Culture, Global, Politics, Religion

Blogging the Omer, Day 25: Newspaper beholden to its funders? – no, really?

Week Four, day Four
Netzach of Netzach
Over a year ago, Akiba Hebrew Academy, the country’s oldest day school, changed a long standing policy, and decided that it would accept a $5million gift on condition that it change its name to the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in honor of the older brother of the donor, who died in a plane crash at age 27. But here’s the turn of the screw: the donor was Leonard Barrack, the newly elected board chair of the Philadelphia federation.
When alumni attempted to object to this change in policy, they were ignored, when they turned to the local Jewish paper, the Jewish Exponent, it turned them down and even contacted school representatives.

Says the Forward,

The debate over the paper’s actions raises a thorny and persistent question that pervades much of local Jewish journalism: When Jewish newspapers are sponsored by the federation, can their reporting be truly independent?
“This incident points out the importance of a community newspaper paper having editorial independence from the local Federation,” wrote Ari Goldman, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, in an e-mail to the Forward. “Given economic necessities, I recognize that total independence might be an impossible goal but the paper should do its best to be an independent voice.”
…aggrieved Akiba alumni, particularly from the class of 1971, organized to protest the name change and to urge the board to reconsider. As part of that push, a number of alumni submitted their arguments to the Exponent this month in the form of a letter to the editor and a full-page advertisement. Both charged that the school had allowed federation politics, and Barrack’s stature, to influence the board’s decision.
The Exponent would publish neither the advertisement nor the letter. Jonathan Tobin, executive editor of the Exponent, said that he chose not to publish the letter because the topic was no longer newsworthy.
…Meanwhile, the paper’s advertising department rejected the ad submitted by the alumni. Alumnus Dan Kaplan says that the paper’s general manager told him that the paper would not accept the ad because it was “divisive and contrary to what the Exponent is attempting to do in the community.” In turn, the Exponent forwarded the advertisement to the school’s incoming headmaster, who e-mailed Kaplan and asked to talk.
“I was absolutely flabbergasted that some editor at the Jewish Exponent would have the nerve to say they’re not going to run the ad, and not only that, but show it to Akiba,” Kaplan said.

I know for sure that this is the very first time that a Jewish newspaper has refused to run an article because it would embarrass someone in the Jewish community.

11 thoughts on “Blogging the Omer, Day 25: Newspaper beholden to its funders? – no, really?

  1. “Long standing policy”? I believe what you mean to say is that Akiba had previously turned down a donation, and this time accepted one. Sort of like saying that if an 18 year-old voted Republican in 2004 and Democratic in 2008, he changed a long-term policy of voting for Republican presidential candidates. After all, 4 years is a long time.

  2. I’m the Life and Arts editor of the Acorn, the newspaper of Drew University in Madison, NJ. Though the newspaper at large universities have the kind of ad revenue that allows them to be truly independent of any other parts of the school. At small liberal arts colleges like Drew across the country, however the story is different. We make some money from ads taken out by clubs and local businesses, but it’s small beans compared the portion of our budget that comes from the organizations on campus charged with doling out money to student-run organizations.
    That being said, we are independent nonetheless. If the readership and the funders trust the us, the press remains in a position to report on what it feels it needs to report on and all is well.

  3. The real outrage here is not fully covered in the Forward story. Yes, the Exponent refused to deal with a real news situation as the story makes an arm of the Federation, and its president, look bad.
    That is not good.
    Just as bad is the inability, after trying for months, of the alumni to get answers. Letters were answered with platitudes.
    Those wanting to know if there was an inside deal here were described as malcontents.
    Is it just by chance that the school gets a new name (Barak Academy), the president of Federation is named Barak (the school is named following his gift in memory of his brother), the school moves to a new campus (a deal presided over by Barak)?
    Now how many students will benefit from his gift? With tuition approaching $25,000/year, a gift of $5,000,000 (which, shall we say, generates 5% interest) will allow all of about 10-15 students to attend with full scholarship. Is that worth a name change?
    Is there more to the story? Will more money come in?
    The alumni asked good questions but to date has received exactly zero responses that contained specifics.

  4. The really sad part is the fact that a person is only willing to donate to a worthy cause in return for a favor. As my father would say, what a lowly human being.

  5. Meir-
    To answer your question–yes!!! I often wonder whether Rabbi Akiva would rather his name on a building or 10-12 more students learning Torah. I don’t care if it is one more student. Enough said on that issue.
    Fortunately, wealthy donors with the best of intentions usually lead to more wealthy donors/friends giving money; especially in the case of a school that bears their family name. Of course, we are talking about human beings: wealthy donors who are also embarrassed in public (i.e. Perelman, the last time a protest was mounted against Barrack) means that other donors will refuse to donate in turn for fear of similar humiliation. While both members of the Class of ’71 and other alumni who do not include themselves in this group, like myself, love the school and want the best for its future, I think they need to tread carefully and less recklessly. Had the ad been published, who knows what the long term damage might have been for the school’s fiscal situation? Schools still need money to run, and yes, for more scholarships for students to attend.
    In response to “former’s” comment, I would like to say that I think that’s looking at this very myopically. Someone who gives $5 million to a cause IS NOT a lowly human being by any stretch of the imagination. I’m sorry it does not conform to your anonymous ideal, but since Temple times Jews have been giving less than anonymously (read: “Nicanor Arches” in Second Temple) Especially when its memory of a deceased brother who died tragically. Let’s not forget that honoring the memory of our deceased (kavod hamet) IS a Jewish value after all.
    Can we please move on from this Barrack thing and discuss some real news? What are Jews doing to help the 30,000 people who have died this week world wide? Don’t we have bigger fish to fry?

  6. I am not an alum but know a number of them. I’ve been outraged by this since I first heard about it, mostly the complete disregard of the feelings of alumna.
    I don’t have a problem with including the name of the donor in the title, but eliminating the long history as “Akiba” is a shonda. Something like “Barrack-Akiba Academy” would have been a recognition of the needs of both sides.

  7. “Someone who gives $5 million to a cause IS NOT a lowly human being by any stretch of the imagination.”
    Depends on how rich he is. If he can easily afford it I stand by what I said. In fact, even if he can’t.

  8. I don’t get it. We want to attract wealthy donors for our institutions. we would all agree to this. Embarrassing them may scare them away. We may all agree to this too.
    So, let me see if I understand: to obtain their money we let the rich do as they please?
    We now have a wealthy philanthropist from NY being investigated for giving money to an Israeli Prime Minister as cash in envelopes. He claims he did nothing wrong. Yet, there seem to be no public records of the contributions. Where are the receipts? And, most important of all- was there a quid pro quo? The Israeli newspapers, and now the Israeli public, want to know. The Talansky neighbors in New York want to know.
    It would be unfair to claim that there was anything untoward with the Barrak gift. But, maybe there was a quid pro quo. Maybe there was not.
    If a newspaper does not let its staff keep an eye on such things then we get Talanskys (the philanthropist from NY). Now Sheldon Adelson, the wealthiest Jew in the world (who, it seems,did nothing wrong) is under investiagtion. He has, as a result said he will not do any new business in Israel.
    Does this prove the point of Dan (see above). It does not. It proves that when there is a lack of openness it leads to suspicion and this leads to people who are afraid to give.Keep everying in the open and problems are avoided.
    The bottom line: Barrak and the school should provide all information that has been requested. The local Jewish newspapers do a disservice to the community by keeping silent.
    Olam Gadol
    (who has worked for many years in fund raising for NPOs)

  9. Giving a large amount of money and naming the library or the campus would make the donor seem committed to the school and Jewish education. This makes the donor look like he just wants to get his name on something. That kind of gift sends a message – only give if you are getting something back. Hardly the kind of thing that will build the kind of support Jewish schools need.
    ADG

  10. Just to be clear: the alumni were told that the Barrack money was $600,000 per year for the next five years, then the balance upon the passing of both Mr. and Mrs. Barrack, who I hope will live long and healthy lives. With much of that money being invested, exactly how many students will benefit from it this year? Other local schools have received larger donations, in lump sums and in excess of $100 million, and have had a building or a campus named after them. Is “enormous ego” the image of Jews that we want projected?
    To answer Dan’s question in an earlier posting: “Can we please move on from this Barrack thing and discuss some real news? What are Jews doing to help the 30,000 people who have died this week world wide? Don’t we have bigger fish to fry?” I know my answer: I’ll be sending my Akiba and Federation Annual giving money to the less fortunate people he is referring to. I hope Mr. Barrack joins me in this effort as well. And when I make my donation, my name won’t be on anything except the cancelled check.

  11. Dan,
    Don’t you wonder, even a little bit, about why a seemingly altruistic person would require that the name of a great teacher in our history be obliterated from an educational institution? (I understand that the school had to actually paint over the Akiba name in the gym for its one remaining year in
    the old building!)
    Leora

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