But is it journalism?
by Jonathan Rosenblum
October 18, 2002
My friend and colleague Rabbi Berel Wein likes to tell of the secular historian who argued that Eastern Europe experienced a tremendous decline in religious observance between the two world wars (which happens to be true) and cited in support a statement of the Imrei Emes of Gur: ``I have 50,000 chassidim who do not fast on Yom Kippur.¹¹ The Gerrer Rebbe meant that he had 50,000 chassidim below the age of fasting, but the historian completely misunderstood him to be lamenting the lack of religiosity among his flock.
That vignette captures nicely how impenetrable the haredi community can be even for those who do not speak its language or know its rhythms. I was reminded of the perils confronting sightseers in the haredi world by a recent piece in the Jerusalem Post Magazine on the haredi press, ``Valued Media.¹¹ Despite the best of intentions, the author missed a great deal simply due to a lack of familiarity with the community and its press. The focus of the piece, for instance, was a weekly scandal sheet that is not even sold in many haredi neighborhoods, much less read, and a weekly newspaper that is sporadically dumped free at the entrances of buildings.
Almost entirely ignored was Mishpacha, which is sold as a magazine and separate newspaper together. In only six years, Mishpacha has grown to be the most widely read haredi publication. Any serious student of the changing demographics of haredi society, and its increasing involvement with the outside world, would find a good deal of raw material in the meteoric rise of Mishpacha. The magazine¹s willingness to take a critical look at many aspects of haredi life provides a window into a changing world.
Similarly, a serious investigator of the haredi world would want to understand how the English HaModia came to dominate the English-language market in Israel and Europe and surpassed its chief competitor in America, despite the competitor¹s headstart of near a decade. But to even ask the right questions, one has to know the history of the various papers and understand their different styles and production values. (In the interests of full disclosure, I write weekly for both Mishpacha and the English HaModia.)
The interesting thing about a rising young writer like Yedidya Meir is not that he was fired from Mishpacha for writing in the secular press (as the Jerusalem Post article wrongly claimed), but rather that he writes weekly for Mishpacha, while continuing to publish in Ha¹aretz and Yediot Aharonot. That type of crossover is becoming more and more common, with writers like Kobi Arielli, Dudi Zilbershlag, and Rabbi Yisroel Eichler writing regularly for both the secular and religious press.
"IS IT journalism?" was the question posed by "Valued Media." To answer that question, one would first need a clear definition of journalism and a benchmark of comparison. If "a journalist is someone who given more time would write worse," as in Karl Kraus' classic definition, presumably haredi journalists do not differ markedly. The same conclusion holds true if we define a journalist as someone who "knows nothing about everything."
It is easy to poke fun at Yated Ne¹eman for describing a television as a "electrical machine" in a story about a toddler killed when the family TV toppled on top of him. But no Yated readers were confused about the nature of the machine or the message conveyed by the terminology.
Such minor fiddling with the news pales in comparison with that engaged in by The New York Times, which boasts of carrying "All the news fit to print." The Times regularly slants its news coverage in line with its editorial position. In a particularly egregious example, a recent front-page story listed Henry Kissinger among a group of Republican senior statesmen counseling President Bush against an attack on Iraq when Kissinger had explicitly written that week in the Washington Post of the "imperative for preemptive action."
From the signing of the Oslo Accords through September 2000, the Israeli media consistently suppressed information about the incitement against Israel in the Palestinian media and textbooks, as well as Arafat¹s description of his plan for conquest "in stages" in his speeches to Arabic-speaking audiences. Prior to the 1996 election, more than a dozen journalists who were present when candidate Shimon Peres referred to "stupid Arabs," failed to report the remark so as not to influence the outcome of the election, and the same thing happened when Court President Aharon Barak opined to a group of journalists about the lack of Sephardim qualified for the Court.
Yet rarely is the question posed whether The New York Times or Ha¹aretz constitute journalism. The information deliberately suppressed or distorted by those papers, however, is far more relevant to the lives of their readers than Yated Ne¹eman¹s elision of the word "television."
The content of haredi papers is selected on much the same basis as that of secular newspapers: relevance and interest to the readership. The security situation is of importance to every Israeli, and so HaModia employs one of Israel¹s best military correspondents, Israel Katsover. On the other hand, one will not find many ads for million dollar weekend homes in the Hamptons or coverage of the love lives of Hollywood stars in the haredi press, simply because haredim do not live in the Hamptons or watch movies.
Still no haredi editor will take offense at being told his standards of news selection are not necessarily those of Rupert Murdoch, on the one hand, or those taught at the Columbia School of Journalism, on the other. (One of my teachers has a way of saying "journalists and the like," while waving his wrist as if talking about cockroaches, that makes one want to quickly disavow any connection to the journalistic profession.)
Just because an item might be of interest does not ensure its place in the haredi press. Monica Lewinsky or gang rapes in high school might interest some readers, but the haredi press gives such stories a wide swath. The haredi population reads voraciously, and it is assumed that any reading matter that comes into the house will be consumed by every family reader. No haredi parent wants the news stories his children read to dictate the time and manner of discussing the facts of life with them.
A few years back, a fellow columnist on these pages poked fun at the haredi press for failing to report about a serial rapist in Tel Aviv. But the story was essentially irrelevant to haredi readers. Even if the rapist been active in Bnei Brak the story would still not have been reported, but the necessary information would have circulated rapidly through the close-knit community.
The essence of the Torah¹s epistemology is that we are profoundly affected by everything we see or read. One cannot read about the antics of presidents and their interns without being tainted in the process. And when such incidents are multiplied a hundredfold in one¹s reading, one¹s attitude to them inevitably becomes a bit more matter of fact. Instead of viewing them with the revulsion of the Torah, they become simply the way of the world. It is that desensitization that the haredi community seeks to avoid.
Prior to the Flood, the Torah describes the entire earth as "corrupt before God. . ." So pervasive had the sexual perversity and violence grown that only God any longer noticed. To everyone else that was just the way things are. If the determination to avoid such desensitization makes the haredi media less journalistic, it is a price worth paying.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics
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