The JN’s editor responds to a 400-person statement.
Since the election, I have been reflecting on how the Jewish News covered this year’s campaign, and if we lived up to our mission of meeting the information needs of our community.
One story was especially contentious among hundreds of our readers. It concerned Michigan State Rep. Ryan Berman, a Republican who just won reelection.
During the campaign, the Oakland County Democratic Party and other groups circulated releases that sought to tie Berman, a member of Temple Israel, to “militias.” The evidence was flimsy: a couple of out-of-context photos of Berman.
These allegations arose after the FBI publicly thwarted an actual antigovernment militia’s kidnapping plot against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (Berman forcefully condemned the plot).
We ignored the “militias” release at first. But as the election drew nearer, the accusation seemed to be gathering steam. We all know how disinformation can circulate through a community when trusted news outlets ignore it. So as Michigan’s Jewish paper of record, we made a judgment call. We felt it was our duty to report on them and call attention to the facts.
We talked to Berman himself. He issued a forceful denial of the accusation and provided context for the photos, which we communicated in the story.
This is also how we approached our election interview with Republican Senate candidate John James, whom Democratic ads were painting as an antisemite. That interview came under fire from some of our readers, as well, who thought we were being overly favorable to James. In both cases, the actual records of the candidates themselves were being overlooked. In both cases, we talked to the candidates and published their responses.
During an already incredibly stressful election for Jewish Americans, my assessment was that these lines of attack on candidates were irresponsible. We can talk about politics without trivializing the very serious issues of antisemitic and violent rhetoric in this country.
So here are some political concerns I don’t want to lose sight of: This week, Berman joined a list of Michigan Republicans calling for Whitmer’s impeachment over her new restrictions intended to curb the spread of COVID-19. And at press time, James is refusing to concede an election he lost by 84,000 votes to Sen. Gary Peters.
Back to Berman. Many were angry the JN chose to pursue this story at all. Nearly 400 people, identifying from across the political spectrum, signed a statement that was organized by members of the Berman family and sent to the JN’s advertising department. The title was, “An Appeal For Human Decency.”
It reads, in part, “Ryan Berman would never associate with radical militia groups or homegrown terrorists.” Though it does not mention the JN by name, it also states, “Do we think a story, so obviously crafted as a misrepresentation/manipulation of reality, should ever be run by a reputable newspaper or media outlet? The answer should be “NO” if our community and country have any chance of future civility.”
It concludes, “Do not buy into, or participate in, smearing neither his good name nor the name of anyone, regardless of his or her side of the aisle.”
Organizers wanted to submit this statement as a paid ad in the last print JN prior to the election. However, they missed the print advertising deadline, which is at noon Friday the week prior. An incomplete version of the ad was presented on Monday. Unlike daily newspapers, weekly publications like the JN require more lead time for printing and mailing. Afterward, some came to the conclusion that the JN had “rejected” the ad for political reasons or because it criticized us.
I completely understand the frustration here, but this claim is false. Anyone is welcome to submit any ad they want to the JN, within the realm of acceptable dialogue for our publication. Further, no one on the editorial staff has any input whatsoever into advertising. In this case, the editorial staff had no knowledge of the ad, and we regret it was submitted too late to appear in that issue. I have since spoken about the matter with members of the Berman family who helped organize the statement and submitted it to the JN.
As for the story itself, the JN stands by its reporting. We believe we were responsible in our approach to the allegations. We take our integrity as a journalism-based publication seriously, and this story fell well within our bounds, as well as our responsibility to the community.
However, I also recognize that, to at least 400 of our readers, the story itself was seen as a breach of trust. So I’d like to say: Our intention was not, and is never, to “smear” any candidate. The JN has talked to Rep. Berman for many stories in the past, including a recent piece on his legislation to make it easier for victims of sexual assault at Michigan’s universities to sue the institutions. We will continue to call him for comment whenever the opportunity arises. He is a part of this community, as are all of the Jews who signed the statement, as are all of you reading this editorial.
Our commitment to our audience that led our decisions throughout this election will endure after it – to inform our Jewish community of the truth, and to keep us functioning together as one Jewish community.