Friday, March 28, 2008

Julian Strikes Again

Dear The Commentator and Kol Hamevaser,

About three-quarters of the way through his fascinating account of “The Great Media Wars of 1967” in Kol Hamevaser, Zev Eleff interjects some editorializing which paints a rather unpleasant picture and confirms some very unfortunate suspicions.

Mr. Eleff treats us to a brief discussion of the role of a “student leader”:

“According to Rambam, and indeed most authorities, a judge, or any leader, must meet rigid qualifications that take into account the candidate's scholarly and ethical credentials. The standard, however, is not what the public considers wise and scrupulous. The candidate for a seat on the Sanhedrin must meet a divine standard and prove himself to be one of the seventy most learned individuals of God's Torah; his scholarly benchmark has nothing to do with the average intellect of the masses. Similarly, a candidate, and kal va-homer, an initiated member of the Sanhedrin, must prove his worthiness and ethical backbone by functioning on a higher, more ideal standard than the one expected of his constituents. Therefore, if the members of the Sanhedrin are to be our model for Jewish leadership, a student leader must be able to function while mindful of "the interest of the general student body" but need not necessarily reflect its interests - ethical or otherwise - if he believes he reflects the ideal interests of that student body” (emphasis added).

Though I'm not sure exactly how he gets this from the Rambam, Mr. Eleff believes that it is incumbent upon any leader to act on what he or she thinks is best and not on what the people actually want. Though this attitude may have been legitimate for the great leaders of the Sanhedrin, I don't think it is one that our “student leaders” should emulate. In fact, I find this to be a dangerous model of leadership, as it subjects the people to the whims of whosoever is arrogant enough to think that he or she knows better than everybody else. Though this is obviously a question for political theorists to debate, I will now demonstrate why I find this to be a particularly inappropriate attitude for the editor of a newspaper. A newspaper should be about news, not about pushing the agenda of its publishers.

In his article in the same edition of Kol Hamevaser, J-blogger Gil Student writes that, “bloggers have the option of remaining anonymous and very few choose to use their real name. This offers them the freedom to speak negatively about others without obvious consequence.” Later he tells us that “commenters do not always build a community of intelligent dialogue. Sometimes they insult and mock other people, and attempt to undermine that which is sacred. The anonymity which the internet allows only strengthens their audacity.”

The readership of The Commentator is all too familiar with how anonymity “strengthens audacity” and how it “offers the freedom to speak negatively about others.” I sometimes wonder if there are any organizations left at YU who have escaped vilification by one of those viciously nameless editorials. You've boiled the “alphabet soup” of YU (CJF, IBC, and YSU), taken on entire departments, and you've even attacked the homeless. Though an Opinions section is legitimate and even valuable, using a newspaper as a mouthpiece for rudely-worded vendettas and kol koreis week after week is less than proper. On the other hand, if the editorship had decided to include a detailed journalistic evaluation of the general success and satisfaction with IBC or whoever else was under the microscope that week, this would have been significantly more appropriate.

But what may have this year's worst sin was one of omission. After his discourse on leadership, Mr. Eleff discusses the notion of “objective journalism.” He concludes as follows:

“'The newspaper,' University of Chicago's Robert Park has argued, 'has generally been conceived of as a mere extension of the personality of its editors.' As many feel, today's Jewish media in America devotes significant number of newsprint columns on Israeli politics and how American politicians feel about those Israeli politics. Long past the Isaac Leesers and Mayer Wises who made nineteenth century Jewish journalism so investigatory and controversial, today's Jewish editors, as Brandeis' Jonathan Sarna has noted, have a different agenda. This does not mean that scandals and stories of yore are not out there. It means the motivation is not.”

Perhaps Mr. Eleff is too young to recall how The Jewish Week exposed and brought down child-abuser Baruch Lanner, but I can't imagine he doesn't remember the recent press coverage of a certain scandal involving one of our very own Rashei Yeshiva. Maybe what is veiled as a critique of Jewish journalism is actually a justification for one Jewish journalist's selective reporting.

Regardless of one's personal opinion on R' Hershel Schachter's colored political statements delivered at Yeshivat Hakotel, they were very much Yeshiva news. Obviously, Halacha must be observed and matters must be approached with the utmost sensitivity, but this was one of the biggest stories of the year in the YU world. Everybody knew about it, and everybody knew that The Commy left it out. An article or news brief could have mentioned that many at Yeshiva (myself included) believe that R' Schachter's detractors blew things grossly out of proportion and that he is strongly backed by the lay and religious leadership of YU. Perhaps a publication of R' Schachter's earnest apology would have helped better inform those whose only sources of information thus far were slanderous rumors. Instead, nothing. At least not for a while.

The truth didn't allow itself to be suppressed for long. Mirroring the inter-newsroom politics of 1967, R' Schachter's name finally made its way onto the pages of The Commentator through the back-door of the Purim edition.

I realize the irony of responding to an article about Lashon Hara with what is just short of an ad hominen attack on one of the most caring and hard-working members of the Yeshiva student body. I just thought it was necessary to remind everyone as we pick next year's editors that The Commentator should, true to its motto, be the “The Official Newspaper of Yeshiva College and the Sy Syms School of Business,” not “The Official Newspaper of Whoever Happens to be in Charge This Year.”

Julian Horowitz
YC Sophomore and contributor to The YU Vent (


Anonymous said...

great ending

Anonymous said...

For all Mr. Eleff's failings as an editor, for which there are a number, at least we don't have to read about the benefits of combining Stern and YU week after week. But i don't fault Mr. Eleff for his mishandling of his role as editor, just as apathy is epidemic to YU students, using the Commentator as a soap box is epidemic to its editors.

Anonymous said...

julian - did you know that richard joel makes over 620,000 dollars a year and we still dont have full wirless internet on the Wilf campus due to budget restrictions!

JSJcbs said...

I would just like to make two comments on the remarks made about the Sanhendrin and a student leader.
First in defense of Mr. Eleff.
It's possible that what Mr. Eleff meant to say was that a leader needs to function based on what he feels and believes and not on solely on what other people tell him or pressure him into doing. Perhaps Mr. Eleff is trying to say that is that a leader needs to take into account what the people want, but at some point the leader needs to actually do something and not just try and do what everyone around him wants or tells him to do. At some point a leader needs to do what he feels is right and not spend all his time listening to everyone, which may lead to him accomplishing nothing.
Perhaps the reason for many of the criticisms of the Commentator and of Zev Eleff are due to this. In reality, Zev needs to print the newspaper. He could ask everyone what they want to include in the paper and what they feel about the issues, and the one issue that would be printed each decade would be fantastic. However the commentator is published more than once every 10 years and Zev, as the editor, needs to decide how things are done. Part of the role of a leader is to make decisions. Zev Eleff role is to make them for the Commentator.
Secondly, agreeing with TheYUVent:
Zev Eleff can not compare a student leader to the Sanherdrin. By the Sanhedrin, a reason that its' members can act on what they feel and not based entirely on what the people they represent feel, is because: The "Sanhedrin must meet a divine standard and prove himself to be one of the seventy most learned individuals of God's Torah; his scholarly benchmark has nothing to do with the average intellect of the masses." This tells us that the members of the Sanhedrin have to meet G-d's standards and not those of the people. Perhaps the Sanhedrin do not need to act on what the people want is because they are acting on what Hashem wants. A student leader probably does not have the privilege of knowing exactly what G-d wants and is left to act either on what he wants or on what the people want. This being the case let us turn to ruling of Yachid V'Rabim, Halacha C'Rabim. Perhaps the student leader really should take into account what the very students he represents have to say and not just publish a newspaper based on his own views.

Which side is correct is up to you. But in my eyes, either way is certainly justifiable and respectable.
Thanks for reading.