The managing editor of the Jewish Forward, Jane Eisner, continued the precipitous decline of that publication this week by erasing an article it had published about a sexual abuse allegation against Jewish moral avatar, Elie Wiesel. The charge was published by the alleged victim, Jenny Listman, on her Medium blog, When I was Nineteen Years Old, Elie Wiesel Grabbed My Ass. The Forward article essentially repackaged the original article, quoting heavily from it, a journalistic practice becoming commonplace in the era of Buzzfeed-clickbait journalism.
The next day, Eisner decided to wipe the article from the Forward website with a short explanation saying it didn’t meet the paper’s “journalistic standards.” The paucity of information conveyed, led me to e-mail Eisner with a series of questions about the publication of the article and decision to ax it. Eisner did not reply to me. Instead, she published a second, longer explanation which claimed she had not been “threatened” by anyone in making the decision to delete the piece.
Of course, Jewish leaders outraged by the besmirching of a sacred name in the annals of world Jewry would be very unlikely to threaten an independent Jewish publication. But they can do a great deal short of threats to persuade an editor to rethink an editorial decision. I asked her whether any outside pressure had been placed on her either by the Wiesel family or those speaking or acting on their behalf (or any figure in Jewish communal leadership) to remove the article. That was a question she didn’t answer.
Eisner, in defending her bout of self-censorship, said the Forward had published previous exposes of sex scandals in the community. True, but it never covered a story like this targeting a lion of the Jewish élite, a Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize laureate. All of which only reinforces the notion of white male privilege when it comes coverage like this. Powerful men have all the levers of control at their disposal. Victims have little more than their own memories and suffering. In essentially siding with Wiesel, Eisner has betrayed female victims everywhere no matter how much previous reporting she’s done on the subject.
Liberal Zionist scholar, Sara Yael Hirschhorn tweeted her own dismay at Eisner’s decision:
— Sara Yael Hirschhorn (@SaraHirschhorn1) October 24, 2017
Eisner claimed that the Forward story couldn’t stand up to the test of good journalism because the reporter hadn’t independently verified any of the claims in the original post. Eisner added that the accused (Wiesel) had not been consulted (he died last year before Listman published her post) and no one who could speak on his behalf had been consulted either.
Newsweek went out and did precisely what Eisner said The Forward hadn’t done. A reporter verified the claim by speaking to Listman’s ex-husband. Then it got a statement from the Wiesel Foundation denying the charges. For the Jewish publication to be out-reported on a story that should’ve been right in its wheelhouse is shocking. This again shows the massive decline the Forward has suffered.
All of which begs the question: Eisner herself abandoned precisely this sort of strong, independent, research-based investigative reporting when she hired digital publishing consultants to do a makeover of The Forward two years ago. She demoted the former assistant managing editor who’d been supervising the old journalism model. The publisher, Sam Norich, retired.
She hired a CEO who specializes in digital media. The latter’s bio calls her “a digital woman.” Neither the words “journalism,” “reporter” or “editor” appear in her Forward bio. Eisner gave the publication entirely over to this new model. Articles became shorter, much shorter. And there were many more of them. Stories about why Halloween is good for Jews and about Bar Rafaeli’s new baby were in. Long-form investigative pieces were out. Given the increased production and shorter length, reporters could no longer dig deeply. This led in turn to the repurposing of articles from other publications. Precisely the sort of assembly-line ‘reporting’ adopted by popular sites like Buzzfeed and many others.
There were still a few reporters doing some real reporting, but they did so under the new strictures in which article were reduced in length from 1500 words to half or one-third that amount. In addition, the new digital-oriented leadership made some questionable hires, including Laura Adkins, who’d earlier been exposed as perpetrating an anti-Semitism hoax when she was an NYU student.
Thus, Eisner’s defense of her retraction would have made sense had the Forward retained its former journalism model. But under its new rubric, Aiden Pink’s original story fit perfectly into the click-bait format. Further, the Forward publishes literally hundreds of articles observing precisely the same format: short, repackaged reports from other publications with little or no independent verification by its own staff. The articles have a slick hook designed to elicit enough momentary interest in the web surfer to get them to click their mouse.
Eisner wants to have it both ways. She wants to claim the Forward conducts itself according to the old standards while publishing content, and in a format, that betrays those standards.
The Forward makeover responded to a very real crisis the paper faced. It had sold its former office building for $70-million, creating an endowment it hoped would support the venture in perpetuity. But the leadership found it was spending down the endowment at an alarming rate. By some accounts it’s fallen as low as $30-million today. So it had to do something. It couldn’t sustain the continuing losses under the former business model forever.
The digital approach was a desperate response to avert a looming financial crisis. It’s not clear whether it has worked. The enterprise continues to lose $4-5 million per year. Nor is it clear that the changeover had substantially increased readership, advertising revenue or donations. Nor has a George Soros or other Jewish white knight come forward to do for it what the Likudist foundations have done for Tablet.
It doesn’t give me any joy to point out that The Forward now has no journalistic clothes. It was one of the best Jewish media outlets in the entire country as recently as a few years ago (admittedly, there’s not much competition). If The Forward ever leaves the scene, it will leave a desert in its wake: deep-pocket publications like Tablet, funded by several hardline pro-Likud foundations; and small local weeklies covering births, deaths, Bar Mitzvahs and federation event news. Those who write its obituary may point to an aging Jewish population, the decline of independent journalism or any number of other reasons for the Forward’s demise (not an outcome I welcome). But none of these erase the fact that misguided editorial decisions made yesterday and today hastened it.