Love or Be Loved? The Dilemma of Jewish Journalism
The “in-crowd” of Jewish journalism is more elite than the cool kids’ lunch table in high school.
The prerequisites for holding such a title are relatively clear and easy to abide by: cover glowing community achievements, report only on soft news and reaffirm a world view that the Jewish community is comfortable with. These outlets are popular because they preach to the choir and avoid veering off-script. We can all think of several Jewish newspapers that fit this mold — they air the clean laundry and leave the crumpled ball of dirty clothes in the corner.
To be fair, these types of publications do fulfill a want and need of our community. We deserve to take pride in our successes and to indulge in “positive news.” At a time when global and domestic events can be less than comforting, to say the least, that makes sense. But at the same time, we must ask ourselves: If our community journalists are only reporting on what we want to hear, then what will happen to what we need to hear?
Such a responsibility is undertaken by another set of Jewish journalists — “the outsiders.” From this cohort, stories can include ones like those coming from the in-crowd, but they are not limited to them. They also cover the not-so-positive news from our community, everything from corruption scandals to sexual abuse coverups. These are the stories the community does not want to hear, but they are the stories it needs to hear.
From the perspective of the journalists, the decision of what to report boils down to one question: Would they rather love or be loved by the Jewish community? This dilemma defines the essence of the Jewish journalist’s experience.
Take, for example, a story by The Jewish Week’s former editor, Gary Rosenblatt. In June 2000, he published a 6,000-word exposé on Baruch Lanner, an esteemed rabbi and Jewish educator whose sexual, physical and emotional abuses were “an open secret in Orthodox circles” but wholly ignored. Lanner worked with teenagers for over 30 years at that time, namely through NCSY programs, and it was only once Rosenblatt’s article hit the public stage that his abuses were taken seriously. New Jersey law enforcement undertook the case, and two years later, Lanner was convicted of sexually abusing two girls.
Today, there’s no question that we look back on that revolutionary moment with positivity and gratitude — for the sake of Lanner’s past and potential victims — but that wasn’t always the case. While Rosenblatt received overwhelming support for his work at the time, he was also vilified in the aftermath. The backlash against him was, as one Jewish editor put it, for violating the eleventh of the Ten Commandments: “Thou Shalt Not Air Thy Dirty Laundry.” Rather than address those problems, people wished Rosenblatt never uncovered them.
For Rosenblatt, the answer to the aforementioned was clear. He cared more about loving his community — reporting on its most heinous problems in their entirety — than being loved by his community — burying the story as if it never existed. But this isn’t a perspective people tend to hold.
On The Commentator, we are often met with a jaundiced eye when reporting on YU’s most contentious issues, whether that’s relating to the rape allegations, LGBTQ discrimination or the sex abuse lawsuit. People will half-seriously jest that we only care about the “controversial topics” because we “love the hock.” Others will condemn the paper as something unbefitting of a yeshiva that antagonistically wants to stir the pot on campus. This characterization of the paper is insulting and hurtful, but most of all, it’s untrue.
The reason that The Commentator’s writers and editors do what they do is because we love the YU community. We love the community enough to risk ostracization when reporting on hot-button issues. We love the community enough to spend hours each week ensuring we publish truthfully and effectively. We love the community enough to forfeit being loved by it so that we can truly serve it. Everything we do is because we believe it’s best for YU. The gap in people’s understanding about this core of Jewish journalism leads to those misperceptions.
Do we wish that we could both love and be loved by the community? Absolutely. But that is not often possible. Ultimately, the difference between journalists committed to serving the community and journalists committed to serving themselves is what they do when their help is not wanted but still needed. Despite the difficulties inherent in that decision, genuine journalists know what must be done, and they’re willing to accept the risks all the same.