Did D.C. Editor Lose Her Job Because of Politics?

By Nathan Guttman

Published March 02, 2011, issue of March 11, 2011.
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The editor of the weekly Jewish newspaper of the nation’s capital has been fired following tensions with the paper’s new owners over coverage of the local Jewish federation.

Debra Rubin was dismissed from Washington Jewish Week on February 23 and was told that the owners had decided to take the paper “in a different direction.” Three sources have told the Forward that the decision came after repeated attempts by the ownership group to intervene in editorial content relating to the Jewish federation, where most of them are or have been top leaders.

The firing highlights a struggle for editorial freedom at many Jewish publications. While some of the papers are owned outright by the local federation, even independent publications like Washington Jewish Week encounter difficulties when touching on issues relating to communal institutions.

“Many times there is a concern not to anger a federation giver who can hurt the [fundraising] campaign,” said Andrew Silow-Carroll, editor-in-chief of the New Jersey Jewish News, a federation-owned paper. Silow-Carroll, a former editor of Washington Jewish Week, added that independent ownership does not necessarily shield an editor from this sort of pressure: “You can have a pretty aggressive federation-owned newspaper and you can have a private paper that doesn’t do muckraking.”

The Washington Jewish Week has a circulation of 10,000 and fewer than 20 employees on staff. The small publication, based in Rockville, a Washington suburb in Maryland, has switched hands several times in the past three decades. Last August, a group of five local businessmen acquired the paper from Florida-based HarborPoint Media. Principals of the ownership consortium — which was set up in order to run Washington Jewish Week — have strong ties to the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and to other local and national Jewish institutions. Two of the five owners are former presidents of the federation, another is slated to be the next president and another is the lay leader in charge of the federation’s endowment fund.

The new owners stated they’d like to make the paper “a tool for increasing the number of people involved in the Jewish community.” Louis Mayberg, one of the owners, stated that the paper will be committed to the highest journalistic standards. “That means accurately and fairly reporting the news in the community and not editorializing,” Mayberg said.

Rubin had been editor of the paper since 1999. According to sources in the Jewish community, when the new ownership took over, Rubin held talks with local leaders and activists and prepared a proposal for improving the paper. But she never received a response to the proposal.

Instead, Rubin was informed February 23 that her employment had been terminated. “The new ownership group had seven months to observe [Rubin’s work], and has a different view of where we would like to take the paper,” Craig Burke, Washington Jewish Week’s chief operating officer and former publisher, told the Forward.

Rubin confirmed that she left the paper involuntarily after being told that the ownership “wanted to go in a different direction with a different vision.” She declined further comment.

Several sources, from within the paper and the Jewish community, say Rubin’s firing was a culmination of increasing friction with owners who sought greater influence over some editorial content. “They wanted it to be a federation mouthpiece,” said one of the sources, who, like others approached by the Forward, would not speak on the record.

Insiders point to several instances that caused the tension.

In one, a February 17 blog post, the paper’s Adam Kredo reported on dismay among several federation donors with the financial support the federation gives local Theater J. The donors took issue with Theater J’s recent decision to host the Israeli Cameri Theatre’s production of “Return to Haifa,” an adaptation of a novella by Palestinian Ghassan Kanafani. Critics had claimed that the play, which depicts the return of an Arab refugee family to its house in Haifa, is anti-Israel. Another blog post, on February 22, reported on more criticism of the federation because of the theater production.

Burke denied that these reports had anything to do with the decision to fire Rubin. “This is completely false,” he said, “We are not a federation paper.”

But a community insider with close knowledge of recent events said that in the past few months, the owners “felt the paper belongs to the federation” and tried to fight any negative reporting on the institution.

Four of the five owners contacted by the Forward did not return calls and e-mails. The fifth could not be reached.

Another contentious issue was the paper’s news focus. As did her predecessors, Rubin thought Washington Jewish Week should report national Jewish news, since its readership is deeply involved in government and politics. The new owners, on the other hand, wish to steer the paper toward a narrower focus on communal life in the Greater Washington region.

Upon Rubin’s departure, Richard Greenberg, the paper’s associate editor, was appointed acting editor. The owners are now seeking a new editor for the paper.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com


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