letters to the editor

Letters to the Editor

Readers respond to our January/February issue
March 13, 2012

Out of the park

Congratulations on a truly outstanding January/February issue. Magazines I read—like The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books—hit the walkoff homer often, and now the Columbia Journalism Review is in the lineup with them.
Robert F. Bomboy
Danville, PA

Kilgore was here

Dean Starkman’s CJR cover story (“A Narrowed Gaze,” January/February) attempts to resolve the complex problems of business journalism by indulging in nostalgia for a golden age at Barney Kilgore’s 1950s Wall Street Journal, when the paper, in his view, “transcended” its “insider” mission to serve investors and become a “watchdog” and tribune of public welfare. As good as Kilgore’s paper was, this is fantasy. Not only did the paper continue to serve investors—Kilgore redefined their needs in a world growing more complex—but Starkman writes as if the WSJ was the only business publication that ever mattered.

To make matters worse, his theory of how business journalism surrendered its higher calling bizarrely blames two individuals: Steve Lipin, the WSJ ’s excellent M&A reporter in the late 1990s and CNBC’s Maria Bartiroma, who became a star while reporting from the New York Stock Exchange floor. Starkman wildly exaggerates their importance. Investor interests have long predominated in business journalism because they pay the bills.

In his race to spin a morality tale, Starkman overlooks developments that did reshape the business: first, the rush to celebrate technology in the 1990s; second, and more importantly, the Schumpeterian changes wrought by the Internet. For those of us struggling to cope with change, make a profit, and do good work, Starkman’s critique is at best superficial, at worst, wrong.

Robert Teitelman
Editor in chief, The Deal LLC
New York, NY

Dean Starkman responds: Robert Teitleman defends two journalists who are not under attack and says that “Schumpeterian changes” drove the financial journalism we saw prior to the crash, as though no other journalism was possible. I doubt this view will do much to close the yawning perception gap between business-news leaders and members of the broader public who feel there was something missing in business journalism prior to the crackup.

The trouble is, Bernard Kilgore really was a central figure in 20th century American journalism, and not just business journalism. His experiment in literate, long-form, in-depth journalism­­—every day, twice a day, five days a week—obviously didn’t abandon investors for the broader interest. He merely showed it was possible to do both. Kilgore should represent a standard for business journalism, though some may find that bar too high. And don’t let anyone tell you the Journal didn’t face “Schumpeterian changes” when he launched his revolution.

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Teitelman and I can agree, at least, that the “rush to celebrate technology” helped to reshape the news as the mortgage era dawned. That may be a starting point for a discussion about editorial decisions made in the past and what changes in approach might be needed for the future.

Jews and the Times

Neil Lewis’s thorough and fair effort on “The Times and the Jews” (CJR, January/February)—one that should put this issue to rest for all but a handful of extremists—was virtually undone by your unthinkably tasteless illustration. Does CJR perceive that a snarling caricature of a side-curled, bearded, and costumed member of one of Judaism’s cultish sects is what American Jewry is about? Sadly, that image could comfortably have appeared in Der Stuermer.
Phillip Ritzenberg
Woodmere, NY

The editors respond: It has come to our attention that some readers are not reading Neil Lewis’s excellent piece because they’re offended by the art, which those readers see as a caricature of a Jew. We are sorry that anyone was offended, and if we had it to do over, we’d have chosen a different drawing. A fuller note about the image is at www.cjr.org/the_kicker/an_image_reconsidered.php.

In the 1980s, when I was based in Paris, CBS News sent me down to Israel to fill in for the resident correspondent, Bob Simon. After I’d produced a couple of stories that the government clearly did not like, Zev Chafets, then Menahem Begin’s press counselor, called me in and asked how someone like me could present stories like this about his own people. Americans? I asked, surprised. No, Jews. I explained that I was an American correspondent and was there anything inaccurate in any of my reports? Not the point, Chafets replied, and let that hang. Later that evening, as it happened, I had dinner with David K. Shipler, an old friend from my Times days, who said that eventually they would just write me off as a Jewish anti-Semite, though I probably would not be in the country long enough for them to come to that conclusion. He remarked on how astonished they were when he revealed to them that he was not Jewish, and so needed another ploy!
David A. Andelman
, World Policy Journal
New York, NY

Recently, but perhaps after Neil A. Lewis submitted his article, Thomas L. Friedman declared in his Times column that the very favorable reception given Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu by Congress was purchased by the Israel lobby. This nasty comment is, I believe, typical of the New York Times’s mindset on Israel.

Lewis did not point out that Adolph S. Ochs joined prominent American Jews in a statement after World War I declaring opposition to a Jewish State in Palestine. Lewis did not mention the May 18,1939 Times editorial supporting Britain’s decision to close Palestine to Jewish immigration. The Times carried three editorials on the St. Louis affair—none called on President Roosevelt to allow this ship, carrying Jewish refugees turned away from Cuba, to land in an American port. The last editorial on this matter, June 14, 1930, declared that the days of mass migration to the United States were over.

Lewis seems to concede that, concerning Holocaust reporting, The New York Times did not provide “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” Indeed, it would not be unreasonable, I think, to extrapolate from this that the Times has some difficulty taking note of imperiled Jewry, generally. This difficulty, rather more than the speaking or political accents of Israel’s leaders, might explain the paper’s problem in providing straight reporting on the Arab-Israel War—now in its sixty-fourth year. And however much Lewis would contend that criticism of the paper’s reporting about Israel is unwarranted, he offers no specific cases, cases that, however, do not go unnoticed by CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America), mentioned briefly by Lewis.
David R. Zukerman
Bronx, NY

On Israel, the Times plays it fairly straight for the American press—a lot more pro-Israel than the international and some Israeli press, a lot more anti-Israel than, say, the National Review. And journalists? No matter who you are or how reasonable your perspective is, if you are accurately reporting the facts in this conflict, you will likely be accused of being a filthy Zionist half the time and an anti-Semite the other half.
Chris Allan
Victoria, BC

Salander’s story

Re: “The Girl Who Loved Journalists” by Eric Alterman (CJR, January/February). I believe the reason we haven’t seen an argument for “the books’ value as illustrations of both the difficulties and the importance of the journalistic profession” is because it’s a pretty weak argument. Blomkvist succeeds via illegal means—through the talents of a gifted hacker named Salander who has a photographic memory and other superhuman intellectual powers. It’s tricky to celebrate these books/movies as great PR for journalism because they are fraught with ethical problems. We shouldn’t hack into the hard drives of suspicious characters. Or their cell phones, as I used to think everyone knew. I don’t think readers/viewers of the Dragon Tattoo franchise walk away with admiration of journalists and journalism so much as they do with adoration of Salander the Superhacker Feminist Vigilante. But, alas, she is pure fantasy.
Katherine Reed
Columbia, MO

I almost cried while reading The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest, in which the character Erika Berger, a female editor of a large daily newspaper, confronts her CFO. She reminds him that cutting staff would hurt the newspaper’s capability, therefore reducing its size and advertising revenue. They effectively tell her “not to worry her pretty little head” about it. How many times have we gone through that dance?

What I really took away from the first book was an ethical battle between hackers and journalists. Larsson makes the case that traditional journalists have checks and balances in place. Hackers like Anonymous do not. While his story does demonstrate the necessity of computer espionage regarding crimes against people across international lines, one could take away from the books that that sort of thing has more of a place in law enforcement rather than journalism.
Melissa Bower
Atchison, KS

STEM cells

I’m a scientist and technologist, and I find the persistence of the myth that there is or soon will be a shortage of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians in the US remarkable. The reasons for this persistence deserve some scrutiny, which this article begins to provide (“What Scientist Shortage?” by Beryl Lieff Benderly, CJR, January/February). There’s an aspect of the situation that the article doesn’t mention, but that is probably significant. It isn’t just that many employers of technical personnel are greedy, it’s also that they’re impatient (which, admittedly, may be a manifestation of greed) and a bit stupid. When they bemoan their difficulties finding the people they want, what they’re often bemoaning is really their difficulties finding people who have exactly the experience and skills they think they want, right now. Smart employers (Google, I’m told) recognize that what they really want is smart people who are accustomed to learning whatever they need to know in order to do whatever they need to do.
Ralph Haygood
Durham, NC

The low PhD and post-doc salaries in at least some of the STEM fields have little to do with oversupply of workers (of national or international type) and more to do with how much the government is able/willing to spend on science. The salaries are indeed very low for PhD students and post-docs in the STEM fields, and in the medical/biological sciences they are even lower than the engineering PhD/post-docs. But the problem is not a simple supply-and-demand dynamic that can be fixed by reducing the number of international students/workers. The vast majority of PhD/post-doc-level researchers, in the medical/biological sciences at least, are paid by government grants (e.g. NIH), not by private companies and universities. The government institutions providing the grants set limits to how much a PhD or a post-doc can be paid. The university/hospital research labs have very little flexibility on the salary of students and researchers at the PhD and post-doc levels. So unless the government grants and the institutions that provide them raise the ceiling, the salaries won’t change, with or without international students/researchers. For the government to increase the salaries, it needs to increase its spending on science.
Maya Peeva
Boston, MA

Thanks, Mr. Pyle

Kevin Coyne’s piece on Ernie Pyle and his book Home Country (“The Road Book,” CJR, January/February) brought up a lot of memories. When I was growing up, my father, Porter Harvey, was a copy editor on the Birmingham Post. I was 11 when he left the Post to start The Advertiser-Gleam, where I’m the editor today.

I was just beginning to read newspapers to any extent in World War II, and Daddy used to talk a lot about Ernie Pyle and the great stuff he was writing. I’m sure Daddy edited a lot of his columns and wrote the heads for them. He also talked about Ernie’s writing before the war and how well he told the stories of ordinary folks all over the United States.

The Advertiser-Gleam has become known around here for carrying news that we think is interesting, even if not always important, something which my father did, and which those of us who followed have tried to continue. I’m sure he picked up part of his philosophy from all those Ernie Pyle columns. He died at age 91, still working every day.
Sam Harvey
The Advertiser-Gleam
Guntersville, AL

Editors’ note: Sam Harvey, as devoted as his father to the mission of The Advertiser-Gleam, is still going strong at 81.

The Editors are the staffers of the Columbia Journalism Review.