From the archives: Larry Cohler-Esses of Jewish Week on AIPAC and censorship

As we’ve said before, working inside the Jewish press is not easy. There are those who feel the primary job of a journalist is to report the news. There are others who (like people in any other religious or ethnic community) feel the function of the Jewish press is to serve as cheerleader. Larry Cohler-Esses belongs to the former group. Here’s a fascinating excerpt from a 2004 interview with Luke Ford:

“What are the principle obstacles to doing good Jewish journalism?”

Larry thinks for about ten seconds. “Money. Not meaning only salaries, but money to support the expenses involved in going to places and reporting firsthand. The censorship or influence of the owners of the papers. The self-censorship that people employ when they sense what the boundaries are. The expectations of readers. People don’t read Jewish newspapers for the reason they read regular newspapers. People read regular newspapers to get information, whether they agree with the paper or not. People read Jewish newspaper to affirm their sense of identity. Often that means you are writing articles that people don’t particularly want to know about.

“If you want to know to know about Israel, you can get most of your information from The New York Times and the Washington Post. You read the Jewish newspapers to get your sense of Israel’s rightness and correctness in the world affirmed.”

What’s your view of the way AIPAC attempted, during your tenure, to keep the Jewish press in line?”

“It was atrocious. That’s not their mission. Their mission statement doesn’t say anything about them mucking around in Jewish newspapers. AIPAC tried to get me fired, Andy [Silow-Carrol] fired [from The Washington Jewish Week in 1992]. They never came to me with complaints about my coverage (with one or two exceptions). They didn’t even go to the editor. They went to the owner and publisher of The Washington Jewish Week.

“There was an AIPAC conference where James Baker (US Secretary of State under George Bush Sr) called on supporters of Israel to give up on their dreams of a [territorially] greater Israel. In interviewing members of the audience after the speech, I talked to an AIPAC macher from Iowa. I quoted him accurately saying, ‘That speech was garbage.’ It went in the newspaper. I never heard anything until the owner of the paper, Dr. Leonard Kapiloff, called me into his office, showing me a letter from [AIPAC leader] Tom Dine to him, passing on a letter from this Iowa macher that not only is that quote not correct, Larry Cohler never even interviewed me. It’s fabricated. Dr. Kapiloff had enormous respect and admiration for Tom Dine. He made it clear that the burden was on me.

“Fortunately, I had run out of notepaper that day. So the fellow I’d interviewed had given me his business card. So I had put my notes containing the key quote scribbled on the back of his business card. And I still had it. I showed that to the owner and that mollified him.

“The letter from Dine said this is an example of why we have a problem with Larry Cohler. I would like you and me to have dinner to discuss this problem.

“I remember once I was in the Israeli embassy with a couple of Israeli diplomats. One of them, who hadn’t been in Washington that long, was talking freely to me. He said he was giving me this stuff because I’d know what to do with it. We were on the same team. The other diplomat, who’d been in Washington a while and knew my writing, said, no, no, it’s not that way. You should treat it the same way as if you were talking to an Israeli reporter.

“I had good fortune in working for Dr. Kapiloff. He had a strong self image of being independent and iconoclastic. For reasons I never quite understood, he looked at me in an avuncular and almost paternalistic way. He thought I was a foster son of his. Especially after the Tom Dine incident convinced him that I was a diligent and conscientious reporter, he defended me. Because he got so much flack over me, and he didn’t want to fire me, he fired editors. All the stories in question were about me. I felt like I was walking over bodies while leading a charmed life.

“The only legal threat I ever received came from AIPAC. They wanted me off the AIPAC beat. The counsel for AIPAC (the late David Ifshin) called Andy and hinted there could be legal problems. He said they were going to go over my articles with a fine-tooth comb and look for grounds for a lawsuit. They never sued.

“You asked a lot of questions — did I get pressure? Was I intimidated? I led a charmed life. I worked for an independently-owned, philanthropic newspaper that was not shaped in any way by the Federation. He was subject to a lot of influence by a lot of people but it happened that he liked me.”

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