The Jewish Forward needs to decide: Will it become a repository of listicles and fast-food news, or will it maintain its record of journalistic excellence? Its latest media experiment shows that it can’t do both.
SEATTLE — (Analysis) For over a century, America’s great Jewish newspaper has been the Jewish Daily Forward, known to its readers and admirers simply as The Forward. It began in the rough and tumble days of New York newspapering in the late 19th century, when every Jewish political faction — communist, Bundist, socialist, anarchist, Orthodox — had its own Yiddish-language daily covering the news from a particular political-ideological framework.
The Forward had the widest circulation and many of the best writers, including publisher Abraham Cahan, author of the seminal Jewish bildungsroman, “The Rise of David Levinsky.” Isaac Bashevis Singer, the winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize in Literature, published his new stories in The Forward.
The paper had a socialist political orientation that today might be called social democratic in the European context. Tying itself firmly to the Jewish working class, The Forward championed unions and the fight for a living wage and reasonable work hours. It was decidedly anti-communist.
The other competing Jewish newspapers gradually fell by the wayside as the immigrants assimilated and their children became “real Yankees.” But The Forward stayed relevant by starting an English edition which helped to both retain its readership and attract a younger generation which no longer spoke Yiddish.
No other papers had its ambition to cover such a wide array of Jewish life both in America and the world, and The Forward became a national Jewish newspaper almost by default. In the early days and for decades thereafter, it was a daily with a print circulation at its height of 300,000. As its fortunes declined along with its readership, it became a weekly paper. In the past few years, it stopped its print edition entirely and reverted to online-only.
When the State of Israel was established in 1948, the paper became an enthusiastic supporter, given the socialist philosophy of the dominant Labor Party, which was congenial to The Forward. The Israeli Labor Party’s leftist ideology became watered down over time and identified with a more moderate approach called liberal Zionism. The majority of American Jews share this now perhaps nostalgic view of Israel as a humane society based on democratic values, religious tolerance, and ethnic diversity.
For the past few decades, The Forward’s coverage of Israel has hewn to this line. When a two-state solution became de rigueur after the 1992 Oslo Accords, the Forward supported it. Where the Israeli center-left stood, The Forward stood.
The Forward’s reporting has generally been far superior to that of the local Jewish newspapers in major American cities. It assigns journalists to report stories in depth, interviewing sources and doing significant research. It breaks major stories which are later picked up by the mainstream media. At the height of controversy over the Iran nuclear deal, Larry Cohler Esses, The Forward’s assistant managing editor, scored a major coup when he became the first journalist for a Jewish newspaper to secure a travel visa. The result was a masterful portrait of the state of Iran, which included penetrating interviews with senior Ayatollah on questions of relations between Islam and Judaism, and Israel and Iran.
The Forward adheres to an independent line which is supportive of Jewish communal consensus, but willing to challenge it when necessary.
Of course, in-depth reporting that is willing to buck the prevailing wisdom and question accepted norms costs money, lots of it. And it takes time. They say content is king, and in the current climate content doesn’t have to be superior quality, it just has to exist and find its way to the consumer.
The Forward’s fall
In its early 20th century heyday, The Forward built as its headquarters the first skyscraper on the Lower East Side, an imposing edifice to rival those of the major dailies like The New York Times, the Daily News and the Post. But as readership declined and revenue decreased, it was forced to sell its 10-story office building in 1974.
But the newspaper’s endowment and financial health was guaranteed (for a time, at least) by the sale of its radio station, WEVD (“The station that speaks your language”), to ABC, which wanted to bring ESPN Radio to New York. The station call letters were the initials of Eugene Victor Debs, the hero of early 20th century American radicalism. The $78 million sale in 2001 resulted in an endowment which is now the only lifeline supporting The Forward.
Over the past few years, the newspaper has violated a key principle of prudent financial stewardship by spending down its endowment significantly. The Forward’s 2014 IRS 990 report places the remaining endowment at just over $50 million, but other sources indicate it may now be as low as $30 million.
Alarmed at this decline, The Forward’s board of directors and editorial leadership under Editor-in-Chief Jane Eisner and President and CEO Sam Norich came to believe that The Forward’s current format was unsustainable. As a result, they hired a new team of social media consultants who are schooled in the latest forms of journalism. One of these approaches is known as “clickbait,” short pieces built around a single compelling idea. This style gravitates toward the sensational and controversial, sometimes even manufactured controversy.
A few examples of the genre are the series, “The Secret Jewish History of…,” which satisfies a perverse Jewish penchant for knowing the most trivial Jewish-related facts on any subject. Among the sizzling topics covered were Pokémon and Game of Thrones. Psst, did you know the hit HBO show features an Israeli-Palestinian actor?
Knowing that the The Forward’s older readership is dying, the leadership has bought into this new model which they believe will ensure the paper’s future by drawing younger millennial readers used to 24-hour news cycles and shorter attention spans.
But in seeking to draw in new, younger readers, The Forward can’t afford to lose the older generation which expects thoughtful, in-depth reporting of the caliber represented by mainstream papers like The New York Times.
Not to mention that in the rush to produce content to fill the maw of the consumer, journalists and editors are often forced to cut corners. Those expected to file multiple stories each day, rather than one each week, are hard-pressed to produce genuinely thoughtful observation. They don’t the luxury of interviewing multiple sources for a story. They may not even have time to consult a single source.
A case study in journalistic failure
With limited opportunities to engage in painstaking research, The Forward has started making mistakes. Last week, Laura Adkins, a young journalist who graduated from New York University this year, made a great one which exemplifies the pitfalls of the assembly line process adopted by the paper’s leadership.
Adkins’ story begins in 2014, when she was vice president of TorchPAC, the pro-Israel student group at NYU. One of her group’s chief opponents was Students for Justice in Palestine, a leading pro-Palestinian group active on American college and university campuses.
In April of that year, SJP organized a guerilla theater action to dramatize the impact of Israel’s illegal occupation on Palestinians. It was a protest that had been used at other campuses before it was brought to NYU. The group devised a mock eviction notice to convey to American students the impact of Israel’s large-scale demolitions of Palestinian homes throughout the occupied territories.
The flyer SJP circulated clearly indicated that it was not an actual eviction notice and that its purpose was to highlight the injustices of the Israeli occupation. SJP distributed it in two dormitories on campus, each of which had a mix of Jewish and non-Jewish inhabitants. Neither the text of the flyers nor the ways in which they were circulated identified Jewish students or even pro-Israel students as their target.
This didn’t stop Adkins from seizing the opportunity to exploit the incident for hasbara purposes. She immediately began circulating her story to right-wing news sites like Fox News. Speaking to Greta Van Susteren, Adkins held that the flyer’s content was anti-Semitic because it portrayed the evictions as part of an ethnic cleansing campaign attempting to “make the region exclusively Jewish.”
And she’s not wrong; this is precisely what the expulsions represent. Take the situation in Occupied East Jerusalem as one example: Settler NGOs like Elad and Amana evict Palestinians from neighborhoods like Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan and replace them with Orthodox settlers. The ultimate goal of these efforts is to gradually increase the Jewish population and make life unbearable for the remaining Palestinians so that they will feel they are living under siege. This is precisely what a coterie of 800 settlers have done to the 35,000 Palestinians living in a part of Hebron that’s under Israeli military control.
So while the language of this flyer is provocative and dramatic, there is nothing inaccurate about it. The process of evictions and expulsion it describes is what is happening on the ground. The goals of the radical Jewish extremists who foment such actions are as described in the flyers. As Phan Nguyen explored in an expose about this incident for Mondoweiss, that makes the charge of “anti-Semitism” a red herring, an attempt to ring Pavlov’s bell so American Jews and the media will salivate on cue.
Adkins herself wrote a blog post for the Times of Israel, “NYU Jewish Students the Target of Latest SJP Propaganda Attacks,” which heightened the claims against SJP. Now, the campus group was no longer engaging in anti-Semitism in the contents of the flyer, it was directly persecuting Jewish students via “propaganda attacks.” The violence of the word “attacks” conveyed a sense of danger and violence that was entirely absent from the original political action.
Her lede continued the thread of lurid charges suggested by her headline:
“Slinking quietly through the night, members of NYU’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) had distributed mock eviction notices to students in this dorm (which is known across campus as one with a high concentration of Jewish residents, and is the only NYU dorm with a Shabbat elevator), listing distorted facts and with the stated purpose of ‘draw[ing] attention to the reality that Palestinians confront on a regular basis.’”
Later in her piece she claims the act of guerilla theater: “target[ed] Jewish students (or at the very least, a dorm brimming with Jewish students) instead of engaging with them.” She also uses the term “religious targeting,” despite the fact that the Israeli actions portrayed are directly linked by many Israelis themselves to a desire for Jewish supremacy over the Palestinian minority.
NYU’s undergraduate student body is roughly 24 percent Jewish. But the two residence halls targeted by SJP had no greater concentration of Jewish students than any other part of the campus; neither SJP nor anyone else on campus thinks of this dormitory as “Jewish.”
Adkins quoted an anonymous resident of the building as saying she felt “targeted and unsafe” in her dorm room. Once again, she raised the specter of anti-Semitism through an unnamed source whose views could not be scrutinized because of the anonymity Adkins granted her.
Terms like “targeted” and “unsafe” are standard ones used by pro-Israel NGOs attempting to lobby campus administrations to stifle the rights to political speech by pro-Palestine and pro-Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions groups on campus. They have fueled unsuccessful efforts by Kenneth Marcus’ Brandeis Center to appeal to the Department of Education to declare five campuses as havens for anti-Semitism and violators of the civil and religious rights of Jewish students. (Marcus is a pro-Israel activist who had previously headed the Department of Education’s’ Office of Civil Rights, which, as the Electronic Intifada notes, is the office which handles such complaints.)
Adkins’ Times of Israel blog post attributes a series of completely unproven assertions about the SJP chapter at Northeastern University to an “Ilya Feoktistov” without offering any indication of who he is or where his comment was published. According to him, SJP was guilty of “years of anti-Semitic vandalism, glorification of terrorist groups and calls for the destruction of Israel.”
Adkins’ NYU experience offers entrée to pro-Israel journalism
By July 2014, just a few months after the incident at NYU and ensuing fallout, Adkins had been appointed assistant blogs editor of the Times of Israel. Though it’s known as a pro-Israel publication funded by a Likudist hedge fund manager, its blog section is known as being a true “Wild West” of Israeli hasbara. One of the hoaxes perpetrated on the Times during her tenure involved a white supremacist who hijacked the identity of a Jewish attorney and published a blog post calling for genocide against Palestinians. This is one of many similar incidents of the outlet publishing embarrassing extremist blog posts which it’s later been forced to remove.
Then last week, the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee held a hearing at which NGO Monitor and Reservists to the Frontline, both far-right NGOs, reopened Adkins’ can of worms. They called the event “Singling Out Jewish Students by BDS on U.S. Campuses.” The convenors were MK Anat Berko, a former senior Israeli Defense Forces officer claiming to be an expert in Islamist terrorism whose claim to fame was arguing that Palestine doesn’t exist because there is no “P” in Arabic, and MK Avi Dichter, a former chief of the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security agency. They trumpeted the alleged persecution of American Jewish students on campuses like NYU. Dichter launched into a diatribe against BDS:
“BDS is an anti-Semitic wave against Jews, which is unfortunately taking place in countries that are considered enlightened and on campuses that are considered intellectual. A large part of the BDS` activity stems from the activists` frustration over the past few years because the Palestinian issue is [less prominent]. The Arab countries are not dealing with the Palestinian issue, and this makes the Palestinians and their supporters crazy. This is why the Palestinians are trying to aggressively disseminate the issue.”
Berko stretched the truth even farther when she told Israel Radio that SJP has been collecting information on where Jews live at NYU and other universities.
After reformatting, Adkins moves to The Forward
After her stint at the Times of Israel came to an end in April, Adkins moved on to The Forward where, as part of the major format change described earlier, she became a contributing network editor.
When she heard about MP Berko’s statements to Israel Radio, she decided to turn her 2014 campus experience into yet another story. The article was first titled “Pro-Palestinian Student Group Accused of Compiling List of Jewish Student Dorm Addresses.” It was heralded as “breaking news” on Aug. 16, as if Adkins were reporting a major story, when she was merely rehashing her 2014 attack on SJP.
She added new flourishes to her reporting:
“ … NYU SJP members distributed thousands of mock eviction notices protesting Israeli home demolitions to Jewish students’ dorm rooms… ”
There were not “thousands of notices,” nor were they distributed only to Jewish students’ rooms, since neither SJP nor anyone else would know which specific dorm rooms housed Jewish students.
This passage was later edited to remove the objectionable “Jewish” reference in the passage. The new version reads:
“… NYU SJP members distributed thousands of mock eviction notices protesting Israeli home demolitions to student’s dorm rooms…”
In The Forward, Adkins solicited comments from leading pro-Israel advocacy groups, including the Anti Defamation League, Stand With Us and the Zionist Organization of America. None confirmed any instances of BDS groups specifically targeting or persecuting Jewish students.
So, as Mondoweiss’ Phan Nguyen noted on Aug. 17, ultimately, “this is the story of a fake anti-Semitism claim that has been recycled and repurposed several times over, with its originator now relying on the authority of a third-party source to repeat a claim that she initially made.”
The picture which accompanied the article was also problematic. It featured pro-BDS demonstrators waving signs advocating justice for Palestinians, but the photograph did not feature SJP members and wasn’t taken on a U.S. college campus. In fact, as Nguyen pointed out, it was a protest in Turkey on the 2016 anniversary of the Mavi Marmara massacre.
The article was a perfect storm of journalistic error.
As pro-Palestinian activists inundated The Forward’s social media accounts with criticism of Adkins’ piece, the editors desperately tried to save it. They turned the tables on MK Berko and tried to make her out to be the bad guy, changing the headline to “An Israeli Politician Smeared Students for Justice in Palestine — and the Media Fell for It.”
The criticism also flooded Adkins’ personal account, where her response displays either disingenuousness or cluelessness, depending on one’s sympathies:
You're so right! I source claims & you don't, making me the propogandist. Happy you caught onto my Jewish conspiracy.
— Laura E. Adkins (@Laura_E_Adkins) August 17, 2016
She says that she “sources claims” when she deliberately concealed her own role as source of the original hoax in The Forward article she wrote. At some point, a Forward editor must’ve realized the article needed to be put out of its misery and killed it entirely. It still exists in Google cache as a monument to the failure of The Forward’s media experiment.
The Guardian offered the crowning irony of this episode on Monday. Billionaire casino mogul and GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson’s new anti-BDS initiative, the Maccabee Task Force, directed by David Brog, the former head of Christians United for Israel, funded a David Horowitz initiative to publicly “out” faculty and students who are pro-Palestinian. Posters which name activists and their political affiliations have been widely distributed on six University of California campuses (most UC student unions have endorsed BDS). The posters accuse the activists of being “Jew haters” and supporters of Palestinian terrorism, and accuse BDS of being a “Hamas-inspired genocidal campaign to destroy Israel.”
So it’s not Palestinians or BDS hounding Jews on campus; it’s the other way around. Adelson and Horowitz are attempting to cow Palestine supporters on UC campuses. It’s a common bullying tactic: Divert attention from your own bad acts by accusing the victim of doing what you have done.
Adkins’ pro-Israel past
The moral of this story for The Forward is that nothing can replace good old-fashioned investigative reporting and close editorial supervision. Eschewing those critical elements of good journalism risks cheapening or even destroying a brand. One can hope that The Forward’s board and leadership quickly realize the grave error they’ve made and dump the social media consultants and return to putting out the best damn Jewish newspaper anywhere.
The odds don’t appear favorable to that happening. Adkins continues to write for The Forward as the outlet churns out fluff pieces and lightly-reported stories galore.
The old Forward would’ve probably taken one look at Adkins’ resume and passed. It reads like a training manual for turning out pro-Israel advocates. Besides her role in the NYU pro-Israel group, TorchPAC, she was a Tower Fellow of The Israel Project. Tower Fellows receive training in production of powerful hasbara journalism under the guidance of David Hazony, editor of the Shalem Center’s publication The Tower.
She was also an Inaugural Fellow of Tablet Magazine’s Herzl Society. Tablet is a media project founded and funded by two pro-Israel foundations to reach out to a group of New York City college students about the history and possible futures of Zionism.”
“Through interactive seminars…fellows learn about and discuss Zionism’s foundations, successes, and challenges. Speakers include Leon Wieseltier, Literary Editor of The New Republic, Moshe Halbertal, Senior Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute…and Benny Morris, Professor of History at Ben Gurion University…”
In her LinkedIn profile, Adkins boasts that she “frequently speaks to AIPAC and other policy minded audiences about the progressive case for Israel, and she has appeared on Fox News…”
The Forward has some hard thinking to do. Does it wish to become a Jewish version of Buzzfeed, featuring endless listicles about kosher food and hasbara? Or does it wish to maintain its record of journalistic excellence? It can’t do both.