Monday, September 03, 2012

Today's Avi, or what does the media do?

Who writes a full-length column to complain that reporters often reveal that he responded by email when he has, in fact, responded by email? Why, Avi Shafran does. But the purpose of this installment of "Today's Avi" is not to bloody Avi for complaining about reporters who tell the truth, but to ruminate a bit on the role of the media and the meaning of "objectivity" as applied to news reporting, using Avi's latest lament as a launch pad.

See it after the jump.

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Some reporters have punished me over the past few years, for doing something they don’t like—asking that they pose their questions by e-mail.

And wait until you hear exactly how those nasty, ink-stained scribblers punish him. You'll run right to the phone to call Safran Protective Services.

Some background: As the media liaison for Agudath Israel of America, I regularly receive inquiries from members of the press about an assortment of issues, mostly about Agudah policies or initiatives but about all manner of things Jewish as well.

Although there are responsible journalists out there, competition for “eyeballs” tends to color, and often distorts, much reportage. 

As we've seem from his previous animadversions, Avi considers any departure, however slight,  from the official Agudath Israel song sheet to be a "distortion." Witness his whining last month when some "biased" and "prejudiced" and "agenda-driven" writers deigned to include a few sentences about women who study Talmud in their stories about the Siyum Hashas. To Avi, this was unpardonable. 

During my early years on the job I freely spoke with any and all reporters, confident that what I thought was my openness and good will would force my inquisitors to treat me, and our community, fairly. I was in for a surprise.

I can't comment on the articles he found "surprising" as he hasn't given them as examples, but I do know his complaint cuts both ways. Sometimes reporters are unfair, out of malice or incompetence. But sometimes they tell truths or provide legitimate perspectives that can be unflattering or unpleasant. Historically, Avi has shown an inability to tell the difference between malfeasance and opposing points of view.

Which brings me to one of the mysteries of Avi. 

Is he such a prisoner to his ideology that he sincerely believes only his own truths are actual truths or this just professional posturing? Are all perspectives other than his own foul and false, or does he acquire some strategic advantage in undermining the media while also putting it on notice?  After all, as the spokesman for a major organization its his job to publicize his own truths. Feigning outrage when the media fails to cooperate is one arrow in his quiver of tricks. 

The first few times I was misquoted or my words mischaracterized, I assumed I hadn’t been sufficiently clear or that the reporters had made innocent mistakes. 

Talking to the media is hard. If you stray off message, they can grab the wrong points. That's not the reporter's fault - you said what you said - but is can be disheartening to read a story that doesn't seem to say what you hoped it would.  Media training is multi-million dollar industry because such things happen to everyone, not just Orthodox Jews. 

Eventually, though, I sobered and realized that some reporters were—are you sitting down?—not really interested in accuracy or truth. They were seeking, rather, some quote to plug into the article they had already written (at least in their heads), on a quest to get some words from me to “massage” or use in a selective way to fit their preconceptions. 

This is certainly true as well, but I find it shocking that Avi attained a high position in a major organization without discovering it along the way. Reporters are people. This means they enter a situation with predetermined positions, and when you're writing on deadline you don't often have the luxury of re-evaluating those positions. So, of course reporters write the stories and look for quotes afterwards. This isn't shocking or surprising -- in fact, its one of the first things a good media trainer will tell you. Your job, as a spokesman, is to recognize that the reporter is an ordinary, flawed, human being, not an automation who will do you bidding, and get your story out regardless. By confessing that he often stumbled in the early days, Avi may imagine he's indicting the media but in fact he's revealing his own initial incompetence as a spokesman.

And disturbingly often, their products seemed calculated to cast the Orthodox Jewish community in an unfair light.

Can you say "paranoia?" 

This is such a sickening, ghetto-Jew attitude. And, I don't say this because the media is always friendly to our community - of course it isn't - but because I believe the media is no more or less friendly to Orthodox Jews than it is to anyone else. Catholics, Muslims, single women, the elderly -- every one of these groups, and dozens more, have their own litany of complaints about the media. Even atheists think the media treats them badly.  And of course, at times, the media does mistreat all of those communities, but not necessarily from malice. Catholics, Jews and the rest sometimes do and say strange things. Protecting people and communities from themselves is not the media's job .

And so it was that I discovered journalism’s dirty little secret: Reporters, despite their pledges to provide facts in an objective way, 

Reporters DO NOT pledge to provide facts in an objective way. They don't make such a pledge because they know its impossible. (They also don't promise to shape coal into diamonds using their bare hands) Perhaps Avi was once naive enough to think reporters possess the superhuman ability to perceive the whole, complete, objective Truth, but no (honest) reporter ever encouraged him in this error.  Reporters know they can only provide the facts as they personally understand them, and this is all they attempt to do.

are just as biased and close-minded as mere mortals. 

Can we say "Duh"

And their proffered credentials as purveyors of truth make their biases all the more pernicious.

This is just stupid. Reporters don't claim to purvey anything other than the truth as they see it.

After confronting that painful truth, I made the decision that, excepting reporters I have come to know as fair-minded and objective, 

He means "friendly" or "willing to do his bidding". No human being is "objective." We don't have the capacity. The world is too big and we are too small.  From my own, personal interactions with Avi  I know that to legitimately disagree with him is to be "biased." (Again, I don't know if he really thinks this or if its just a pose.)

I would generally respond to journalists’ questions not in person or by telephone but only by e-mail. That allows me to ensure that my words are well-chosen; I can weigh them, edit them, and re-edit them until I’m satisfied that they are clear and reasonably beyond mischaracterization.

Many spokespeople do this. It hasn't been unusual for years.

And precisely for that reason, some reporters are miffed by my policy. Written responses, they gripe, are too impersonal and formal. What they really mean, though, is that such responses are too efficient, too clear, and too difficult to manipulate. (What’s more, they leave a paper—well, electron—trail.)

Or what they may mean is "I happen to be more comfortable and better at doing my job when I can do a personal interview." Avi seems to rule out this possibility, instead characterizing a preference for the face-to-face as a secret wish to "get him." I'll note in passing that it seems quite unfair for Avi to insist on his own preference (email correspondence) while assigning evil motives to those who may have other preferences.

And so those reporters punish me. 

Here we go....!

Not to worry; it’s nothing as painful as my beloved first grade rebbe’s ruler on my fingers when I misbehaved. 

[!] There is something unmistakably sick about professing love for a child abuser. Now not all abusers are created equal, and being struck with a ruler is far from the worst kinds of abuse, but it is abuse, all the same. The root of his difficulties might be contained in this horrid little mini-anecdote but I'm not sufficiently skilled in psychology to ferret it out.

My penalty consists only of the addition of the words “… responded by e-mail” before whatever words of mine were quoted. It’s a sort of whine, like what one hears in schoolyards (“Teacher! Jimmy won’t talk to me!”), and meant to convey to readers that a considered written response is somehow inferior to a comment offered in a conversation. 

Or - hold on to your hat - it means that the reporter is telling the truth. When he calls this simple three-word statement of fact a "whine" or a "complaint" all of his pathologies are on display: the paranoia, the insecurity, and the inability to see anything but malfeasance in the behavior of those he imagines to be his opponents. 

In truth, of course, it’s superior. Rare is the first off-the-cuff or conversational comment that is as accurate or informative as a duly considered one. As Leon Wieseltier once remarked about blogs, the idea that our first thoughts are our best thoughts is thoroughly ridiculous.

This may be so, but the words "responded by email" don't suggest that the comments are inferior. In fact, a more secure, less demon-tortured spokesman might just as easily interpret the words "responded by email" as the journalist's way of alerting his readers that the quoted words should be taken more seriously for precisely the reasons Avi gives.

Even my “e-mail only” policy, however, is no match for a determinedly unscrupulous journalist. This past May, for instance, a reporter “on deadline” for a Jewish paper in New Jersey e-mailed me 13 questions (the norm is one or two), each of which would have taken a good ten minutes to reply to in a complete and clear fashion. I didn’t have two hours to offer him that day, and so I apologized and sent him some primary material that included most of the information he sought.

In his article, he informed his readers that I had “declined to directly respond to” and “failed to answer” his questions, leaving the impression that he had posed a simple question or two and that I had been purposefully evasive. Clever fellow.

Where was he unscrupulous? Avi DID decline to answer and he DID refused to respond directly. All of that is TRUE. The rest is interpretation. Someone with Avi's bias (i.e. the media hates me, and journalists are constantly trying to make me look bad) might get the impression Avi received. But such biases are not universal. To me the words  “declined to directly respond to” and “failed to answer" mean only that Avi  declined to directly respond to” and “failed to answer" -- both true.

The “Fourth Estate” is an important part of a free society. But when its members elevate prejudice over principle, the results can be ugly. 

We have a free press precisely because we expect reporters to elevate prejudice over principle. That's what people do, and reporters are people. In fact, its what reporters have always done dating back to the earliest days of reporting. The founders guaranteed a free press so that all prejudices and biases might collide in the open marketplace and so that falsehoods might be easily rebutted. 

If men were angels, to paraphrase the Founders, a free press would not be necessary. Its an important part of a free society, as Avi says, precisely because its members, like people everywhere, can be expected to follow their prejudices. The hope and expectation was that a free exchange of ideas, facilitated in part by a free press, would help us to eventually overcome those prejudices! 

It didn’t take much interaction with the world of media for me to realize that like a sausage, journalism is something whose ingredients you might not really want to know.


The above essay may be reproduced or republished, with permission and the above copyright appended.

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