In Gershom Gorenberg and Nicholas Lemann, we have two top-notch liberal journalists. Gorenberg, a kippa-wearing American oleh who resides in Jerusalem, has been increasingly sharp in his writing and blogging regarding Israel.
Lemann chatted amiably with Gorenberg before a modest-sized audience at Columbia’s J School on the evening of Feb. 22. Since the event was also sponsored by the department of Israel and Jewish Studies, Lemann felt it appropriate to point to the large portrait of Joseph Pulitzer behind them, to riff on Pulitzer’s Jewishness: How Jewish was he? “More Jewish than he owned up to.” And he went on to explain that he was “too Jewish” for the Columbia University trustees to name the journalism school’s building after; but since the prize is in his name, he got the better part of the deal.
Here’s a key observation made by Gorenberg: that when covering a story (doing “the first draft of history”), a journalist often doesn’t know what’s behind the news because he doesn’t have access to the relevant sources at the time. He illustrated this by way of the following: In researching his book on the post-1967 settlements, The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977, he learned from archival documents–which he had to sue to gain access to–that in contrast to what everyone had believed until then, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol used the pressure of nationalists as cover to reestablish Kfar Etzion, a kibbutz destroyed in the 1948 war, which he had intended to resettle anyway.
Gorenberg mentioned that for the first few decades of Israel’s history, journalism was mostly in the service of political ends, because most newspapers were affiliated with political parties. It was not until after the 1973 Yom Kippur War that Israel’s press began to be skeptical or cynical of government statements. By the 1990s, the era of party newspapers was basically over and most of Israel’s media was commercially owned.
When asked how “objectivity” is regarded in Israeli journalism, he said that it’s an ideal that’s hard to obtain because of the emotional intensity of Israel’s conflicts and because Israel is so small that it’s hard not to have a personal connection to your stories. He stated this in an exaggerated way, that Israelis all “know everybody.”
Gorenberg does know some Israeli journalists (whom he did not name) who do not show their political biases in their news writing. He regards this as a good thing, as do I.
Gorenberg also reflected on two unfortunate truths about Israel:
1. Since–unlike most other immigrant groups–most American Jews really don’t have an “Old Country” (because of the Holocaust), Israel has been forced to fill this role for American Jews. This sentimentalizes Israel, making it hard for Jews to view it as a real country.
2. Since Jews have a place in Western Civilization that is “mythic,” things having to do with Jews have an extra emotional charge; hence Israel is a “world celebrity” that gets outsized coverage and outsized criticism. Gorenberg’s half-joking illustration: a minor demonstration may be covered in Jerusalem while a civil war somewhere else is missed.