents or pressure from faculty or the strong hand of the administration.

We write because we enjoy the challenge of reporting, because we are invested in our university, and because we want to see it improve. That being said, we still must strive to balance neutral observation with partial participation, a balancing act made harder by the fact that we, as students at Yeshiva University, are participants in the very stories we report.

This year, I am proud to have led a newspaper that, I believe, straddled this duality. We attempted to convey stories to the student body in as impartial a form as possible. The Office of Communications at YU had one busy year, and so did our newspaper team. Between the sexual abuse lawsuit at the beginning of this year, to YU board members accused of scandalous crimes, to university’s freefalling credit and financial crisis, we were, sadly, not lacking in content. We tried our hardest to interpret complex data and convey the administration’s hopes against the grim realities of the situation at hand. Our editors strove for neutrality while, at the same time, illuminating stories that would otherwise have remain buried or suppressed. We allowed facts to speak loudly while giving all parties involved in our stories an opportunity to speak.

At the same time, we refused to act as stenographers for the administration of the university. We voiced our concern as students and future alumni who care deeply about our own education and the long-term health of our alma mater. In open letters and in opinion pieces, we wrote passionately about the future of this university, of salient topics in the Jewish world and in the world at large. The world paid attention. We broke stories that landed into the pages of The Jewish Week, JTA, The Jewish Daily Forward, Bloomberg, and The New York Times. 

Despite our efforts, some of our readers accuse us of bias or a narrow news agenda, likely because our reporting conflicted with their own views (Objectivity is in the eye of the beholder). They claim we have twisted what they saw in the mirror—inflated the shapes and sizes of the picture so that it no longer resembles reality. They say that we have grown too far away from the “true” student body to know what the “true” university is, and so we cannot reflect a true picture of our community.

The Commentator is regularly accused of being populated by frenzied dogmatists, ready to twist facts and blacken reputations to suit our own “agenda,” while, at the same time, of being composed of jaded pessimists, who could hardly give a damn about the school at all. This complaint, as old as the newspaper itself, has taken an odd turn this year. I am regularly accosted by students asking why we “ignore all the good things that happen in YU,” which we of course strive to report, or why “we keep dredging up the bad,” as if we had made Faustian bargains with the devil in order to increase our readership and not simply reported on the news that is being printed in every major Jewish newspaper and, increasingly, in major news outlets.

Here I quote Pulitzer again, “Blame the people before the mirror, and not the mirror itself.” While I believe criticism of the press is what keeps the press healthy—and will freely admit that, on a number of occasions, our enthusiasm prevented us from double checking certain facts which we later corrected—I believe the knee-jerk reaction of anti-newspaper vitriol must end. Shooting the messenger may be an age-old response to undesirable news, but it is an unproductive method of staying informed about our school.

Attacks on media outlets at YU are not limited to The Commentator. Behind closed doors, I have personally heard administrators and board members lay down scorn against journalists who brought sexual abuse at MTA High School to light, as if the biggest crime was reporting on the abuse and not the abuse itself.

Worst still, the administration’s palpable willingness to curtail our reporters’ ability to gather and report news—through limiting interviews, chastising editors, limiting our ability to send out ystud and sstuds, kicking me off of Model United Nations to prevent additional news coverage, and hoarding information—to make students, faculty and employees at YU more dependent than ever on their spin of events, signals a troubling new development this year. That administrators can strong-arm a professor into asking us to take down an article he wrote (we honor personal decisions), is one recent example of this growing trend. Troubling grassroots examples include the all-too-common band of self-righteous vigilante students (and rabbis) who, instead of adding to debates, remove The Commentator from newsstands.

Draconian amendments were also proposed to the student constitution by a group of anonymous students that would prohibit the paper from advertising outside academic programs, allow an “independent board” to review and censor articles, and require that the editor-in-chief be elected by the student body, among other onerous requirements.

These rules, unheard of in university newspapers and in The Commentator’s 79 years of existence, would effectively shut down the freedom of press at Yeshiva College. We anticipate that the General Assembly of student leaders will reject these amendments. In addition, since The Commentator receives no funding from students, these amendments, even if they did pass, would have no bearing on the day-to-day operations of the paper. Still, that someone took the time to write such amendments signals a growing resentment of open dialogue, inquiry, debate, and other values the newspaper—and I hope many in this university—support.

Attack the messenger, and you will always find a receptive audience. Censor the messenger, and you will have the audience to yourself. Neither tactic solves any problems, but it does keep you from taking a hard look in the mirror.