Who Shapes Public Opinion?

Response Article To "On the Nature of Charedi Journalism"

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Eli Palei CEO, Mechon HaCharedi L’Mechkarei Mdiniyut and owner of MIshpacha media group

Journalism in the modern world is far more than a medium for imparting information, and newspapers are more than a leisurely way a way to pass one's time. Journalism is a tool for shaping public opinion. In the Torah society, the role of journalism needs to be carefully defined and assessed. The question of who is it that should influence public opinion, and whether this responsibility ought to be placed in the hands of every journalism, weighs heavy on those involved in the profession. There needs to be a distinction between the holy and the mundane, the permitted and the out of bounds in the work of a journalist.

Kislev 5780, December 2019

In his article “With the Permission of God and Community,” Yisrael Groveis expertly outlines the development of Charedi journalism and calls for a rethinking of its guiding principles. From its formation as a defensive reaction to secular Hebrew publications, the Charedi press evolved from a thoughtful platform for scholarly debate to a more popular medium intended to offer general news, information, and entertainment.

Groveis’ indeed accurately describes the founding rationale of the Charedi press; yet he fails to address the larger role of the press in European society at the time and its place in the Jewish community in particular. The press functioned as a powerful tool for developing and disseminating ideas, creating a novel type of public space and debate culture. The emerging culture of reading and discussing newspaper items in cafes and elsewhere, and the sudden direct exposure to ideas for all quarters, fundamentally changed how ideas spread through society. This point is critical for understanding the role of journalism in Charedi society and how it differs from its secular counterparts.

 

The Gradual Development of the Charedi Press

Charedi journalism has underdone a radical shift, from a non-partisan, apolitical press to being the mouthpiece of Da’as Torah, publicizing the messages of the rabbinic leaders and shaping its readers’ worldview. As Groveis rightly notes, the establishment of Yated Ne’eman by Rav Shach was a watershed event in the history of Charedi journalism. Until then, Charedi journalism sought to offer a “clean” alternative to secular journalism, but it did not take on the role of shaping public opinion or disseminating ideas and hashkafos. Rav Shach understood that to create a significant political force a newspaper was required that would serve as the party mouthpiece. With its founding, Yated introduced the idea of Charedi journalism as a potential shaper of public opinion.

Yet Yated’s creation was by no means a regression in the mission of Charedi journalism. In fact, Yated elevated the role of the Charedi press, from the sole purpose of providing news to a tool for shaping public opinion. This represented a maturation of the Charedi press and the community’s acceptance of journalism’s role in modern society. Rav Shach understood that significant political power in the modern world requires a newspaper.

et Yated’s creation was by no means a regression in the mission of Charedi journalism. In fact, Yated elevated the role of the Charedi press, from the sole purpose of providing news to a tool for shaping public opinion

This marked the first time a Charedi newspaper created a party rather than the other way around. Indeed, Yated began as a stunning success. It was accepted by the public as a medium providing worldview and opinion, and served as a rallying point for social and political identity. The problem of Yated was not the fact that it dealt with social and political issues. Contrary to Groveis’ comments, Yated, from its inception, set a higher professional standard for the Charedi press.

All the same, there is much truth in Groveis’ assertion that prior to the appearance of Charedi weeklies, the Charedi press was not a satisfactory alternative to its secular counterpart. In this context, I can share an interesting anecdote from my father, ob”m, who was among the pioneers of Charedi Har Nof neighborhood in Jerusalem.

Laboring to improve the spiritual situation therein, my father was disturbed by the fact that local retailers sold secular weekend newspapers. He tried to convince storeowners to stop selling these papers, but to no avail. While sympathetic, storeowners cited the basic criteria of demand and supply: papers sold. Nonetheless, shortly after we started publishing the weekly Mishpacha Magazine, these secular newspapers simply disappeared from grocery stores. When my father wondered why storeowners suddenly stopped selling secular papers, they informed him that the demand for them dropped considerably after MIshpacha appeared.

Groveis’ claim that the weeklies continue to offer a more viable alternative to secular publications than politically oriented dailies is thus incorrect. The market clearly attests to this: thousands of households consume the partisan press alone, and are clearly satisfied with it

The Charedi weeklies also introduced a new era of Charedi journalism. Whereas the veteran Charedi papers only covered “hard” news, and while Yated Ne’eman converted this mission into an ideological tool, the weeklies expanded the scope of Charedi journalistic activity much further. Beginning with Mishpacha, weeklies reached into ever more varied and richer content and fields of interest. Mishpacha was the first to offer supplements covering issues beyond news or ideological messaging; the rest of the Charedi press followed suit.

But this description is true only as a historical matter. Today, there is little difference between the type of content offered by the weeklies and partisan dailies. All include weekend supplements for women and children and full-color articles covering biographies and events which are not part of the narrow party platform. The differences between the various papers, partisan and non-partisan, are in the style and character of the articles, driven primarily by the respective target audiences of the publications.

Groveis’ claim that the weeklies continue to offer a more viable alternative to secular publications than politically oriented dailies is thus incorrect. The market clearly attests to this: thousands of households consume the partisan press alone, and are clearly satisfied with it. Moreover, objectively speaking, one wonders whether the professional quality of the weeklies is indeed higher than that of the partisan dailies. Sometimes it seems that the weeklies lean towards a standard approaching yellow journalism. To the degree they do generate interest beyond the audience of the dailies, this likely can be attributed to a desire for cheap entertainment rather than to a demand for high-level quality journalism. In summary, the days in which secular papers were consumed for lack of a satisfactory Charedi alternative are gone; the challenge facing today’s Charedi press is entirely different.

 

Corruption and the Question of Authority

All that said, Groveis’ argument that today’s partisan press is not providing the public with its journalistic needs is correct, yet not for his reasons. The public seeks a different kind of journalism because of the partisan press’s internal flaws, which are related to the deep politicization of the Torah world. While partisan dailies reflect a hard party line and thus offer a one-dimensional view of reality, a more discerning public now looks for a richer and more nuanced picture. They seek apolitical coverage that refrains from ranking our talmidei chachamim and deciding which of them is worthy of which honorary title: harav, harav hagaon, and so on.

Over the years, Yated Ne’eman has become the neighborhood bully, taking the original role Rav Shach intended for it and turning it into a cynical kingmaking (and breaking) tool. To this end Yated invented and popularized a hierarchy of titles, ranking each rabbi and Torah scholar by a title as conferred by the paper. In this system, those rabbis who did not align themselves with the paper’s everyday struggles found themselves demoted, or even went unmentioned for a given time. Yated thus fueled no few power struggles within the Torah world, some involving leading Torah scholars and rabbinic leaders.

Charedi weeklies, appearing on the scene against this unpleasant background, were embraced by the public as a different and cleaner voice, offering a more objective point of view. At the same time, the weeklies also challenged the journalistic ethos of Yated Ne’eman and the other partisan papers. The emergence of a new independent journalism, in which any entrepreneur might hire writers and publish a newspaper reflecting his opinions, awakened a core question of Charedi journalism — who shapes public opinion?

The potency of this challenge helps us understand the public battle led by partisan papers several years ago against the Charedi weeklies. Prima facie, one might view these public campaigns as economically driven. The partisan papers felt threatened by the weeklies, and thus attempted to assert their place in the market by denying any legitimacy to the weeklies. However, beneath the cynical exterior of competing economic and political interests resides a substantive and substantial question regarding a core Charedi ethos: What, if any, is the place of open and democratic discourse in a community that places the beis midrash, rather than liberal ideals, at its center?

As noted, the West’s journalistic endeavor, writ large, established an open “public square” and democratized public discourse. With the aid of a newspaper, anyone with a pen and the ability to write could express his opinions on questions of the day. For this reason, the Gedolim initially greatly feared the power of the press. While they eventually came to understand that they couldn’t do without it, the Imrei Emes and other rabbinic leaders deliberately reduced the purview of their newspapers to raw news. Their refusal to use newspapers as a tool for promoting their agenda reflects their insistence that beliefs and opinions are not the fare of newspapers. These Gedolim wished to preserve a world in which hashkafa remained the domain of the hierarchical beis midrash. They feared that newspapers would go unchecked, serving as a platform for unregulated expression of opinion. Later on, Yated Ne’eman broke the barrier and turned the newspaper into a political tool; yet at least conceptually, both Yated Ne’eman and Hamodia continued to be controlled by the Gedolim and their agents. When the weeklies began to gain stature and occupy a place of honor in the Charedi world, the question of authority resurfaced.

As foreign as this question sounds to ears used to the democratic discourse of today, in the world of Torah it remains an important matter and warrants serious consideration

The question of authority — who wields it and who expresses influential opinions on public affairs — is a weighty issue. As foreign as this question sounds to ears used to the democratic discourse of today, in the world of Torah it remains an important matter and warrants serious consideration. Do we wish to break the barriers of Torah authority and allow free competition on core issues affecting the Torah world, or do we wish to preserve the hierarchical order granting rabbinic leaders precedence in setting policy? This is the real question that needs to be raised in discussing Charedi media; its answer should serve as the guiding principle for setting an ethical agenda for Charedi journalism.

In my opinion — and this is how the Mishpacha group has operated over the years — journalism should address social issues and various civic matters, but should avoid touching the Torah world’s core issues. The existence and flourishing of today’s Torah world is a marvel. It strikes me as a miracle that a young man can sit with a Gemara from morning until night and find satisfaction in intensive learning. It inspires us to feel a certain modesty. In this light, I believe we should maintain our humility and understand that some issues are beyond the treatment of a newspaper. Challenges that face the core values of the Torah world, and such challenges do exist, should be left for treatment in the hands of leading Torah scholars and Gedolim. They are not the domain of journalistic commentators, however talented.

Precisely for this reason, I believe that the partisan press of our time has lost its way. The transformation of the newspaper into a political tool, a welcome change initially, now grants power to its authors, worthy or not, as kingmakers and unmakers. Who gave them this power? A journalist, no matter how talented, should not be involved in such affairs. The clear separation between the secular world, with all its challenges, and the world of Torah should inform everything Charedi journalism does, partisan and non-partisan alike. As a society that holds the authority of rabbinic leaders in high esteem, we must separate those areas subject to open and free discourse from issues that require great care and responsibility. Not everyone who wants to take part in such discussions necessarily should.

I believe that we must maintain our humility and understand that some issues are beyond the treatment of a newspaper. Challenges that face the core values of the Torah world, and such challenges do exist, should be left for treatment in the hands of leading Torah scholars and Gedolim.

In summary, there is indeed room for a broad and in-depth discussion of the place of journalism, the “fourth estate,” in a society with an increasingly attuned civic consciousness. But this discussion must be had while maintaining fidelity to the supreme mission of Charedi society: continued existence of a community for whom Torah and observance of halacha are the core values and primary organizing forces.

It is nevertheless important to stress that in order to faithfully carry out its mission, Charedi journalism must improve its level of professionalism. Groveis calls for formulating an ethical code; but for Charedi journalism to gain legitimacy, it must also demonstrate that it can maintain a high quality with rigorous professional standards. It must conduct serious investigative journalism, offer in-depth articles, specialize in fields of coverage, and provide readers with an objective, properly edited product that dignifies readers and writers alike. Without a high professional standard, Charedi journalism might well be seen as an entertainment product, but one lacking any power to truly influence the public agenda.


Photo Credit: BIGSTOCK, Anna Kucherova

Author Photo Credit: Yoni Tzur

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