Opinion | Community Journalism: Every Paper a Portrait

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Jesse Bernstein (Courtesy of Jesse Bernstein)

When I was in college, I had the good fortune to spend a summer in New York as an intern for The Forward. It was a time of serious upheaval there; while I don’t think my presence had anything to do with it, I was there for the last print edition of The Forward, in the 120th year of publication.

There have been many changes over the years at The Forward. It was once published exclusively in Yiddish, as a daily; now, it publishes exclusively online, in English, with a Yiddish option available for those who desire. It once had its own building on the LES, with busts of Marx and Engels in the doorway; now, it’s in the Financial District, and the old building has been chunked up into heinously expensive apartments.

The editorial board once was avowedly socialist and anti-Communist; now, though it skews liberal, it publishes a wide range of opinions, reflecting the changing atittudes of Jewish political life in America as our roots go ever deeper, and take in different sorts of nutrients. It is a digital publication now, one of the 21st century.

Another change: The Forward no longer publishes its Bintel Brief column. The advice column (of which a wonderful collection can be found in book form) had a very simple, but very important purpose: teach the Yid masses how to be Americans, without losing what made them Jewish. Any and all questions were welcome. I can’t think of a nobler mission for a Jewish immigrant newspaper.

In 2020, we are largely past the point of needing to educate one another how to be American. Which is good news! But new times bring new challenges, and our challenge is this: a splintered Jewish community desperately needs Jews to try and understand one another (and even this, of course is not so new — Jews of different European origins were at each other’s throats in the early days of The Forward). That is the charge for Jewish communal institutions of all kinds.

In my eyes, this means publishing as wide a range of opinions and voices as possible in our communal publications.

I don’t think anyone is served by reading a paper that misrepresents reality through omission. To ban the mention of groups that express opinions unpopular with a portion of the readership flies in the face of what a newspaper is supposed to be, and only serves to make our actions and beliefs more incomprehensible to one another. In the momentary victory of avoiding unpleasant conflict, distrust and anger toward one another calcifies. This applies to opinion pieces as well.

There are so many forces in the world that seek to make us alien to one another, and it would be a great shame if we helped them do it because we don’t like to see this person or that one in the paper.

The best thing a communal newspaper can aspire to be is a portrait. Every issue should be a snapshot of the community at that moment, so that when someone looks back at these papers one day, they can have as accurate a picture as possible of what people in a community wanted, what they fought over and what they believed. Why deprive them of that? Who is served by an impoverished cultural memory?

I can’t pretend that I’m saying that any opinion or person should be in our papers. We have to make decisions about what is beyond the pale of acceptable discourse, or what isn’t worthy of wide discussion. And yes, those decisions are made by human beings with ideas about the world.

And so all we can ask for is trust. Trust that we are doing our best to faithfully represent the contours of contemporary Jewish life as it is, and not how we want it to be, or how one group of readers or another wants it to be. Keep writing letters, keep calling, keep sending emails. It’s how we get better.

An Explanation of the Exponent’s Opinion Section: https://www.jewishexponent.com/2020/01/23/an-explanation-of-the-exponents-opinion-section/

Op-ed by Liz Spikol: https://www.jewishexponent.com/2020/01/23/opinion-no-longer-agreeing-to-disagree-a-worrisome-change/

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