The Forward Goes Backward

The editor of the Jewish weekly the Forward, Seth Lipsky, may soon be ousted by the board that ponies up half of the $2 million the publication loses each year. A former member of the Wall Street Journal editorial board with many of the neoconservative positions that that affiliation implies, Lipsky, if he is fired, will be fired on ideological grounds: He has been accused of betraying the spirit of Abraham Cahan, the founding editor (in 1897) of the Yiddish-language Jewish Daily Forward. Lipsky’s biggest critic, the estimable Reform rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, told Culturebox that Lipsky doesn’t respect the pro-labor ethos that inspired the old Forward: “The Forward was one of the primary components of the New Deal. The New Deal came out of the New York milieu within which the Forward led the Jewish social-democrat opinion.”

Lipsky’s supporters reply that that: 1) Lipsky isn’t as conservative as all that. He’s no New Dealer, but the paper endorsed Clinton twice and David Dinkins once, militated strongly against the investigation and impeachment of Clinton, editorialized in favor of giving gays rights within Judaism, and attacked the so-called moral majority. 2) Jews, along with everyone else in the country, have moved to the right since Cahan’s day–maybe it’s Hertzberg, et al., who are out of touch. 3) Contrary to conventional wisdom, Lipsky is actually Cahan’s true heir. In an essay that ran in Commentary three years ago, Lipsky accuses his critics of forgetting how far from the social-democrat party line Cahan strayed on several issues, such as communism (he was vigorously against it), Korea and Vietnam (he was for military intervention there); certain extreme forms of Zionism (he was for them).

Each side has a case here. If the Forward board helps pay for the paper, they have the right to try to get any editor they want, and Lipsky’s instincts are a great deal more conservative than Cahan’s, no matter what Lipsky says–in one comic scene in his Commentary essay, he berates his culture editor for assigning an interview with Carl Sagan, claiming that Sagan was a Communist because he fought Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, a k a Star Wars. (Lipsky does admit that he was being ridiculous.) On the other hand, only dinosaurs would make the New Deal a political litmus test in the year 2000. But the larger point is that this debate is beside the point. Who gives a damn what Lipsky’s policy presuppositions are? As you can tell even if you read his paper irregularly, as Culturebox does, his real politics are those of great journalism, and yes, there is a politics to that.

What are Lipsky’s editorial beliefs? He likes to get in his readers’ faces on subjects everyone else treats with obsequiousness. Consider the Forward’s coverage of Jewish charities, which, since they underwrite most American Jewish publications, are rarely subjected to scrutiny. One Forward story uncovered the embarrassing fact that Jewish charities are losing ground among private donors and relying ever more heavily on government handouts. Another story was even more mortifying: It showed that a Roper poll on Holocaust awareness paid for by the American Jewish Committee was skewed to make Americans seem more ignorant that they actually were. The AJC was presumably planning to use the study to raise more money.

Another item of Lipskian faith is taking a chance on untested journalists–which he has to do, of course, since he doesn’t pay well, but which he has done with commendable success. Among the many talented reporters and critics Lipsky has discovered are Jeffrey Goldberg, now of the New York Times Magazine, novelist Jonathan Rosen, and New Yorker staff writer Philip Gourevitch. Culturebox is guilty of cliché, not exaggeration, when she says they are three of the best writers of their generation. (Naturally, all three have written for Slate.)

Third and most dear to Culturebox’s heart, Lipsky has consistently published a serious culture section, with substantive and well-written book and film reviews on Jewish subjects that could (given more room) compete with reviews appearing in the other excellent back-of-the-book that more or less specializes in that topic, Leon Wieseltier’s section of the New Republic. (Dear reader: Culturebox isn’t pandering, really.)

Wherever you stand on the New Deal, the welfare state, anti-Communism, Zionism, or Jewish charities, you can’t take good journalism seriously and respect the Forward board’s position, because firing people for their independent-mindedness is as politically backward as it gets.

Culturebox’s old-fogeyish harangue continues: Doesn’t anyone care about quality anymore? Another example of editorial obliviousness, writ extremely small (at least compared with the Lipsky scandale), is the attack on Lynn Hirschberg in Brill’s Content. Here’s a prickly journalist with weird glasses and a high-pitched voice who makes lively, believable narrative out of material–the life and times of Hollywood power brokers–almost everyone else reduces to dreary hype, and she stands contradictorily accused of both celebrating her subjects excessively and trashing them whenever she feels like it. (Other peccadilloes uncovered by BC: She embellishes her background, may have let Jerry Seinfeld read a story about him before she handed it in, and has befriended subjects she wrote nice pieces about.) The Forward board ignored Lipsky’s accomplishments to focus on how well he scored on a political checklist; BC reporter Katherine Rosman does the same with Hirschberg, making use of an unusually knee-jerk ethical checklist. Meanwhile, Rosman sidesteps the only question that matters: What makes her a subject worth writing about in the first place? The answers in Hirschberg’s case: 1) She’s fun to read. 2) She gets her facts basically right. 3) Whether or not her profiles advance the self-interest of the people profiled, she invariably advances the story.