Jewish channel scoops mainstream press

US television broadcaster breaks story of controversial Israeli ad campaign and Gingrich "Palestinian" comment.

Steven Weiss 311 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Steven Weiss 311
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
NEW YORK – In the past month, two stories have come to light that have rocked the American Jewish community: first, ads inviting Israelis to “come home” in language deemed insensitive by American Jews, and second, presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich calling the Palestinians an “invented” people.
What do these two stories have in common? They were broken not by CNN or the New York Times, but by the cable channel The Jewish Channel, a veritable Jewish David among the Goliaths of television.
Called a “Jewish HBO” by the New York Times, The Jewish Channel is five years old and has 50,000 subscribers on cable television across the US. Steven Weiss, director of original programming and new media for The Jewish Channel, said the channel was launched in order “to provide something that other people haven’t thought to provide –or that other people aren’t trying to provide.”
When Weiss and others at The Jewish Channel, for example, became aware of the aliya ads through billboards in various cities, they noted that these were billboards that, unlike other ventures by the Israeli government, were put up with no heralding press release. The Jewish Channel opted to investigate, with the eventual results being an outcry in the American Jewish community and the ad campaign being stopped by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
“The more we uncovered, the more interesting it became,” Weiss recounted.
“How bold the message was, and to what degree it had been put out without being put at all on the radar of American Jews. We called it a ‘semicovert national campaign,’ because it was clearly meant to be kept out of the eyes of those at whom it was not specifically targeted.
“Even now, I think it’s an interesting story – the divide between Israeli and American attitudes,” Weiss said. “It hits on a lot of central themes about identity – ‘How can you not think we’re special?’ on the part of the Israelis, versus ‘How can you not think we’re equal to you?’ on the part of the Americans. It’s obvious how that would strike a chord.”
When Gingrich told Weiss in a Jewish Channel interview that the Palestinians were an “invented people,” the clip was rerun by the major news networks multiple times, and seen “tens of millions of times” every hour last weekend, Weiss said.
Gingrich was “really candid,” Weiss said, “and really detailed about a lot of things that nobody had bothered to ask him.”
“It’s surprising that nobody had bothered to get his thoughts on these matters,” Weiss said. “If you look at all the debates and all the questions asked of him, there were a lot of horse race questions and almost no questions that got him to explain his foreign policy attitudes.
“That’s something that Jewish media can contribute to the equation in covering these races,” Weiss said of the upcoming 2012 election. “If these feelings and statements of his were not on the record before, there must be a large gap in coverage of every campaign, if these are not the kinds of attitudes that we’re getting.”
When speaking to a Jewish channel specifically, Weiss speculated, Gingrich gave a particularly targeted interview and sent out his now-noteworthy theory.
“It’s good for Jewish media because it gives us a real place to step in and say, ‘Here’s something the mainstream media isn’t getting at,’” Weiss said.
“We obviously could never hope to achieve that kind of regular viewership,” he said of the tens of millions of hits to online clips of the interview over the weekend. “But I think everything we do here is the result of years of hard work and planning and attention to what’s important, and I think that our successes in recent weeks reflect that kind of overall ethic and particular hard work by the individuals here.”
This “missing link” of a cable channel with a Jewish angle has been well-received by Jewish audiences, Weiss said, although the political coverage that they provide is a “very small fraction” of the channel’s much larger Jewish and Israeli culture offerings. The channel provides Jewish and Israeli movies and television shows, including the popular Srugim, that often don’t get a wider audience in the US.
“Much of our content are these amazing movies and documentaries that don’t make it to HBO or Sundance or your local Cineplex, because they say, ‘We had a Jewish movie last year,’” Weiss said.
Recent events have given the channel more exposure than it had previously.
“Keep working hard enough and long enough, and then the planets align and you end up doing something really significant,” Weiss said. “It’s gratifying to see those kinds of results come from our work.”