As The Jerusalem Post turns 90, it’s time for me to reflect on 37 of those years – the ones that I have spent at this venerable newspaper.
Thirty-seven years. That’s 41.1% of the paper’s entire history. That’s three publishers, 10 editors-in-chief, and innumerable colleagues. It’s also one heck of a lot of misspelled words and participles left dangling.
During this time I’ve learned much about the country, the Post, my profession, my readers and myself.
FIRST, THE country.
After being a part of the coverage of most of the major stories that have shaped this nation for nearly four decades – from the Demjanjuk trial to the mass aliyah of Soviet and Ethiopian Jews; from the Rabin assassination to the premiership of Ariel Sharon; from the Gaza withdrawal to the Netanyahu-Obama years – the one thing I can say for certain is that nothing is as good or as bad as it seems or is often portrayed.
We are a hyperbolic people. Nothing can be just good or bad – it must be either over-the-top good or apocalyptically bad. A bad law in the Knesset is the end of democracy; a tiff with a US president is the end of the American-Israeli relationship; and a maritime agreement with Lebanon is a historic diplomatic achievement. Nothing can just be parve; everything is the end of the world.
Now about the Post.
I will be forever grateful to the Post. It has provided me with a livelihood from the moment I made aliyah (though it would have been extra special had it paid hi-tech salaries).
Moreover, it has allowed me the opportunity to ply my trade unimpeded. In all the years I’ve worked here – when the paper was a left-wing paper owned by the Histadrut, when it was a right-wing paper owned by David Radler and Conrad Black, and now in its current orientation under Eli Azur – I can count on one hand the number of times I have been instructed to write a piece in a particular way. It just never happens.
I feel lucky to be working here for two other reasons. The first is that the paper recognizes that Israel – though full of warts and faults – is a noble venture. That’s the baseline: Israel is good; we’re the good guys. Not perfect, not beyond criticism, but good. Not all media outlets, including some in this country, work from that starting point.
I’m lucky to have worked here for another reason as well: It prolonged my longevity in journalism. Since the Post covers Israel, and Israel is such a fascinating story, for the past 37 years I never tired of writing about it.
Had I come out of college and gone to work, say, for my hometown paper – The Denver Post – I doubt I would have kept plying this trade for so long. Why? Because I probably would have started out covering the Denver municipality and surely would have gotten bored of it after not too long. How exciting, really, can those transportation and municipal planning stories be in Denver?
But here I started off in the local In Jerusalem supplement writing about the Jerusalem Municipality during the days of mayor Teddy Kollek, and even that was fascinating. What can I say? Denver is not Jerusalem, and the stories here have much greater significance, importance and resonance for me than the stories there.
Regarding my profession, one thing I’ve learned along the way is that journalism can breed an unhealthy dose of cynicism. Skepticism is necessary – you need to be skeptical about what you are told – but too much cynicism can be corrosive.
If not careful, you can end up not believing anybody or constantly thinking the worst of people and their motives, or never – but never – taking anything at face value. While this may be a good instinct for a reporter, it’s not a great way to go through life or particularly healthy to take those skewed attitudes home at the end of the day.
Sometimes, as that quote mistakenly attributed to Sigmund Freud famously has it, a cigar is just a cigar. Sometimes things are just what they seem, without ulterior, Machiavellian motives lurking behind them.
I’ve also learned a lot about how people view what they read.
For example, when someone says that something you wrote was good, they don’t necessarily think it was well crafted, well punctuated, well sourced, or well thought out. Rather, they agreed with it. On those precious occasions when someone told me that they liked what I wrote, I sometimes probed a bit and asked what it was that they particularly liked. Invariably, they admitted that they liked it because it echoed their own thoughts and legitimized their own opinions.
I’ve also learned that folks feel free to trash your place of employment if you work for a newspaper. I can’t count the number of times someone I met for the first time would, when told where I worked, slam the paper – as if I didn’t work there, as if their Post-bashing did not somehow reflect on me, as if I took no pride in my place of employment.
Once, many years ago, a professor of Jewish thought at Ben-Gurion University harshly criticized the Post in our first-ever chance meeting, saying the paper had gotten so bad that he had stopped reading it. Younger then, I took offense (it bothers me less now). I looked him straight in the eye and asked him where he worked. When he replied BGU, I said that I heard that the Jewish Philosophy Department there was horrid, just horrid, that nothing worthwhile has ever come out of it, and that I wouldn’t let my kid study there if it was the last academic option on the planet.
I got my point across.
And what I’ve learned on a personal level is that I’m a better writer than reporter, that I’m overly self-conscious about my American accent when asking a question at a Hebrew press conference, that I really dislike being dependent on officials to throw me a few crumbs of information once in a while, and that it is a lot more fun writing these types of columns than writing about Benjamin Netanyahu, the Palestinians, Iran or the state of US-Israel relations.
The problem is that these types of columns can’t fill a newspaper or pay my bills, while Netanyahu, the Palestinians, Iran and the state of US-Israel ties provide endless material – just endless – for stories and analysis. It’s the gift that just keeps on giving. It’s what has kept the Post in business for 90 years, and what has kept me gainfully employed here, thank God, for fully 41.1% of that time.