CHICAGO – Federation control of Jewish newspapers has had a dampening effect on the reporting of issues of significance to Jewish communities in the US, the American Jewish Press Association asserted.
In an op-ed on eJewish- Philanthropy.com on Tuesday, AJPA President Marshall Weiss and Alan Abbey of the Shalom Hartman Institute argued that a dialogue is needed between Jewish journalists, Federation professionals and lay leaders in order to rethink the relationship between communal institutions and the news outlets they own.
Many communities cannot support newspapers without Federation support and while the Federation system has played a very important role in creating the modern Jewish media landscape, “the professionally trained journalists that staff these Jewish media outlets are often thwarted when it comes to reporting on news of real importance in their communities that Federation leadership may perceive as negative,” Weiss and Abbey wrote.
As a result, Jewish media outlets have faced a brain drain and as Federations find themselves unable to raise as much money through their campaigns as in previous years “the pressure on Federation-owned or -funded publications to promote Federation efforts at the expense of independent news coverage has increased and is bound to intensify.”
Federations, they continued, should sign on to codes of journalistic ethics in order to create “buffer zones, so that at the very least, Federations will think twice about violating this code.”
If Jewish newspapers publish fluff, their readers, used to hard hitting independent journalism as consumers of mainstream media, will turn away from community publications, Weiss and Abbey wrote, adding that “when a Jewish journalist wants to write an article that a Federation leader worries may cause problems with funders, the journalist isn’t trying to tear down the community.”
In a 2013 poll of more than 100 American Jewish journalists, the American Jewish Press Association and Shalom Hartman Institute found that respondents were “less likely to view themselves as ‘watchdogs’ of government and business and are less willing to be critical of their community than mainstream American journalists.”
“Jewish community leaders need education about the need for a vigorous and independent Jewish media,” the study’s preparers’ declared, with one newspaper editor cited as saying that “while many in our local community “understand and respect the independence of local Jewish media,” a few wealthy and influential individuals do not, and are able to “exert an outsize influence on fund-raisers and institutions, and thus on editorial independence.”
Only 43 percent of the publications for which the respondents worked were owned by private businesses.
According to Richard Wexler, one of the founders of the United Jewish Communities, the precursor to the Jewish Federations of North America umbrella organization, many Jewish leaders today use their “captive newspapers” to “squeeze out anything that might be viewed as negative – and, often, that controlled press has had a negative impact on independent Jewish newspapers.”
“At a time when we have seen the checks and balances that used to be assured by Federation and Agency Boards decline and, even, disappear in some instances, often the only check on malfeasance and misfeasance are those newspapers.
Never was ‘Jewish journalism leadership’” more necessary or relevant,” he told The Jerusalem Post. “I hope that Marshall Weiss’s, the AJPA and Alan Abbey’s efforts are successful.”
Responding to Weiss and Abbey’s call, Susie Rosenbluth, editor of the The Jewish Voice and Opinion in Englewood, New Jersey, told the Post that “such a dialogue could lead to better understandings and channels through which grievances and suggestions might be addressed for both parties as well as for the general Jewish public.
“The only downside I can foresee would be if goodwill (especially on the part of the publication) is misinterpreted by the fund-raisers as acquiescence or willing subservience.
Unless the publication is designed as an organ of the Federation, no local newspaper wants to be accused of doing little more than public relations,” she added.
“We live in an age where conflict of interest is legion and objectivity has been the greatest casualty in media in general – including in Jewish media,” said Larry Gordon, the publisher of the Five Towns Jewish Times, an independent newspaper from Long Island, New York.
“True journalistic objectivity and integrity requires an independent Jewish press and writers and editors who do not have an agenda or an ax to grind. It is difficult to fathom how Federation publications could achieve those objectives,” he said.
Federation funding can be problematic if officials try to dictate coverage, so efforts to encourage Federations to be more mindful of the “vital watchdog role local Jewish newspapers can and do play” is to be applauded, said Michele Chabin, the Israel correspondent for the New York Jewish Week and USA Today.
“But let’s not forget that many federation-funded Jewish newspapers are already doing ‘real journalism,’ and to say otherwise comes off as patronizing,” she added.
In response to Weiss and Abbey, Jewish Federations spokeswoman Rebecca Dinar said, “Local Jewish news is an essential part of a strong Jewish community and we are proud of our Federations’ longstanding support for Jewish news on the local, national, and international levels. Last year, we worked with Marshall and the American Jewish Press Association to incorporate their annual conference with the GA [the Federations’ annual General Assembly]. We look forward to building on the relationship in the coming years and continuing to develop areas of mutual interest.”