I start to worry whenever the Wall Street Journal editorial page cites theliberalNewRepublic for support. It usually augurs a temporary cease-fire between far-right paleocons and center-right neocons for the purpose of excluding the rest of us. It happened repeatedly during the eighties regarding El Salvador, Nicaragua and the MX missile, among many other crises, and it’s happening right now on the slightly less momentous matter of the future of the weekly Jewish newspaper the Forward, circulation 26,183.
Both publications are angry over the decision of the Forward Association, which controls the paper, to fire editor Seth Lipsky–who founded its English-language edition in 1990–because the association’s social-democratic conscience could no longer abide the editor’s neoconservative politics. The original daily Forward, begun in 1897, blossomed into certainly the most influential Yiddish, and among the most important socialist, institutions in the United States. With more than 270,000 readers at its height in the twenties, the Forward fought for open immigration laws and against anti-Semitism, educated millions of immigrants about their new country and screamed bloody murder about the rise of the Nazis. It did all this while putting out a sophisticated culture section, including brilliant literary criticism, the serialization of Nobel laureates and translations of great works into Yiddish. In its salad days, the paper’s guiding spirit was Abe Cahan, a brilliant if mercurial journalist who ruled his roost for fifty years with an awesome combination of vision and tenacity.
But when former Forward editor Jonathan Mahler writes in The New Republic that Lipsky, in creating an English version of the paper, “arrived at a desert and built a beautiful garden,” he is at least half right. The Yiddish-language paper’s glory days were a distant memory. A victim of the slow death of the culture that once sustained it, the now-weekly’s circulation was falling toward its current level of about 7,000 (it’s still falling).
Lipsky created a Jewish newspaper unlike any other in America. Instead of puffing up the chests of the smug leadership of Jewish officialdom, he sent muckraking journalists into their offices to make them miserable. He hired and trained young and inexperienced writers and fed them into better-paying and higher-profile publications, on the model of Charlie Peters’s Washington Monthly. The Forward‘s literary coverage proved first-rate, particularly under the direction of novelist Jonathan Rosen, and its human-interest stories were often delightfully hokey. But the politics, oy! It was as if the editor were channeling Norman Podhoretz. As I write this, a Lipsky editorial is exploiting the current Elián mishegoss to launch a pre-emptive attack on Jews who do not support the Jesse Helms line on Cuba. The same editorial takes pride in the paper’s redbaiting nearly eight years ago of Johnnetta Cole–the first black woman president of a black women’s college, Spelman–preventing her appointment to the Clinton Cabinet. While American Jews have grown ever more dovish toward the Palestinians, the Forward‘s Israel coverage tends to reflect the revanchist views of extremists like Ariel Sharon (Lipsky’s hero) and Morton Klein of the hard-line Zionist Organization of America. In recent years, when the quality of the staff weakened, Lipsky’s prejudices became ever more dominant. Supporters of the peace process were, during the Netanyahu era, treated as cowards and appeasers. Harold Ostroff, former general manager, now board member, of the Forward Association, also complains that Lipsky “often favored an uncivil journalistic style that sometimes bordered on tabloidization.” As a result, despite its many virtues the Forward became increasingly unreadable for those who did not share its conservative biases, even to its natural constituency (in which I include myself).
Ostroff notes that during the nineties, the paper amassed twice as many ex-subscribers as subscribers today. After ten years of bickering back and forth, the association decided it had finally had enough and threatened to shut down the paper unless Lipsky and his financial backers agreed to walk away. In the resulting Kulturkampf, both sides have made valid points. Loyal ex-employees say that without Lipsky, there would be no English Forward (as well as no Russian Forward, with a current circulation of around 12,000). Eight of them signed a statement calling his firing “devastating both for the cause of free journalism and for the Jewish community.” These writers tell me that this is a case where the principle of journalistic independence should outweigh political considerations and that Lipsky deserves to be defended, even in this column.
Well, yes and no. As managing editor Ira Stoll–a Lipsky hire–notes, although editors are entitled to some independence, “There is no principle that obligates a publisher to subsidize views he disagrees with.” Why should the association’s wealth, created by left-wing laborers who supported the paper for decades, pay for a right-wing newspaper? Lipsky insists that his politics are not quite so conservative and Cahan’s were never quite as liberal as is assumed, but his evidence is too selective, ultimately, to convince. And while his friends at the Wall Street Journal whine of “political correctness run amok,” neither do they hire writers who agitate for workers’ rights and environmental protection. Fellow whiner Marty Peretz doesn’t pay writers to trash Al Gore or praise the PLO. In political publications, politics matters. Where’s the crime in that?
The genuine fear on the part of Forward alumni is that the association intends to eviscerate the paper’s investigative ethos and turn it into a glorified version of a weekly synagogue bulletin. That would indeed be a shande un a kharpe (a shame and a disgrace). To make decent matzobrei, you have to break a few matzos. Ostroff tells me not to worry, but only when we have a new editor will we know for sure. In the meantime, this being capitalism, why don’t Lipsky and his conservative backers start their own conservative Jewish newspaper? I’ve even got a name for it that I’m giving away free of charge: the Backward