What happened to The Forward?

How America’s Jewish newspaper lost the left

Last year was not great for The Forward, the only national Jewish media outlet in the United States. There are a lot of us who feel that way. Take the 30 percent of the editorial staff whose jobs were terminated last January, including the editor-in-chief, amid a perennial bleeding of funds. Or subscribers who were turned off by a fundraising email last February rebuking Congresswoman Ilhan Omar with the message, “If you’re only fighting anti-Semitism on one side, you’re not really fighting it.” Or readers who were dismayed that, in June, when Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez compared immigrant detention centers to concentration camps, The Forward had more coverage of how Jews on Twitter responded to that characterization than of the conditions themselves. And after a hundred and twenty-one years, The Forward ceased its print operation. 

The Forward, headquartered in New York City, says it has 16,000 subscribers and 112,000 newsletter readers, described on its website as “affluent, politically involved & progressive-minded, with a strong interest in causes, issues and Israel.” Most have graduate degrees; three-quarters belong to a synagogue. I’ve been a reader for more than a decade and I have written for the paper over a dozen times. As a left-wing Israeli-American journalist who covers the politics of the Israeli occupation and its role in American discourse, it’s been one of the only Jewish outlets for which I could—and would want to—write. The US Jewish media establishment tends to be dominated by older white men who are out of touch with the generation of Jewish activists to which I belong. With the exception of Jewish Currents magazine, which was recently revamped but remains small, and more neutral venues like the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, most Jewish publications are funded by right-wing patrons who expect to see their investments reflect their politics: Jewish Journal, Commentary, and the Jewish News Syndicate, whose largest single donor is the Republican mega-spender Sheldon Adelson. Tablet, launched in 2009 to focus on Jewish culture, is funded by a conservative backer.

When Donald Trump became president, it was clear that The Forward was uniquely positioned to cover the rise of anti-Semitism and his administration’s impact on American Jewry. But it quickly became apparent that the paper would not pursue that path. After Trump addressed his first joint session of Congress, Jane Eisner, then the editor in chief, wrote an editorial that asked: “Was Donald Trump’s Speech His Bar Mitzvah Moment?” She described Trump as “the bad boy who blew off much of Hebrew school” and then cleaned up just in time, “suited and smiling, to perform his bar mitzvah part so beautifully that everyone, not just his grandmother, swooned in surprise.” A year later, a reporter who had focused on white-nationalist rallies was let go. Compared to figures such as Omar and Ocasio-Cortez, Stephen Miller, a Trump senior adviser who is one of the most influential Jews in the White House, was given less attention, even as he advanced white-supremacist policies inspired by Mein Kampf.

In the view of Jewish progressives like me, the paper has thrown the Jewish left under the bus. “It’s actively seeking to sacrifice the left in the service of clicks,” Eli Valley, a political comic artist who used to publish regularly in The Forward, says. “To me, The Forward was once the pinnacle of the politically active Jewish left in America. It was an American institution; it no longer has that institutional or cultural imprimatur.” At a time when anti-Semitic violence is on the rise, white supremacy has reached the federal level, and the discourse around Jews and Israel may be the most toxic it’s ever been, many of us have been disappointed to find that The Forward is leveraging news more than reporting it. 

 

The Forward, established in 1897 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan as a “moderate, democratic” socialist daily in Yiddish called Forverts, served the masses of Eastern European Jewish immigrants and helped define Jewish life in America. By 1924, when the US Immigration Act began curbing immigration significantly, as many as three million Jews arrived. Many became a significant part of the New York City fabric—quite literally, in the case of its garment industry, where they worked in tenement sweatshops. Jewish values became synonymous with the American promise of liberty, justice, and prosperity, which for many immigrant Jews meant organized labor, the fight for civil rights, and a fearless press. In 1930, Forverts was one of the country’s most widely distributed national newspapers, with a circulation of over 275,000. “The Forward wasn’t only a pioneer in Jewish journalism, it was legendary and incredibly influential in the concept of ethnic journalism in general,” says Alana Newhouse, who worked as culture editor at The Forward and then launched the rival Tablet magazine. “It unlocked what all ethnic media tried to unlock: how to let them live inside a distinct culture while also helping them understand the world around them.” 

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The world has changed considerably since then, and since the English weekly edition was founded, in 1990, by Seth Lipsky, a neoconservative veteran of the Wall Street Journal. (A Yiddish digital outlet still exists, attracting up to 80,000 unique users every month.) When Lipsky started the English edition, most American Jews had moved on from their immigrant-labor pasts and fully assimilated; they filled senior positions in government and formed powerful advocacy groups that lobbied for Jewish causes. Through diligent reporting, the paper took those institutions to task; one of The Forward’s first front pages published the salaries of presidents atop major American Jewish organizations. Lipsky is also known for having cultivated writers such as Jeffrey Goldberg and Philip Gourevitch, building an impressive newsroom. 

In 2000, the paper’s management ousted Lipsky and hired J.J. Goldberg, in order to steer The Forward to the left. “When I worked at The Forward it was forthrightly a liberal Jewish media outlet, which represented how the majority of American Jews actually see the world, as reflected in their voting patterns,” Larry Cohler-Esses, a former assistant managing editor for news and investigations, recalls. The paper ambitiously covered the interests of liberal American Jews. In 2013, the paper published an exposé on years of sexual abuse of students at a high school run by Yeshiva University. In 2015, Eisner had a one-on-one interview with Barack Obama in the Oval Office. The same year, Cohler-Esses was the first journalist from an American Jewish publication to be granted entry into Iran since 1979, and he covered the height of Israel’s confrontation with Obama over the Iran nuclear deal. (He found no plot to destroy Israel.) In 2017, he and a colleague named Lili Bayer covered the story that Sebastian Gorka, then a senior adviser to Trump, had ties to a Nazi group. The paper also broke news on Jewish charities; one investigation revealed that a Jewish federation was bankrolling Canary Mission, a shadowy website that blacklists students and professors who champion Palestinian rights. “No other Jewish media outlet was doing the kind of enterprise news that we were doing,” Cohler-Esses says. 

In December 2017, however, Cohler-Esses was let go, as part of downsizing in The Forward’s newsroom. The paper, which had been suffering annual losses, amounting to nearly $7 million the preceding year, had brought in a new publisher, Rachel Fishman Feddersen, who was tasked with leading a digital transition. Under Feddersen, formerly the chief content officer of Patch, The Forward conducted significant staff cuts and called for an increase in posts. “We have three revenue streams: ads, subscriptions, and donations,” she told Folio. “Advertising has the least upside for us. We think we can do better, but we are reinvigorating the business in other ways.” She went on: “We are better off focusing on the readers.” According to Eisner and several other former employees, writers were asked to produce at least two short posts a day—for a vertical called “Fast Forward”—as part of their regular work. They began aggregating more heavily and their performances were measured in clicks. “On top of Google Analytics, we built a dashboard which had key performance indicators for writers and editors,” Dan Friedman, who was executive editor at the time, tells me. “Which pieces are being read, who is reading them, what part of the world, etc. We were using those as ways of measuring writers’ performances.” (The Forward denies that it has ever quantified performance measures. According The Forward, an editor emailed staff about a quota of eight to ten stories per week that “was framed as an experiment and a goal, not a requirement, but we can understand how those former staffers would have seen it as a demand from their boss.”) 

Eisner, who had been the editor since 2008, thought she could reconcile the new demands with her journalistic standards. “To be an editor in the digital era is a humbling experience,” she tells me, “because you have more precise tools to know what people are actually reading and for how long, so of course that is going to change your perspective about what you produce and where to put your resources—to some degree it must.” Still, she adds, “That doesn’t mean it changes your values, your priorities.” (She now works at the Columbia Journalism School, which publishes CJR; she is not affiliated with the magazine.)

Nevertheless, The Forward changed. The paper began to run gossipy headlines about Ivanka Trump and speculated (incorrectly) about whether Meghan Markle was Jewish. As Friedman puts it, “The challenge facing us was: How could we do thirty stories a day on pop culture and at the same time be the national Jewish paper doing serious opinion, news, and investigations?” 

The editorial strategy, it seemed, undercut staff morale and alienated many readers. But as a business approach, according to Feddersen, it worked: the 2019 operating loss was down to $2.4 million. The Forward now expects to break even within a few years.

 

When you compound the pressures to keep alive the newspaper that has been the backbone of American Jewish life for over a century with a fraught climate in which Jews are used as political pawns and subjected to violence, the result is the substitution of outrage for news. “The Forward was the last liberal Zionist publication standing,” Sam Freedman, a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a former contributing editor at The Forward, tells me. “When The Forward hits a crisis and can’t sustain the work it did, that’s a communal crisis.” 

Many news outlets, desperate for eyeballs, have shifted emphasis from news to opinion pieces, which are less expensive to produce. For The Forward, however, which was absent an editor-in-chief for most of last year, the opinion section became its front door. And even as it has published a wide array of voices—from Jews of color taking on anti-Black racism in the Jewish community to Palestinian writers who support boycotts of Israel—their contributions have been offset by voices far to the right. In early 2018, Mort Klein, who heads a far-right American Jewish organization and has a history of making Islamophobic slurs, wrote, “Mike Pence Gave the Best Pro-Israel Speech Ever.” Another contributor published “We Need to Start Befriending Neo-Nazis.” Over the past year, a “both sides” approach to the opinion page has flattened The Forward’s reputation, platforming clickbait conservatism and equivocating where it was once willing to confront. 

That problem came to a head last February, when Batya Ungar-Sargon, The Forward’s opinion editor, called out Congresswoman Omar for anti-Semitism, sparking a national controversy and leading to the fundraising email that angered Jewish progressives like me. “It is frustrating and saddening to see The Forward today embracing, indeed, reveling in, its newfound role as policeman, prosecutor, judge, and jury deciding what is and isn’t anti-Semitism,” Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, says. Friedman, who used to publish in The Forward, felt that the paper had crossed a line. “The Forward has elected to take up this tendentious role now, at a time when accusations of anti-Semitism are being weaponized to bludgeon critics of Israel,” she adds. “Israel-Palestine is the tip of the spear being exploited to erode free speech and the cat’s paw inciting progressives to attack their own. The Forward, intentionally or not, is enabling, legitimizing, and energizing these trends.” 

In response to criticism about polarizing ideas that have been published under its banner, The Forward has argued that opinion deserves its place, apart from news, to fully represent a Jewish audience. In September, Jodi Rudoren, a seasoned New York Times journalist, assumed the helm as editor in chief. She told Jewish Currents, “I want people to feel comfortable writing and I want to be known most of all as a place that publishes a range of opinions respectfully.” 

But a newspaper’s value is undermined when op-eds drive conversation above its reporting. A month into Rudoren’s tenure, Ungar-Sargon wrote a piece accusing students at Bard College who protested a panel she’d moderated of being anti-Semitic. The piece, which omitted relevant information, argued that Shahanna McKinney-Baldon, a Black Jewish educator, “was actually egging on what was a blatantly anti-Semitic protest.” Afterward, The Forward published letters to the editor, most of them refuting Ungar-Sargon’s claims. McKinney-Baldon demanded an apology and a retraction; Rudoren told her in an email that neither was warranted, since the story was a matter of perspective. (I covered the Bard episode for Jewish Currents.)

In that case, as with the Omar controversy, the paper positioned itself as an authority on opinions about, rather than a driver of reporting on, anti-Semitism. In December, Rudoren deepened The Forward’s commitment to opinion, hiring five new columnists. She doesn’t believe that signals a turn away from news, however. “We have made no such shift to Opinion from news in terms of philosophy, staffing or other resources, or promotion,” she told me in an email. “There is no other publication with such quality and variety of voices, no Opinion section better rooted in the news that matters to American Jews,” she added. “I am lucky to have inherited a vibrant, strong and ambitious section with a creative and committed leader, and she and I have been working together to build on its strength.” In January, however, Peter Beinart, a prominent Forward columnist, resigned in order to become an editor at large for Jewish Currents. BuzzFeed wrote that the move, from a major outlet to a small, explicitly leftist one, “suggests a power shift in the politics of American Jewish media.”

Recently, when I reached out to Rudoren, hoping to discuss The Forward’s role in Jewish discourse—a world that is, to be sure, complex and politically fraught—she initially agreed to speak with me, then backtracked. She informed me that no one at The Forward would comment for this article and agreed to provide responses to fact-checking queries only on the condition that I state her objection to my writing the piece. Rudoren, Feddersen, and members of the board would not be available for interviews because, Rudoren wrote, I have “aggressively and personally attacked the publication and its staff members on social media platforms.” In notes to CJR, she included screenshots of tweets in which I criticized The Forward and Ungar-Sargon’s takes. 

It’s true that I have strong opinions—most people working in Jewish media do. I can’t see a way to think deeply about The Forward without thinking critically. In many ways, what is happening with the paper reflects what has been going on in the American Jewish community writ large: the collapse of centrism, the polarization of discourse, and the imperative to take a stand. And that’s the source of my frustration with The Forward. Communicating through op-eds and imposing divides among Jews isn’t the kind of journalism required to guide us through the difficult moment we’re in.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece has been updated to reflect that The Forward was not the first to report on Sebastian Gorka’s ties to a Nazi group.

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Mairav Zonszein is an Israeli-American freelance journalist who covers Israel and its role in US politics. She has written for the Washington Post, the New York Review of Books, and the New York Times, among others. She is a longtime contributor to +972 Magazine and tweets at @Mairavz.