Okay, maybe the sound of prayer issuing from a journalist�s mouth is not so bizarre � what reporter on deadline hasn�t beseeched a higher power? But this was different: in a bland khaki-colored room deep in the bowels of the Empire State Building, fifteen aspiring journalists sat in front of their laptops with their heads bowed. �Thank you, Lord, for loving journalism,� intoned the morning�s instructor, an AP reporter who would soon give a lesson on constructing leads. �Thank you, Lord, for cherishing words, for loving good, clear writing.�
They were all evangelical college students taking part in a month-long summer seminar of the World Journalism Institute, a J-school with a mission to prepare young evangelicals to enter the mainstream media universe.
The students, here in New York from as far away as Lookout Mountain, Georgia (population: 1,581) and schools like Vision Bible College in Marsing, Idaho, are mostly in their early twenties, clean cut, earnest, and deeply religious. They laugh at the notion that they are a cadre of religious zealots being trained to infiltrate the newsroom and violate the sacred doctrine of dispassionate, objective journalism. Yet the students themselves aren�t entirely clear just how the journalistic and spiritual parts of their identity fit together. Are they evangelical journalists, or just journalists who happen to be evangelicals?
Robert Case II, who directs the program, has his own answers to these questions. A former philosophy teacher at Central Washington University, in 1997 he was on the board of God�s World Publications, a publisher of evangelical newsletters and books, and helped conceive of, as he puts it, �a boot camp for aspiring journalists of faith.� The institute opened in 1999, and the next year Case moved from Washington State to Asheville, North Carolina, to run it.
Case is a charismatic man with a football player�s neck and gray hair closely buzzed, and was dressed, the two times I saw him, in red, white, and blue suspenders and shiny black and white wing-tips. He doesn�t come off as particularly fanatical, and his initial objective for the institute does not sound radical.
He thinks evangelicals have closed themselves into what he calls a �ghetto� of their own making. They have fled mainstream culture rather than engage it. But if evangelicals expect to be depicted fairly and fully by the elite media, Case says, they need to get their hands dirty and play a role in the institutions that define the larger culture. This doesn�t mean he wants journalism to be done differently. He just wants enough evangelicals to be at places like The New York Times and The Washington Post so that reporters begin to see them as living, breathing people and not backward bible-thumpers.
�The homosexuals are our role model in this,� Case says. �They had the same problems we do twenty, twenty-five years ago � a despised minority hiding in the closet, and all the stories in the media looked to point out their weaknesses. They overcame this by integrating into the mainstream.�
Case�s other, longer-term objective is, by his own admission, more controversial. It is to bring �an evangelical or biblical perspective to the newsroom.� Case thinks that evangelicals, seeing the world as they do through the ethical and moral lens of religion, could make much-needed adjustments to journalism�s focus. The institute was not necessary fifty years ago, he says, when �Judeo-Christian values were regnant in America and something like Roe v. Wade would never have become an issue.� But now that we live in a �postmodern, post-Christian world,� Case says, newsrooms are once again in need of a moral compass. He doesn�t want to dismantle the principles of good journalism, which, he says, are �eternal.� He doesn�t want to evangelize. He just wants the �religious aspect of life� to be articulated in stories, and for issues like abortion or gay marriage to be framed in a way that allows for more than just a secular perspective. It boils down to this: �Most of the elite media are tone deaf to religious concerns,� Case says. �They just don�t see the value to any issue that has a flavor of religion. A secularist will always ignore the religious side of life and way of thinking. Evangelicals won�t.�
Case insists that his vision doesn�t involve trampling on journalistic objectivity. And the content of his courses reinforces this. The two times I visited the seminar I saw standard J-school instruction, all nut graphs and inverted pyramids. I heard no talk of using journalism as a tool for evangelical propaganda.
But once I spoke with the students, it became clear that the divide � between the imperatives of their faith and those of their chosen profession � was much blurrier for them than Case�s vision assumes. One afternoon, over a lunch of bologna slices on hamburger buns with ketchup, four students told me how journalism was a �calling� for them. As Adam Belz, a blond twenty-year-old who attends Covenant College in Georgia, put it, �God is the originator of reality, so knowledge of him is knowledge of reality. If I look to God as the source of truth, that helps me in my profession.�
All acknowledged similar motivations for choosing journalism. But they also insisted that, more than anything else, it was the love of writing that had made them want to be reporters. And then I asked what they would do when, in the course of their reporting, they met someone who was impoverished or hungry or in mourning. Would they be able to keep from bringing Christ to this person? This was a tough one. They debated for a few minutes. But the conclusion was unanimous. �All the teachers tell us to not mix faith and work, not to use your position to tell everyone about Christ,� said Lauren Jones, twenty, a journalism major at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. �But if we care about people, have a burden in our heart for them, we cannot hold in truth which is within us.�
Belz jumped in: �If salvation and heaven and hell are at stake,� he said, �it�s going to be necessary for me to say something.�
Case would not be happy to hear his students sounding like missionaries. Earlier this year, Jack Kelley, the disgraced USA Today reporter, brought some unwanted attention to the World Journalism Institute that made its mission look more fanatical than Case would like it to appear. Kelley, a Pulitzer finalist in 2002 for coverage of international terrorism, was arguably the highest-profile evangelical journalist in the country. �I feel God�s pleasure when I write and report,� Kelley was quoted as saying in the May 2001 issue of Connection Magazine, an evangelical publication. �It isn�t because of the glory, but because God has called me to proclaim truth.� He was slated to speak at a luncheon during the summer seminar this year. But when his editors at USA Today discovered that he had fabricated more than a dozen stories during the past ten years, Case told Kelley he could still speak if he used the occasion to explain his misdeeds. Kelley declined and Case removed him from the list of speakers. In the meantime, through the magic of Google, many bloggers looking for information on Kelley found their way to the institute�s Web site and its mission statement, written six years ago by Case.
The sprawling, angry statement, peppered with biblical citations gave the impression, Case now says, �that we wanted to create a theocracy in the newsroom.� A typical line: �There was a time when the major newspapers of this country reflected the truth of God�s existence. But because we Christians did not fight for God in the newsrooms, these cultural institutions went the way of the flesh.�
Case says he is �ashamed� of the mission statement�s militant tone. It cost him a few of his instructors and guest speakers, whose connection to the institute, and thus the mission statement, circulated on the Internet. People like David Cho at The Washington Post, Rod Dreher at The Dallas Morning News, and Barbara Bradley Hagerty at NPR. Many wanted nothing to do with WJI anymore, Case says. Some just wanted their names removed from the public list. Case immediately replaced the mission statement with a more benign version that he now says should have been there all along.
But this raises the question: What kind of journalists does Robert Case really want to produce? Evangelical crusaders or quality reporters indistinguishable from any other? There is one man Case raises up as a shining example for his students to emulate: John McCandlish Phillips. To younger journalists, Phillips�s name might not ring a bell, but for the eighteen years he worked as a reporter for The New York Times, from 1955 to 1973, he was considered one of its very best writers. Gay Talese, who was at the Times during the same period, has said of him, �There was only one guy I thought I was not the equal of, and that was McCandlish Phillips.�
He also was, and still is, a devout evangelical who kept a Bible on his desk at the Times �as a statement of who I was and what I believed,� he says. He doesn�t like the term Christian journalist. He sees himself rather as a journalist who happens to be Christian. �You are not out on a campaign for a conversion of souls; you are out on a very direct campaign to get information for an organ of public knowledge,� Phillips told me.
His work at the Times was distinguished by a fine, almost sensual attention to detail that was the envy of other journalists. He wrote features that depicted ordinary people with the richness of Technicolor � a Brooklyn high-school principal who was also a ragtime piano player, a homeless man and his social life at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and, famously, a Jewish boy from Queens who became an American Nazi and a Ku Klux Klansman. But in the newsroom, Phillips largely kept his distance from fellow reporters, staying clear of the gambling and heavy drinking that engaged some of his colleagues after work. He says it�s an �absurdity� to think there should be any contradiction between being both an evangelical and a professional journalist. �I found them rather well coordinated,� he says.
His belief played a role in his work only insofar as it provided him with God as a �helper� as he searched out facts. �Exercising faith in a living being who cares is not an exercise in futility,� Phillips says. �God simply is with those who repose their trust in him. I was given advantages in reporting all the time that I could not have had apart from a living trust in the living God. I would go to a news scene. There would be fourteen other reporters. It would be a confusing scene, hard to know your way through it, who was who. Again and again and again, I would come back with more story than other reporters. Yes, I was acutely alert, but I was also given advantages.�
Phillips teaches at the institute for free, as opposed to the $250 an hour most instructors receive. He doesn�t talk to students about theology. Rather, he tells them what books to read, tries to inspire them about the newspaper life, challenges them to be keen observers of the world � advice one could imagine hearing from any legendary journalist.
Phillips typifies the first half of Case�s vision, a gifted reporter sustained by his relationship with God. Ultimately, though, the kind of journalist the institute strives to produce might be found somewhere between the staid model Phillips presents and the religious idealism of the students. First, endeavor to be extraordinary journalists, Case insists to his charges. Then, he tells them, you will have earned the right to bring your evangelical perspective into the newsroom, and offer an alternative to the godless and cynical atmosphere that he and most evangelicals believe predominates in the press.
In May of last year, as Iraqis began adjusting to the chaotic status quo of gunfire, occasional suicide attacks, and failed electricity that followed the American arrival in their country, The Weekly Standardâ€™s Jonathan Foreman sent back a letter from Baghdad cheerily titled, "You Have No Idea How Well Things Are Going."
Foreman described smiling little girls and "women old and young" flirting "outrageously with GIs." Iraqis in his account could not stop what he called "love bombing" the Americans with such cheers as "Mike Tyson, Mike Tyson," good-naturedly directed at some African American soldiers. The American presence, Foreman reassured his readers, inspired "no fury" among Iraqis. Around the same time, Nir Rosen, writing for The Progressive, and presumably from the same Iraq that Foreman was in, painted a far bleaker picture of Baghdad, one in which five-year-olds played amid unexploded cluster bombs and AK-47s and grenade launchers were sold in open-air markets. "Already, there is nostalgia for the old regime," he observed. "At least there was a regime, people say."
What do Iraqis feel and think about the American occupation? Many liberal and conservative writers have had no problem answering that question in the months since the end of combat operations, though with starkly different conclusions. In one version of Iraq, the people are grateful and liberated, their salaries and home appliances having increased under occupation, along with their freedoms. In the other, the Iraqis seethe at the occupation of their nation and want the imperialist Americans out, dead or alive.
That opinion journals might paint the situation in black and white is perhaps understandable. The American discussion about Iraq is, after all, more than just about Iraq and Iraqis. It is about ideas, about competing prescriptions for what Americaâ€™s role in the world should be, and ideologically driven writers tend to choose evidence that fits their point of view. But reporters cannot merely build a case. Their job is to search through the gray zones, to try to grasp the ambiguities. And nowhere has this become more crucial than in Iraq. At this point, the success or failure of Americaâ€™s occupation depends almost entirely on how Iraqis respond to the United States and its efforts at nation-building. Reporters must find a way to learn what Iraqis really think.
And yet, experienced reporters say that figuring out Iraqi sentiment has become one of the most complex journalistic endeavors in years. Iraq, of course, presents the standard obstacles for foreign correspondents -- uneven translators, brutal deadlines, the difficulty of finding sources in an unfamiliar environment. But it also poses a series of problems particular to working in Iraq. For one thing, journalists fear they could easily become targets for Iraqi insurgents, and this has kept them from venturing out into the marketplaces and street corners where ordinary Iraqis are found. When reporters do speak to Iraqis, the skewed power dynamic of the occupation enters into every interview and interaction. In the eyes of many Iraqis, a foreign journalist, and especially an American one, is just an extension of the conquering army. To complicate matters further, there are almost no nongovernmental organizations or aid groups, or even the United Nations, to provide any kind of independent analysis or to point reporters in the direction of stories. And, finally, there is the psychology of Iraqis themselves. After living under tyranny for more than thirty years, are they reliable sources of information?
The four journalists below, all of whom have spent considerable time in Iraq during the past half year, say those obstacles are real and are specific to postwar Iraq. But in spite of such barriers, they say they have found ways to plumb the grayness of the Iraqi experience, to try to tell a nuanced story that feels close to the sometimes contradictory and cluttered truth.
Accepting the Contradictions
Last August, Anthony Shadid of The Washington Post spent a day on Mutanabi Street, a narrow alleyway of bookstores and shops in old Baghdad. Because he is an Arabic speaker (his grandparents were born in Lebanon), Shadid says, Iraqis tend to be more comfortable in his presence. "Gaining trust or gaining personal access and confidence is much harder" than in other places he has reported from, Shadid says, and so his appearance and ability to get along without a translator allow him to get in close. On that summer day on Mutanabi Street, he was able to hear the debates among a group of lounging Iraqi men. One of them, Mohammed Hayawi, a bookstore owner, turned to his friends and said, "I challenge anyone to say what has happened, whatâ€™s happening now, and what will happen in the future."
This is how Shadid tries to understand Iraqis. He doesnâ€™t force an answer. "Anybody who says they know how Iraqis feel is talking bullshit," says Shadid. "You are going to find somebody who is going to express contradictory sentiments in the same conversation, at the same moment." Shadid believes the best way to deal with this problem is not to fight it. On Mutanabi Street, when a stationery store owner, Amran Kadhim, challenged his friend Adel Jannabi on his critiques of the American occupation, Shadid printed the exchange. "The Americans are doing well," said Kadhim. "Theyâ€™re working slowly but theyâ€™re doing well. If there were no Americans here, people would end up killing each other." Jannabi countered, "No, no, my friend. There should still be much more progress." "Why do we blame the Americans?" Khadim shot back.
Shadidâ€™s Arabic allows him to understand the small talk, the intonation, the turn of phrase. But he also knows that the nature of the sentiment is complex, and he says the best way to capture this is to lay it all out. "In your interviews with Iraqis you are going to be thrown into a situation where thereâ€™s chaos; itâ€™s confusing; everything is all out there," Shadid says. "And to pin down, nail down this one sentiment of what Iraqis feel is impossible. Iâ€™m sure a majority is grateful that Saddamâ€™s gone. A majority does have problems with the occupation. A majority is frustrated with where itâ€™s at. A majority is hopeful about the future. All these things are true and youâ€™re probably going to hear them in the same conversation."
Employing the Gift of Empathy
Daily reporters must deal with the tyranny of the deadline, but George Packer, who spent five weeks in Iraq for The New Yorker and produced a stunning 20,000-word examination of the postwar situation, had the luxury of time. He says, "I found I needed two or three hours, if not two or three visits, to understand all the factors that went into Iraqi attitudes toward the occupation." The profiles of Iraqis in his piece -- among others, a Shiite sheikh, a young student, a psychiatrist -- are profiles of people who are complex and, in many ways, conflicted.
But even with time, Packer says, the Iraqi psychology, shaped by more than thirty years of totalitarian Baâ€™athist rule, made reporting on Iraqis feel more like a job for Freud than for a magazine writer. Perhaps "what was truer of Iraqis than most people was how much talking they needed to do in order to express the fullness of their thinking," says Packer. "It was a bit like therapy. You are peeling back layers and layers of dogma and rumor."
But Packer found that Iraqis do love to talk. Their garrulousness surprised him, although he thought that this, too, could have a certain pathological quality. "There were many interviews where I would be sitting with some guy in his living room, after the three-hour lunch we would always have, and I would just start getting angry at my translator because what he was telling me just didnâ€™t make sense," Packer says. "The conversation just kept on leaping around without any rational back and forth. And he would say to me, â€˜George, Iâ€™m giving you a word-for-word translation.â€™" Many of the Iraqis he talked to had a hard time developing clear arguments, explaining themselves fully, and, as Packer put it, "understanding their own situation." Packer thinks this might be related to the fact that the Iraqis were isolated and denied free will for so long. A psychiatrist whom Packer quoted in the article explained that Iraqis lack "the power to experience freedom."
Empathy, Packer believes, can help reporters bridge this divide. Journalists need to "make the little imaginative effort to get into the skin of Iraqis," Packer says. "Then they wonâ€™t need hours and hours, and they will be a little bit immune to the tidy sound bite they often end up with."
In the eighties, Packer spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in an African village. That experience colors the reporting he has done and, he says, has helped him develop an ability to understand other people. Living in such a foreign environment where he was the helpless outsider, he "had to learn how [the local people] saw the world just in order to be able to function." Packer has also written two novels, and he thinks this, too, helped his journalism in Iraq. "The effort to get inside a character is an act of empathy -- it just happens to be with someone nonexistent," he says. "The things you have to notice about people as a fiction writer are not just what they say, but more how they say things. Or, even, what they donâ€™t say."
Getting Beyond the First Thing They Say
For Hassan Fattah, Iraq is more than just a story. It is his past and, now, his future. Fattahâ€™s family left Iraq in 1964 after being persecuted by the government, and eventually moved to Berkeley, California, where he grew up. Iraq was a constant in his parentâ€™s stories and loomed large in his imagination, but he had never been to the country until last May. After the Americans entered Baghdad, Fattah decided to move there to start an English-language newspaper, Iraq Today. As a journalist who had worked for The Economist and Frontline, this was his way of contributing to the rebuilding of Iraqi society and to restoring his familyâ€™s name. He would try to bring high journalistic standards and train a cadre of young Iraqis in the ethics and professionalism of western journalism. Fattah also is a regular contributor to The New Republic and Time.
Because he speaks Arabic and his journalists are Iraqi, Fattah can do the kind of grassroots reporting that western journalists often forgo because of the danger of venturing too far afield. Fattahâ€™s reporters live the story of postwar Iraq every day. As he puts it, "You havenâ€™t been in Iraq until you have lived in a house, not a hotel, where the generator breaks down, the electricity goes out, and there is nothing you can do about it." But having his ear to the ground has only made Fattah even more cautious. He understands the Iraqi sensibility because he has shared the Iraqi fate this past year, suffering the consequences of a broken police force and little security. The day before his first issue went to press, he was awakened by thieves thrusting machine guns in his face and demanding money. He says he goes to sleep at night thinking that his house could be attacked. "Iraqis are very conscious that they could go home and that some guy can come in and shoot them and there is nothing they can do about it," he says.
So, with such an understanding of Iraqis, what advice would he give western journalists on interviewing them? "Donâ€™t believe the first thing that people tell you. Remember, people here are survivors. They are programmed and they grew up learning how to say the right thing, to survive. Somebody will tell you something, and you think thatâ€™s what they mean, but very often that is far from it. There is always something deeper."
But Fattah also says Iraqis donâ€™t want people feeling sorry for them. The political nature of the story, he thinks, drives reporters to paint Iraqis one-dimensionally, as a people deserving of sympathy. "The sense of empathy, which is the real power of journalism, is lost. And what you get is a kind of sympathy," Fattah says. "The one thing I think Iraqis are very much afraid of is having people feel sorry for them. They donâ€™t want to be forgotten, but they donâ€™t want to be victims either."
Being on Your Own
It was an aid worker who told Vivienne Walt about the children. In a Baghdad neighborhood, Walt, a former USA Today reporter who is now on assignment for Time and The Boston Globe, found them sitting around, nine- and ten-year-olds, grabbing fistfuls of ammunition from a pile and separating the copper casings from the lead of bullets. A little boy, Karar Ali, holding a Kalashnikov shell in his hand, told Walt, "My mother says this is a good job. I give her all my earnings." "Of course, it was a great story," Walt says. But it was also a story she says she couldnâ€™t have found without being pointed in the right direction. As in most foreign countries, correspondents in Iraq depend on independent sources to lead them to stories or offer some reasonably objective analysis when they find them. In Iraq, however, these third parties have almost completely disappeared.
"Itâ€™s fairly unique to work in a country where you donâ€™t have international organizations, observers of any kind, either to give you an idea of whatâ€™s going on in different towns and neighborhoods or to give you some comments or interpretations about what you are seeing," Walt says. She reported in Iraq before and after the war. "Iâ€™ve worked in over twenty-five countries and I canâ€™t remember being in a country where there are no international aid workers," she says.
The absence of this "grassroots information," as Walt calls it, creates great obstacles for journalists eager to tell the Iraqi story. Walt is typical of western reporters in that she doesnâ€™t speak Arabic and cannot easily blend in, and that her work is impeded by a security breakdown in which reporters are targeted as adjuncts of the American occupation. Conditions are such that Iraq "could possibly move towards a situation where western journalists are really too much at risk to operate here," she says. All this makes her incredibly reliant on fixers and translators. This is true of most foreign assignments. But in Iraq, Walt says, the dearth of other sources makes their role even more essential. Translators also know better how to handle Iraqi sensitivities. They smooth questions down, making them more culturally palatable. "A translator is much more than a translator here," Walt says. "Itâ€™s someone who can put people at ease."
But translators, however helpful, have not been living in a vacuum for the past thirty years. They are just as much the product of Saddamâ€™s culture of silence and fear as the subjects they help journalists interview. And so Walt finds that beyond translation, they lack the freethinking journalistic skills to perform some of the other tasks that fixers usually do in foreign countries, such as generating stories and finding leads. Under Saddam, a news story was simply a government proclamation. "One of the jobs I have my translator do is read the papers for me," Walt says. "But they would read twenty-five newspapers a day and then say there is nothing in them. They would just see nonsense."
Yet, "slowly but surely," this is changing, she says. Foreign correspondents "have been comparing notes about how we are trying to train our Iraqi fixers to be journalists," she says, "to read and listen to the news in a way they have never done before." And this development might be happening just in time. As tensions rise, and journalists feel even more threatened, both the obstacles to uncovering the Iraqi story and the need to expose it will only grow exponentially.
Gal Beckerman is an assistant editor at CJR.
In his Aug. 29 editorial, J.J. Goldberg, editor of the Forward, warned his readers not to be "startled" by that week�s front-page op-ed. He knew he was playing jump rope with raw nerves. After all, American Jews, the paper�s prime audience, could never have expected such heresy in a mainstream Jewish publication: "Israel, having ceased to care about the children of Palestinians, should not be surprised when they come washed in hatred and blow themselves up in the centers of Israeli escapism."
Surely this was an anti-Semite, head wrapped in a kaffiyah, holding a match to the Israeli flag. But he wasn�t. The writer was Avraham Burg, a respected former speaker of the Israeli parliament. Goldberg simply had the gall to translate his words from Hebrew and put them on the Forward�s front page.
Burg�s piece, a rage-filled lament for an Israeli society "already collapsing like a cheap Jerusalem wedding hall," first appeared in a major Israeli daily, Yediot Ahronot, and, although shocking, joined the debate that thunders continuously through the Israeli public arena. In the U.S., however, it�s hard to imagine a Jewish newspaper other than the English-language Forward even touching it. Not only is much of the Jewish press in America lamely local -- asking little more than the hard-hitting question, Who was bar-mitzvahed this week? -- but, for the most part, their editorial line is filtered through one parochial prism: Is it good for the Jews? Bankrolled by local Jewish federations, the community weeklies lack the independence to report critically on the charities and institutions that make up Jewish organizational life. Dissent or even debate over Israeli policy is off limits. Like the American Jewish establishment, these papers swung left-of-center during the Oslo peace process in the 1990s and, for the three years since the start of the current Intifada, have swung right, staunchly defending the policies of Ariel Sharon.
Under two very different editors, as it happens, the Forward, during both periods, has gone counterclockwise.
Of the prominent American Jewish publications, the Forward alone, now in its thirteenth year, is truly independent. As a result, its op-ed page is a rare and influential forum (albeit an elite one, read by no more than 30,000) where the contentious ideological battles of the Jewish world are duked out -- pro-peace vs. anti-negotiation, Orthodox vs. Reform, assimilationist vs. isolationist. And with the war on terror turning any critic of Israel into a suspected traitor, it has not recoiled from running pieces like Burg�s that undermine the image of communal unity peddled by the American Jewish establishment.
On its news pages, meanwhile, the Forward covers the Jewish story as a story, seriously and dispassionately. Recent front-page articles have looked at a study claiming that 22 percent of Israeli households are malnourished, exposed the role of an Orthodox Jewish organization in supporting a conservative U.S. judicial nominee, and examined the unstable and insecure character of Jack Ruby (known to his Yiddish-speaking mother as Jacob Rubenstein). Its mandate is wide, taking on issues as international as the reemergence of opium-growing in Afghanistan and as local as the conflict between Hasidic Jews and blacks in Brooklyn. And the Forward is one of the few publications keeping a close journalistic eye on the American Jewish establishment, ready to pounce when incompetence or corruption is uncovered.
So harshly scrutinizing is it at times that its critics fret that it allows anyone to peer at the community�s often ugly internal disputes. But Steven Bayme, National Director of Contemporary Jewish Life at the American Jewish Committee, says that the Forward "gives you independent journalism, hard-hitting journalism, and it has become important precisely because it is willing to tackle sacred cows. The general sense is that a healthy community is one which can confront its weaknesses as well as its strengths. And the Forward forces us to look at those things."
Goldberg is fifty-four and has edited the paper for the last three years. He is a compact and fidgety man who, with owlish glasses and hair split down the middle, looks like a grown-up Harry Potter. He wants the Forward, journalistically, to "reinvent a language that has been lost for seventy years." By this, he means finding a way to look at anything, economics or dance, from a uniquely Jewish perspective -- but one that, rather than narrowing the world, widens to include as much of it as possible.
In this, Goldberg has stayed true to the initial idea of the paper as dreamt up by its charismatic founding editor, Seth Lipsky, formerly of The Wall Street Journal. In the spring of 2000, when Lipsky left the Forward in bitterness, a decade into its existence, editorials in The New Republic and the Journal declared the death of independent Jewish journalism. Over a thousand subscriptions were canceled. No one, it seemed, was worthy of following the irreverent and visionary Lipsky. Certainly not Goldberg, with a background in the Jewish press. The Forward, which had been taken so seriously and produced journalists who went on to work at The New Yorker and The New York Times, under Goldberg would turn amateurish and provincial.
There was no way, it was thought, that Goldberg could correct the perceived errors that had got Lipsky ousted and be true to the long, distinguished tradition of the Forward name.
The original Forward (or Forverts), has existed in Yiddish for over a hundred years. For the millions of Eastern European Jews who emigrated to America (and mostly to the Lower East Side of New York) at the turn of the last century, the Forward, a mix of tabloid and literary journal, was a reflection of the working-class, green, striving, brash, and overwhelmingly socialist community that was settling in this country.
In its prime, the Yiddish Forward had a circulation of a quarter million (not to mention all those it was passed along to in stuffy sweatshops and on crowded street corners) and was the first national newspaper with multiple editions, long before USA Today. If the Jewish community had a voice, this was it, where socialists and communists fought it out, labor laws were explained, lonely young women had their questions about love answered, the proper use of a handkerchief was illustrated, and confused greenhorn fathers learned why their sons wanted to hit balls with a round wooden bat.
Part of the Forward�s mission, as pursued by its founding editor, Abraham Cahan, was to help Jews assimilate into American society, get them to lose their Yiddish and take on English. "For that kind of paper to be successful was to put itself out of business," said Samuel Norich, executive director since 1998 of the Forward Association, the group that owns and runs the Forward franchise. And indeed, the Yiddish Forward, founded in 1897, is on its dying breath. Although lovingly sustained, it wheezes on with a mere 5,000 geriatric readers.
By the '80s, the Forward, as influential as it had once been, was headed toward the attic of Jewish nostalgia (to be tucked away with the schnorrers and schlimazels, the yentas and meshugennas of yore). Then the idea of a Forward in English was born in the most unlikely of minds. Lipsky, an editor at The Wall Street Journal, highly secular and an outsider to the Jewish world, first conceived of a modern-day successor to the Yiddish Forward. Like the original Forward, the new paper would serve the needs of American Jews. But instead of teaching them how to assimilate into America, something they had already done quite successfully, it would teach secular Jews, long cut off from the sense of community engendered on the Lower East Side, to feel part of a living, kicking, dynamic culture. The Forward, as Lipsky envisioned it, would inform American Jews about the organizations that speak and lobby (and wield millions) in their name. And it would analyze local politics, the Middle East, the economy, immigration, and a range of other "secular" topics from a sophisticated and uniquely Jewish perspective.
It took Lipsky most of the 1980s to convince the Forward Association to give him a shot. As the guardians of the Forward�s tradition, they were concerned about Lipsky�s politics. The Yiddish Forward was, after all, a socialist paper of the working class. Before World War II, it was allied closely with trade unions, strongly supported socialist candidates like Eugene V. Debs, and even looked kindly at first on the Russian Revolution. Lipsky, on the other hand, is a self-proclaimed neoconservative who, although fairly liberal on social issues like abortion and gay rights, is a fiscal conservative and an unabashed geopolitical hawk.
As he made clear in a 1997 Commentary essay, Lipsky thought he could reconcile these polarities. He did this by arguing that the socialists of the 1920s would have naturally evolved into the neoconservatives of today. To make his point, he referred to the Yiddish Forward�s increasing anti-Communism over the decades and its sympathetic 1940 obituary of Vladimir Jabotinsky, the grandfather of revisionist or right-wing Zionism. Lipsky wrote, "In fact, every time I have dipped into the files of the Forward, I have found editorials on Zionism and Israel rippling with verve and strength and hewing to what, in the contemporary context, can only be called a hard line."
Anyone wanting to be editor of the Forward would have to contend with the overwhelming memory of Abraham Cahan, independent, opinionated, and daring, who ran the Yiddish paper for more than fifty years. And in this capacity Lipsky fit the bill. A lifelong journalist, he had reported for Stars and Stripes during Vietnam, and had spent years as an editor at Time and then the Journal. By all accounts, Lipsky could be described best in one word: newspaperman. Not the modern antiseptic version of the creature, but the old-fashioned, stir-the-pot, hard-headed incarnation. "Curious, direct, oblivious to protocol, always provocative," was the way Albert R. Hunt of the Journal summed him up in an elegiac 2000 column.
In 1990 the Forward Association finally agreed to create the new Forward and give Lipsky editorial control. He took it and ran. On the news pages, the Forward tackled a mixture of local and national news, stories like the Crown Heights riots and Patrick Buchanan�s victory in the New Hampshire primary; international stories about Russian Jews and Hezbollah; and stories that turned a laser beam on the Jewish establishment, skewering its leaders and scrutinizing its charities. The arts and letters pages became a space for irreverent creativity, serializing Philip Roth�s Operation Shylock and Art Spiegelman�s Pulitzer Prize-winning comic strip, Maus. The design was bold -- large photos and drawings -- and the reviews and idea pieces meandered through subjects as diverse as sex in Israeli cinema and a new opera about the Dreyfus Affair.
Lipsky won�t talk about his time at the Forward (testament to the bitterness of his eventual break-up with the Forward Association), but the accounts of the young writers he groomed during his time there are filled with romance and nostalgia, dominated by the eccentric figure of their former editor. Lipsky wore hats, they say. He painted portraits of his heroes, like Menachem Begin, which he hung in his office. He told the writers that their era was akin to Paris in the twenties. A decade later, they still have Lipsky stories in which their former editor sounds like a combination of W.C. Fields and William Randolph Hearst. Philip Gourevitch, now at The New Yorker, remembers Lipsky offering him the job of New York bureau chief. "Do you own a necktie?" Lipsky barked at him. When Gourevitch answered yes, Lipsky inquired if he had any reporting experience. No, Gourevitch answered. "Good, no bad habits." E.J. Kessler, still at the paper and now its deputy managing editor, recalls Lipsky walking into the newsroom and asking her for her front-page news story. She didn�t have one. She had written the lead art piece that week. "That�s just chat," he answered. "I want scoops."
Lipsky did indeed want scoops. And he wanted them plastered on the front page in giant headlines like JEWISH DAY SCHOOL PUPILS FLUNK READING TEST AT RATES THAT DISCLOSE POCKETS OF WEAKNESS, or HIGH HOLIDAY TICKETS ARE PRICEY AND SCARCE/A RABBI EXPLAINS: 'I HAVE TO EAT AND MY CHILDREN HAVE TO EAT'. He loved controversy. When a Jewish charity was contemplating awarding Yasir Arafat a peace prize in 1999, Lipsky put a picture of the Palestinian leader on the front page with the headline, YOUR CHARITY DOLLARS AT WORK? He ran stories that Jews did not want to see about themselves, like one about a Jewish stripper -- "I would dance topless but not on Shabbat" -- or one about a protest in Israel in which secular Jews handed out ham-and-cheese sandwiches to protest new rules privileging the religious -- IN JERUSALEM, HAM N'CHEESE, ON WRY.
On the editorial page, Lipsky�s neo-conservative views managed to consistently upset many people. Not necessarily a bad move, except that those he seemed to prick most were his benefactors, the left-leaning Forward Association. And, according to Samuel Norich, Lipsky�s political sensibility "manifested itself not only on the editorial page, but also in the headlines, on the front page, in the spin of news articles." On economic issues, Norich says, Lipsky "consistently called for lower marginal tax rates -- what we felt was the shredding of the social safety net." On Israel, Norich says, Lipsky was constantly to the right of the Israeli government, "never between the Israeli government and the Arabs."
Lipsky had started as an employee of the Forward Association. But in 1995 he and three partners bought half of the paper. This further emboldened his editorial independence. Norich insists that Lipsky continued to ignore an "unwritten understanding that he would take our views into account."
In 2000 the association finally decided to assert some editorial oversight and Lipsky, predictably, resisted. There was no easy solution. Although circulation had stagnated after 1997, losing the Forward vast sums of money (an average of $2 million a year), it was Lipsky who had put the paper on the map. When the impasse seemed too great, Lipsky and his financial backers, most prominently the philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, proposed buying the whole paper. But as half-owners, the Forward Association could block the deal. And that is what its leaders did, telling Lipsky he could either leave the paper or they would kill it. Lipsky chose to quit.
To the Lipsky loyalists, the parting was bitter and acrimonious. "They made it out like an octogenarian politburo had offed a bright young star of independent thinking," said Norich. In fact, Lipsky�s staff saw it mostly for what it was -- a conflict of ideology and personality. Ira Stoll, an editor at the paper for five years who has since followed Lipsky to his new venture, the year-and-a-half-old daily, The New York Sun, put it this way: "You had a newspaper that had two fifty-percent owners, the Forward Association and Lipsky-Steinhardt LLC -- rough shorthand: the socialists and the capitalists -- and they couldn�t agree on how to go forward. The capitalist side wanted to put more money in and take majority control. The socialist side didn�t want to sell. So basically, the capitalists sold their half to the socialists. And the socialists got a new editor."
When Lipsky left, so did all but three of the entire editorial staff. The Forward would be worthless without Lipsky, they thought. It would turn into just another Jewish community weekly, without nerve or pluck. Jonathan Mahler, at one point the editorial page editor at the Forward, wrote in The New Republic, "Seth Lipsky arrived at a desert and built a beautiful garden. Now the land�s owners want it back. What they don�t realize is that, without Lipsky, the garden will die anyway."
We don�t deride. We don�t scandalize. We fundamentally expect that people of good will are doing their best," J.J. Goldberg says, sitting in his midtown Manhattan office. "And when they screw up, we say so. And we are looking for that stuff. But it is not our job to play gotcha. We start with a basic respect for the job of doing the community�s work."
Goldberg was the Forward Association�s antidote to Lipsky. The son of a union lawyer, he grew up with a strong background in Labor Zionism. He also speaks fluent Hebrew, having lived on a kibbutz for a few years in the seventies, and has spent his life invested in and involved with the Jewish world. Unlike Lipsky, he had a strong grounding in Jewish history and culture. His political beliefs lined up more directly with the Yiddish paper�s. But the very background that recommended him for the job in the Forward Association�s eyes also created an "image problem," as Goldberg himself put it. Lipsky�s achievement, it was thought, stemmed from his outsider status and long experience in the mainstream press. Goldberg was coming from the inside. He knew the players personally, had lifelong relationships with them, and had mostly worked for Jewish publications like The Jewish Week. When he arrived at an empty newsroom, he began filling it with Jewish-press colleagues. "One of the Lipsky people came in to tell me he was leaving," Goldberg remembered. "And he said, �You�ve confirmed my fear that this is going to become another mediocre, sycophantic Jewish community weekly.�"
But it hasn�t. The garden has not died. Goldberg has not run away from Lipsky�s model of using the Jewish story to tell a wider story. He just wants to do "what Lipsky did but in a liberal way."
"He published a paper that, more than any other Jewish weekly, covered issues like the economy and social and cultural debates in a deep kind of way," says Goldberg. "Now and again, he would have an article that would have no obvious Jewish connection about tax rates or the international monetary system which was deeply conservative. I want to do the same thing, but liberal."
Lipsky, Goldberg says, would "want to do an exposé on who was threatening to divide Jerusalem. I would want to do an exposé on who was threatening to disrupt efforts to make peace."
Editorially, the greatest difference between the two is Goldberg�s belief in the paper�s traditional liberalism and the need to connect stories to their Jewish roots. "To me, the values of Judaism, the culture and tradition that evolve from the bible through the Talmud, through the rabbinic era to modern Yiddish literature is a seamless line," Goldberg says, drawing a difference between himself and Lipsky. "And if you don�t know that, then none of it makes sense."
But Goldberg, although he doesn�t aim to be as needling (some would say, mean) as Lipsky, still wants to take a magnifying glass to the Jewish establishment. In fact, in 1996, he published a book, provocatively titled Jewish Power, which was the first real deconstruction of the American Jewish organizational world. Goldberg is no apologist for the Jewish establishment. Besides running the Burg piece, in recent months he has also published a controversial op-ed by Natan Sharansky, an Israeli government minister, which hammered American Jewish organizations for not inspiring Jewish college students to fight campus anti-Zionism. Also recently, Goldberg loudly disputed the findings of a Jewish population survey. The study forecast the imminent disappearance of the American Jew, because of intermarriage and assimilation. Goldberg thought the numbers were manipulated to create a bleak and pessimistic outlook useful for fundraising. He said so, in his pages and in a New York Times op-ed, and it didn�t make him any friends in the Jewish establishment.
On Israel, Goldberg�s liberal tendencies have acted as a counterbalance to the general rightward shift of the American Jewish community. Like Lipsky in the 1990s, prophetically skeptical about Oslo when it was embraced by most American Jews, Goldberg seems to be "the appropriate contrarian for his time," says Ami Eden, the Forward�s current national editor.
Comparing Lipsky and Goldberg�s Forward, you see a paper that is now considerably less operatic (and therefore, maybe, less provoking). But it is still the most serious source of Jewish news around. This remains true, because Goldberg, like Lipsky, doesn�t care if Jews don�t see the best of themselves reflected in its pages, or if they don�t agree or are shocked or offended by pieces, like Burg�s, that make Jews feel self-conscious. If there is one thing that connects Goldberg and Lipsky, it is a confidence that the community is mature and strong enough to take it, that dissent is in fact the most Jewish practice they could be engaged in.
"The genius of the Talmud is that it created an atmosphere of dissent," says Jonathan Rosen, who, under Lipsky, conceived of and edited the Forward�s Arts and Letters pages. "It�s not that the individual things debated don�t matter. But the culture of the Talmud is its greatest contribution. And that�s a culture in which dissent and dispute and skepticism are in themselves godly activities."
Gal Beckerman is an assistant editor at CJR.
The angels of the public interest, with large pink wings and glittering halos, descended on Michael Powell this fall, five years after he had, somewhat sarcastically, first invoked them.
That was back in April 1998, when Powell was speaking to a Las Vegas gathering of lawyers. Only a few months had passed since his appointment to one of the five spots on the Federal Communications Commission, and the new commissioner had been invited to speak about a longstanding and contentious issue: Was it the FCC's responsibility to keep the media working toward the public good?
Powell made clear that he placed his faith in the invisible hand of the market: the business of the FCC, he said, was to resolve "matters that predominantly involve the competing interests of industry" and not some vague "public interest." The FCC had no role in deciding whether to give free airtime to presidential candidates, for example, or in forcing television channels to carry educational or children's programming. "Even if what is portrayed on television encourages or perpetuates some societal problem, we must be careful in invoking our regulatory powers," Powell insisted.
To highlight the point, Powell used biblical imagery. "The night after I was sworn in, I waited for a visit from the angel of the public interest," Powell said. "I waited all night but she did not come. And, in fact, five months into this job, I still have had no divine awakening."
This Sept. 4 the angels finally arrived.
Fifteen women dressed entirely in fluorescent pink and spreading frilly wings emblazoned with the words "Free Speech" stood on the sidewalk outside the large glass doors of the FCC. They banged on bongos and shouted chants, unfurling a large pink scroll containing their demands: full repeal of the new rules that Michael Powell had just shepherded into existence.
By this time, Powell had become FCC chairman and had overseen the biggest relaxation of media ownership rules in over thirty years (see "Powell's Rules," below). But the day before, a federal appeals court in Philadelphia had granted an emergency stay barring the FCC from putting his new rules into effect. The court gave as one of its reasons "the magnitude of this matter and the public's interest in reaching the proper resolution." So the angels were celebrating, and they were not alone.
The massive public response to the rule changes, in fact, had been unprecedented. For months before and after the new rules were announced on June 2, opposition had been loud, passionate, and active. Hundreds of thousands of comments were sent to the FCC, almost all in opposition. It was the heaviest outpouring of public sentiment the commission had ever experienced.
Even more striking was the makeup of this opposition, what the New York Times called "an unusual alliance of liberal and conservative organizations." Together in the mix, along with Code Pink, the activists in angel wings, were the National Rifle Association, the National Organization for Women, the Parents Television Council (a conservative group focused on indecency in television), every major journalism association, labor groups like the Writers and Screen Actors Guilds, and a collection of liberal nonprofit organizations that had been focused on media issues for decades.
It is not every day that the ideological lines get redrawn over an issue, let alone an issue that had been destined to remain obscure and complex for all but telecommunications experts to debate. What's the glue that has held this unlikely coalition together?
Victoria Cunningham is the twenty-four-year-old national coordinator of Code Pink, a grass-roots women's organization that engages in wacky direct action. Code Pink has sung Christmas carols outside Donald Rumsfeld's home and arrived at Hillary Clinton's Senate office wearing underwear over their clothing to deliver her a "pink slip" of disapproval for her early support of the war in Iraq. I met with her a month after her group's boisterous visit to the FCC. Code Pink's office is little more than a broom closet on the fifth floor of a building a few blocks from the White House. Pink beads and rainbow flags cram the walls. Cunningham was wearing what else? a very pink shirt.
Why were her members, who number in the thousands, so interested in this issue? "Our people are informed enough that they understand what happens when there are only one or three or four companies that are controlling the information we get," Cunningham said. "A lot of our people would love to turn on the evening news and see a variety of opinions coming out."
Like everyone I talked to who was involved in the opposition to the FCC rules, Cunningham spoke of the intuitive understanding most people had of an issue that seems complex on the surface. Over and over, as I attempted to understand what it was that was holding together this diverse coalition, I heard the same phrase: "People just get it." And I heard this from groups both left and right. The oddest invitation Cunningham said she had received in the last few months was to appear on Oliver North's conservative radio talk show to debate the FCC issue. "And when we talked about that," she said, "we just couldn't say anything bad to each other."
Next, I made my way to a rather different scene, the headquarters of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, to talk with Monsignor Francis J. Maniscalco, its director of communications. No broom closet, the conference's home is in a giant modern Washington building behind a large sculpture of Jesus pointing to the sky.
Monsignor Maniscalco, a clerical collar under his soft, round face, spoke like a weathered telecommunications professional about his opposition to the FCC's new rules. The bishops are concerned about the loss of religious shows, like Catholic mass on television but also the loss of a time when, he says, in order for broadcasters to keep their licenses they had to "prove they were being responsive to the local community." The further consolidation of the media that would be spurred by the new FCC rules, he said, would only increase the lack of responsiveness to community needs. "We see the media as being very formational of people, formational of a culture, formational of people's attitudes," he said, "and if certain strains of community life are not on television they are, by that very reason, considered less important, less vital to society."
Even though he and the conference had always opposed media consolidation, Maniscalco said, until recently they felt they were working in a vacuum. When the monsignor began talking about the current effort, though, he visibly brightened. His eyebrows, which are red, lifted, and he rolled forward in his chair. "The consumption of media is a passive consumption, it is a passive act in itself," he said. "And it is a passive audience that has said, 'We just have to take what they give us.' But interestingly enough, this seems to be something that has finally caught people's imagination, that they could make a difference in terms of turning back these rules and saying no, we don't see that as being very helpful to our situation."
Media industry insiders were taken by surprise at how fast these groups managed to come together and exercise political influence. In addition to the emergency stay issued by the Philadelphia federal appeals court on the day before Powell's six new rules were to go into effect, Congress has responded with zeal to their demands. Consider: on July 23, only a month after the rules were approved, the House of Representatives voted 400 to 21 to roll back the ownership cap to 35 percent. Then, on September 16, the coalition had an even greater success. The Senate used a parliamentary procedure, called a resolution of disapproval used only once before in history to pass a bill repealing all the new regulations. It passed 55 to 40, and was supported by twelve Republicans, and cosponsored, astonishingly, by none other than Trent Lott. Such quick legislative action has generated excitement, but it is unlikely that the coalition will find such easy victory in the future. The Senate bill must now face House Republican leaders who have vowed to prevent the measure from going to a vote, partly to keep this political hot potato away from the president during an election year. The court case that has put the new rules on hold, meanwhile, promises a complicated legal contest when it takes place next year.
But these challenges don't take away from what has been achieved. Such ideologically disparate groups rarely find common cause. As Powell himself has pointed out, the reasons behind most of these groups' opposition are parochial and narrow. The unions are worried that more consolidation will lead to fewer jobs; the left-leaning groups are still shivering from what they saw as nationalistic coverage of the war; groups like the Parents Television Council want less Buffy the Vampire Slayer and more Little House on the Prairie. Yet there they were, at countless public hearings over the last half-year, the bishop sitting next to the gun lobbyist sitting next to a woman from NOW, all united around some common denominator.
To get a better idea of what that common denominator might be, I went to visit Andrew Schwartzman, the fifty-seven-year-old president of the Media Access Project, a small public-interest law firm that has been fighting big media and the FCC for more than three decades. Schwartzman was the lead lawyer in the case that led to the September 4 emergency stay.
A week after that triumph, he looked exhausted, his bloodshot eyes contrasting with his white hair and bushy moustache. He looked a little like Mark Twain a very tired Mark Twain. He spoke slowly and deliberately. "Michael Powell has significantly misunderstood what this is about, to his detriment," Schwartzman said. "He repeatedly says, somewhat disdainfully, that all the disparate organizations are unhappy about what they see on the air. The right-wingers think the media is liberal and the left-wingers think the media is a corporate conspiracy, and they all can't be right. This is a way of dismissing and trivializing their position. For me, what these groups have in common is that they represent people who are within the relatively small group of Americans who choose to be active participants in the political process, the people who exercise their First Amendment rights aggressively. And even where their principal areas of interest may be the Second Amendment or other things, they understand the importance of the electronic mass media in the democratic process. And Michael Powell hasn't understood that."
What unites these groups, he told me, is that they all generally believe that the media are limited, and that this limitation comes from the fact that there is too much control in too few hands. This leads to a lack of diversity of voices, to programming that is out of touch with local concerns, to increasingly commercial and homogenized news and entertainment. And this is what has triggered people's passions. It is not the fear that their own voice won't echo loud enough, he said, but that further consolidation will produce media in which only the powerful few will be heard at all.
But why now? Neither Schwartzman nor anyone else I talked to could explain why, coming from so many different directions, all these groups landed in the same place at the same time. After all, this is not the first time that free-market enthusiasts have smashed up against the defenders of the public interest.
The 1980s saw a major crack in the idea that the public interest was the top priority for the FCC. President Reagan's FCC chairman, Mark Fowler, presided over the death of the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcast stations to provide airtime for opposing voices in controversial matters of public importance. Then in 1996 Congress passed, and President Clinton signed, a major overhaul of U.S. telecommunications law, permitting greater media concentration. Radio was significantly deregulated, leading to the growth of companies such as Clear Channel, which now operates more than 1,200 stations in more than 300 markets. It was in that period that the national ownership cap for television stations went from 25 percent to 35 percent.
Such developments happened away from the public eye, in a place where only members of Congress and lobbyists roam. According to Celia Wexler, director and researcher for Common Cause, the nonpartisan citizens' lobby, those past fights were "very much inside the Beltway. It was very complicated, and there were no groups able to tell the story in a way that really made people understand what was at stake. There were media reformers who understood, who wanted a discussion of the public-interest obligations of broadcasters. But it didn't really catch fire."
At a morning session on media issues at a Common Cause conference, I saw how dramatically the situation had changed. Seats to the event were in hot demand. Next to me an elderly couple sat clutching newspaper clippings, one of which was headlined new fcc rules sap diversity in media owners.
Wexler, a small woman with the air of a librarian, was sitting on stage in a panel that included Gloria Tristani, a former FCC commissioner, who said of Michael Powell at one point: "I think he has lost touch with people or maybe never had touch with people in this country." The star of the morning, though, was John Nichols, a Nation Washington correspondent, who, together with Robert McChesney, another media reformer, this year started an organization called Free Press. Nichols has a professorial air, but he started his talk so dramatically that the couple next to me started nodding furiously.
He contended that, in the wake of September 11 and in the buildup to the war in Iraq, Americans had come to realize how shallow and narrow were their media. "People said maybe I support this war, maybe I oppose it, but I would like to know a little more about who we're going to bomb," Nichols said. "And I would like to know more about what came before and how this works -- not just cheerleading. And all of that churned, combined, to have a profound impact."
This was an explanation I had heard from other liberal groups involved in the media movement. But it still didn't explain why conservatives had chosen this particular moment to join this coalition. As with the liberals, there have always been conservative groups that have opposed media deregulation, most notably the Catholic Church, but the message never resonated widely.
That, too, has changed. Take, for example, the Parents Television Council, an organization with 800,000 members that monitors indecency. The group regularly sends letters to the FCC when a show contains what they call "foul language" or racy subject matter. In August, L. Brent Bozell, the council's president, joined Gene Kimmelman of Consumers Union, a longtime advocate of media reform, in an editorial that was published in the New York Daily News, writing that in spite of their ideological differences they "agree that by opening the door to more media and newspaper consolidation, the FCC has endangered something that reaches far beyond traditional politics: It has undermined the community-oriented communications critical to our democracy."
Conservatives see a link between the growth of big media and the amount of blood and skin they see on television. The smaller and more local that media are, the argument goes, the more attuned to community standards of decency. If local stations could preempt what was being fed from New York and Los Angeles, then programming could be more reflective of family values. Here again, the sense is that media have become too large and all-encompassing and lost touch with their audience.
Melissa Caldwell, director of research at the council, points out that the new ownership rules were a way for big media companies to buy up even more local stations. This is worrisome, she explained, because locally owned broadcast affiliates tend to be more responsive to community standards of decency. The council's surveys, Caldwell says, show that network-owned stations almost never preempt network shows, "whereas locally owned and operated stations were more likely to do so. We don't want to see the networks become even less responsive to community concerns than they already are."
By the end of September, with his rules in deep freeze, Powell, speaking to The New York Times, expressed exasperation with the effectiveness of the opposition. "Basically, people ran an outside political campaign against the commission," Powell was quoted as saying. "I've never seen that in six years."
At the core of this "campaign" were four groups Consumers Union, led by Kimmelman, and the Consumer's Federation of America, represented by Mark Cooper, as well as Andrew Schwartzman's Media Access Project and the Center for Digital Democracy, run by Jeffrey Chester. The four men (who often referred to themselves as the "four Jewish horsemen of the apocalypse") played the central role in translating the growing anger and frustration of the Left and the Right into a cohesive movement.
Early on, these groups realized that to fight the FCC they would need more political power than their dependable but small progressive base could offer. One of their first steps, in addition to beginning a conversation with conservative groups like Parents Television Council, was to call on labor organizations like the Writers Guild and AFTRA, which could provide the resources and the manpower to get the message out.
By the beginning of 2003, a loose coalition was in place. And at that point, Powell's personality, of all things, began to play a galvanizing role. In pronouncement after pronouncement, he trumpeted the importance of these new rules highlighted by his decision to vote on all of them in one shot. He insisted that their rewriting would be based purely on a scientific examination of the current broadcasting world.
It was true, as Powell claimed, that reexamining the rules was not his idea. The District of Columbia Court of Appeals, interpreting the 1996 Telecommunications Act, had ordered him to conduct a biennial assessment. But Powell had many chances to include the public in this review, and he did not. No public hearings were necessary, he said; the facts would do the talking, and would point to the rightness of his free-market convictions. "Michael Powell deserves a public-interest medal because he practically single-handedly created this enormous opposition," said Jeffrey Chester.
In December, Powell announced a single public hearing, to be held in what one opponent jokingly referred to as "the media capital" of Richmond, Virginia. Soon, groups who had been only peripherally involved in the loose coalition became increasingly angered by Powell's intransigence. One story often invoked to illustrate the unifying power of Powell's stubbornness involves a meeting that took place between members of the Hollywood creative community and labor groups, including producers and writers, and Kenneth Ferree, the chief of the media bureau at the FCC. According to several people present at the gathering, when a request for public hearings was made, Ferree was dismissive and rude, saying he was only interested in "facts," not "footstomping." "The sense of helplessness and anger that he generated by that meeting was enormous," said Mona Mangan, executive director of Writers Guild East.
If Powell's refusal to hold public hearings galvanized the opposition in one direction, the desire of another commissioner, Michael J. Copps, to engage with the public on this issue also played a key role. Copps, one of the two Democrats on the FCC, was unhappy with Powell's insistence on keeping the issue within the Beltway. When Powell finally announced that the number of public hearings would be limited to one, Copps issued a statement that read like the complaints of the growing grass-roots opposition. "At stake in this proceeding are our core values of localism, diversity, competition, and maintaining the multiplicity of voices and choices that undergird our marketplace of ideas and that sustain American democracy," he said.
"The idea that you are changing the basic framework for media ownership and you don't really want to make this a public debate was a reflection of Powell's own sort of arrogant, narrow mind-set," said Chester. "He didn't understand that this is about journalism, this is about media. No matter what the outcome, you have to go the extra mile to encourage a serious national debate."
Through the winter and early spring, Copps organized unofficial hearings around the country in collaboration with groups like the Writers Guild, earning the nickname Paul Revere in some quarters. As media reform groups searched for a wide range of witnesses to speak at these hearings, the coalition grew to include groups like the National Rifle Association and the National Organization for Woman. Out of the meetings came the first sense that this issue could resonate.
In the spring, after Powell refused to delay the June vote for further discussion, the FCC was flooded with calls and letters. Petitions were signed with hundreds of thousands of names and comments. Something was happening. Despite the scant press coverage, citizens were responding. The Internet helped to make this response immediate and numerous, mostly through an Internet-based public interest group called MoveOn.org, which had been an organizing force against the Iraq war, capable of turning out thousands upon thousands of signatures and donations in a matter of days. Now it turned its attention to media reform, and the result surprised even its organizers.
"We thought it was just kind of a weird issue because it's this wonky regulatory thing, it's not a typical MoveOn issue like stopping the drilling in the Arctic," said Eli Pariser, MoveOn's young national campaigns director. "After we heard from a critical mass of people we decided to pursue it and see what happened. And when we went out with our petition we got this amazing response."
A few days before the Sept. 16 Senate vote on the resolution of disapproval, I accompanied lobbyists from Consumers Union and Free Press as they delivered a huge MoveOn petition. Lining one of the halls in the Hart Senate Office Building were stacks upon stacks of paper, 340,000 names in all. It was the quickest and largest turnover MoveOn had ever experienced, including its antiwar effort.
As the activists, young and in rumpled, ill-fitting suits, delivered these petitions to Senate aides, everyone was struck by the fact that they were more than just names printed on paper, more than a rubber-stamp petition drive. Many of the statements seemed heartfelt. Sometimes they were only a line, "I want more diversity and freedom of speech," and sometimes long letters, taking up whole pages. People expressed their personal dissatisfaction with what they saw when they turned on the TV. But mostly, they expressed passion. It popped off the page. People in Batesville, Arkansas, and Tekamah, Nebraska, were angry. Media had become a political issue, as deeply felt as the economy, health care, or education. Senate Republicans and Democrats alike understood this. A few days later, they voted to repeal all the new regulations.
When I asked the coalition partners how long their alliance could last beyond the battle over the ownership rules, their answers were uniform: not long. If the Parents Television Council and the Writers Guild ever sat down and tried to figure out rules for TV, the decency monitors would demand stricter limits on sex and violence, and the screenwriters who make up the guild would recoil in horror, shouting about the First Amendment.
But on the question of what these groups' larger and long-term objectives were for the media, I did get some kind of consensus. At the most fundamental level, there is a demand for a forum, for a place where diverse ideas can be heard and contrasted. The ideal seemed to be media that better reflect America, with its diversity, its ideological contentiousness, its multitude of values and standards.
When I asked Monsignor Maniscalco how he would want broadcasters to act in an ideal world, I assumed he would posit some narrow vision of an all-Catholic twenty-four-hour news channel, but he didn't.
"We would like them to take a chance on things that are noncommercial, that are simply not on television," the monsignor said. "Not for the sake of how much money they can make, but because they represent significant aspects of the community. We would really like to see the concept of broadcasting in the public interest be recognized by these people as a legitimate aspect of their work."
When I posed the problem of whether he could eventually agree to share airtime with all the groups in this coalition, groups like NOW with which he had fundamental and deep disagreements, Monsignor Maniscalco had a simple answer: "You could say that the goal is for the media to give us access so we can finally have a space to argue amongst ourselves."
Gal Beckerman is an assistant editor at CJR.