Small and Large Truths

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June 1, 2005
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Ari L. Goldman

I WORKED FOR The New York Times for 20 years and everywhere I went (in the Jewish world) people asked, “How can you work for that anti-Zionist newspaper?”

Now I work at Columbia University, and everywhere I go (in the Jewish world) people ask, “How can you work for that anti-Zionist university?”

I consider both these questions calumnies against noble American institutions but, in fact, each is born of a small truth. What is curious to me is how differently these two charges spread.

The small truth at The New York Times is that at one point — in the 1940s — the family controlling the paper belonged to an anti-Zionist organization called the American Council for Judaism, which opposed the settlement of Jews in what was then Palestine. Today, Jewish opponents of the Times use that bit of history and bolster it with passels of newspaper clippings that they maintain make a case for an anti-Zionist newspaper. (Of course, Arab opponent of the Times have their own passels to prove it is a pro-Zionist newspaper.) It took the Times decades to build a reputation that it cannot shake.

The small truth at Columbia is that a handful of Jewish students were made to feel uncomfortable by Arab professors because of their pro-Israel advocacy. A video, Columbia Unbecoming, which focused on the charges, besmirched the reputation of a great university virtually overnight. “Vile Words of Hate That Shame a Top University,” a headline in the Daily News declared. An article in the Jerusalem Post quite laughably likened Columbia to a “miniature Gaza Strip.”

There was a time when it took decades to ruin a reputation; now it can be done overnight. At the root of the change is the democratization of media. In order to get attention in the past, you had to hammer away for years or get the support of one of the major news outlets. Today that is no longer the case. Everyone with a video camera and a Website can challenge institutions, both great and small.

That is not to say that big media has disappeared. In fact, it has gotten even bigger. Disney owns ABC, Viacom owns CBS — and, of course, their news divisions. But even as these media giants grow, the videographers and bloggers are often setting the agenda. The once-powerful network TV news anchors have bitten the dust while the Internet gossip meister Matt Drudge and the blogger Wonkette are calling the shots.

There is a variation of this phenomenon in the Jewish world as well. The debate of a decade ago about whether Jewish communities were better served by independent papers or by papers supported by a federation has subsided. Yes, the independent papers still cry foul but, in fact, the independents are a strong and growing presence, both in print and on the Web. They too set the agenda on both the local and the national level. One might well argue that the hip magazine Heeb, which is read by my students, has more impact than the Forward, which was read by my teachers.

But this evolution from big media business to small independent media outlets is not unlike our Jewish journey from one ancient Israelite community to a flourishing Diaspora. Some say that that diversity of voices has been the secret to our survival.

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Ari L. Goldman, author of The Search for God at Harvard, is Professor and Dean of Students at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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