To be completely frank, I’m not sure what to make of this article in the (fair, venerable) Jewish Daily Forward. Billionaire Boychiks Battle for Media Empire is about Jewish billionaires vying to buy “one of America’s most powerful media companies, Tribune Company, which owns 23 televisions stations, a baseball team and many major newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times.” (Chicago real estate entrepreneur Sam Zell likely has the deal. Liberal Jewish media mogul David Geffen is apparently in talks to buy the LA Times from Zell.)
It seems that both the Trib and the LA Times have a history of contentious relationships with local Jewish leaders, in part because of their histories of WASPish, button-down culture, and in part because of their coverage of Israel. (In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find a major American paper that has not been accused of being anti-Israel, or anti-Palestinian for that matter.)
But there is some real excitement about the possibility of a new Jewish LA Times owner as Bill Boyarsky writes in the Jewish Journal:
However it turns out, we’ll probably have a Jew in charge of the Times, which was once one of old Los Angeles’ most famous WASP institutions. What a great day for old L.A. Jews with long memories of country clubs and downtown clubs that banned them; restrictive covenants that kept them out of certain fancy neighborhoods; anti-Semitic fraternities and sororities at USC and UCLA and law firms that never seemed able to find a place for a smart Jewish attorney. They also may have memories of the old Times, which, while not anti-Semitic, was a perfect reflection of the conservative Republican WASP culture of Los Angeles’ upper classes.
Sam Zell, a major donor to Republican causes, has said he will stick to the business side and not get involved in editorial coverage. (I’m inclined to believe him and leave it at that, unless proven otherwise.) Nonetheless, the main thrust of Nathaniel Popper’s article in the Forward is about whether or not Zell, who Boyarsky says is “more Likud than Labor”, will change Israel coverage:
Still, Zell has made it clear that he does have an interest in the things his new media properties cover. In the interview last week, he said that his favorite newspaper columnists are Charles Krauthammer, Thomas Friedman and David Brooks, all of whom are Jewish and two of whom write frequently and sympathetically about Israel.
Zell himself is a major donor to causes in the Middle East. His donations include a $3.1 million donation to the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center in Israel and separate donations to the Israel Center for Social and Economic Progress, a right-wing Israeli think tank. In the United States, he has given major gifts to such Jewish causes as the American Jewish Committee and a Chicago Jewish day school named after his father. All this is on top of his political donations, which have gone mostly to Republican candidates.
Siegel, the rabbi at Zell’s synagogue, said that Zell is a “committed Zionist” and a “generous supporter of Israel,” along with “a member in good standing” of the synagogue who “comes on the holidays often.”
Among media watchers, this has been fodder for conversation. Ken Reich, a former Los Angeles Times reporter who operates a blog about the paper, said he assumes that Zell will shape the policy of his papers to some degree.
“If he cares about the State of Israel, he won’t want his newspaper to be out there chipping away at Israeli interests,” said Reich, who reported mostly on politics during his 39 years at the Times.
Reich said that at the Times, shifting the editorial policy would require only that Zell be consulted in the hiring of the new editorial page editor — a position that was recently vacated.
“It would not take very much tweaking by him to sharply alter the Times editorial policy on the Middle East,” Reich said. “I tend to expect this to happen.”
On the one hand, this inquiry about how his purchase will impact coverage of Israel is both legitimate and important. And maybe the issue isn’t the article at all, but my response to it. But there’s a part of me that feels very uncomfortable about it all, perhaps because it reinforces the classic anti-Semitic trope of Jews controlling the media. As if it’s understood that any Jew who owns a media outlet will of course influence its coverage to be more “pro- Israel”. (More often than not, I’ve seen that for every Jewish group pressuring a media outlet to be softer on Israel, there have been Jewish journalists or even media outlet owners on the other side.)
Or, perhaps it reflects a different but equally disturbing perspective, that the one and only measure of a media outlet’s “friendliness” to the Jewish community is its willingness to soften critical coverage of Israel.
Could any paper but a Jewish one have written the same piece without folks legitimately calling “anti-Semitism!” because of the underlying assumption of dual loyalties?
Would a paper interrogate David Geffen about buying the LA Times, with folks waiting to see if he will change its gay community coverage? To be a fair, a gay paper would, but its not just Jewish papers but at least some media watchers who are also asking the same questions about Zell.
It’s an open question and I don’t claim to have the answer. Discuss amongst yourselves and Shabbat Shalom!