By 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.
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 Agudath 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.
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.
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. 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. And disturbingly often, their products seemed calculated to cast the Orthodox Jewish community in an unfair light.
And so it was that I discovered journalism’s dirty little secret: Reporters, despite their pledges to provide facts in an objective way, are just as biased and close-minded as mere mortals. And their proffered credentials as purveyors of truth make their biases all the more pernicious.
After confronting that painful truth, I made the decision that, excepting reporters I have come to know as fair-minded and objective, 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.
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.)
And so those reporters punish me. Not to worry; it’s nothing as painful as my beloved first grade rebbe’s ruler on my fingers when I misbehaved. 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.
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.
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 10 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.
The “Fourth Estate” is an important part of a free society. But when its members elevate prejudice over principle, the results can be ugly. 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.