An Interview with Charles Smolover
Charles Smolover is vice president of the Philadelphia Jewish Voice. The following are excerpts from an interview with him that took place on April 23, 2006.
PJV: How did the Philadelphia Jewish Voice get started?
The first issue of the Philadelphia Jewish Voice appeared in
July 2005, but the story of the Voice goes back to the fall of 2004, when a local group of
Jewish Exponent readers became increasingly concerned that paper was actively opposing the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's policy of neutrality.
PJV: What is that policy of neutrality?
As articulated by the Federation's chairman, Beryl Simonson, and its president, Harold Goldman, it is "to be scrupulously careful in our neutrality, so that we do not influence or sway the lively political discussions going on within the Jewish community."
PJV: How did the Exponent violate that policy?
There are many examples, in both the Exponent's opinion pieces and in its news coverage. For instance, in an opinion piece published on October 26, 2004, Jonathan Tobin, the
Exponent's editor wrote that "?reasonable Democrats can't deny that Bush is a good friend of Israel?"
In other words, if you're a Democrat and think that Bush is not a good friend of Israel you are "unreasonable." The assertion is insulting, inflammatory and, by the way, just plain wrong. There are millions of Democrats, and Republicans I might add, including many in the Delaware Valley, who have great reservations about the impact of the administration's Middle East policies on Israel's security. What's even more unfortunate is
that that type of rhetoric is typical of many
Exponent opinion pieces.
PJV: That's an opinion piece. What about news coverage?
On Oct. 7 and 14, 2004, the Exponent printed news stories that described a pro-Bush speech by Ed Koch at Temple Beth Hillel Beth El in Wynnewood, and a pro-Kerry video distributed by the National Jewish Democratic Council, respectively. The page one article covering Koch's speech (10/7) gave no impression that anyone on hand disputed Koch's "Bush is better for Israel" rhetoric. The article also failed to report Koch's personal attacks on Democrats in the audience during Q&A. The article on the NJDC video (Oct 14, p. 10) emphasized the offense taken by the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) to the video and failed to point out the video's informational content. But that's just one example. There are many more.
PJV: Did you express your concerns to the Exponent or the Federation?
After the 2004 election, we wrote a letter to Federation, signed by 60 respected members of the community, requesting a meeting where we could discuss our concerns. The Federation agreed and we met with their representatives on February 9, 2005. We made a number of
suggestions at the meeting, including adding an ombudsman to
Exponent's staff and establishing an independent committee that would review the
Exponent's content and report annually on how the paper was adhering to the Federation's policy of neutrality. The Federation representatives said they would consider our complaints and suggestions and get back to us.
PJV: What did they say when they got back to you?
That's the problem. They never got back to us, despite our repeated requests. What made matters worse was the "suicide bomber ad incident" which occurred soon after.
PJV: The "suicide bomber ad incident"?
In response to the election of Howard Dean as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) ran an ad in the
Exponent that implied a connection between Dean and Palestinian suicide bombers. The Anti-Defamation League found the ad to be offensive, as did many others in the Jewish community. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) reported on the controversy in a news article that was balanced in its original, unedited form. The first part discussed the RJC ad and the negative perception of Dean among some in the Jewish community. The last third of the article reported on Dean's support of Israel, Dean's Jewish family connections, AIPAC's strong support of Dean, and the fact that an overwhelming majority of Jews support the Democratic party. The
Exponent ran the JTA article, but only after editing out this last section, effectively censoring all references to Dean's support among Jews as well as the ADL's condemnation of the RJC suicide bomber ad. It was a
blatant act of censorship that came just a week after our meeting, and a clear indication to us that the Federation had no interest in responding to our concerns.
PJV: So you decided to start your own publication?
We felt it was our only option. The Exponent, our community's paper of record was clearly not reflecting the community's diversity of opinion and range of political perspectives. What's more, the leadership of the paper and the Federation refused to consider legitimate complaints and suggestions that were offered in a spirit of concern and respect. But I must tell you that we took the step of starting a new publication with reluctance.
The Jewish Exponent has served our community for well over a century. It is the Jewish community's only weekly newspaper. It is an invaluable resource which covers a broad range of important local, national and international issues, including the arts. It is the key source of news about Israel for many in our community. Our desire wasn't to start a new publication. It was to see the
Exponent improve, to do a better job of reflecting the diversity of our community
PJV: So you're not the anti-Exponent?
I'm sure there are some in the community who have that view. Certainly the management of the
Exponent does; they have steadfastly refused to accept advertising from us. Perhaps they were bothered by a column we ran in our first several issues. It was called
Exponent Watchpost and it chronicled instances of bias in the
Exponent. But that column has been discontinued. We want to be proactive, not reactive. We want to stand for something and not just be against something. We'd also like the
Exponent to accept our advertising. At this point, I can't see any reason why they shouldn't. The
Philadelphia Jewish Voice does not compete with the Exponent. It is a monthly, online, not-for-profit journal, run by a handful of volunteers in their precious spare time.
PJV: And what do you stand for?
We want to provide a forum where the critical issues facing our community, both locally and worldwide, are addressed in a spirit of intellectual honesty and diversity. And I think we're learning how to do that. I say learning because none of the people involved in starting the
Voice had any publishing experience. We're all volunteers with fulltime jobs. But I think we're succeeding. We've run articles on a wide range of issues, from the
rescue of Torah scrolls from the waters of Hurricane
Katrina, to the growing threat of political
Islam. We have conducted one-on-one interviews with an array of political leaders. We've printed articles expressing opposing viewpoints on important Israeli political issues, including the
Gaza withdrawal and the implications of Hamas's election
victory. We've printed articles from a number of widely respected writers and commentators, including
Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Larry Derfner and
Yossi Alpher. We have covered a variety of local issues as well, not to mention some well received
recipes and restaurant reviews.
PJV: What's been the reaction?
We're still working out the bugs in calculating readership, but our page view count clearly indicates that we're growing. We had 3,449 page views
in August 20'05. We had over 40,000 in March 2006. We should far exceed that total for
April. [Publisher note: Readership for April is 80,202 as of
today, April 24, 2006.]
And thanks to the web, our readership is international. We just received our first
letter to the editor from
PJV: With that kind of growth it seems the Philadelphia Jewish Voice would be attractive to advertisers.
We've had inquiries from a number of advertisers expressing interest in placing ads in the
Voice. For the time being, we intend to continue our current policy of not accepting advertising. But that could change, especially if our readership continues to grow.
PJV: The origins and rise of the Philadelphia Jewish Voice, as you've described them, have all the elements of a great newspaper story. One would think that the
Exponent, which is supposedly dedicated to covering our community, would want to write about it.
One would think. But that would require a degree of journalistic confidence and openness that the
Exponent, I'm sad to say, does not appear to possess. At least not under its current management.
PJV: What does the future hold for the Philadelphia Jewish
At the moment, we're doing our best to make each issue better than the last, to tackle serious issues and offer a range of perspectives. As I mentioned, we're staffed by handful of volunteers, so if there's anyone reading this interview who'd like to lend a hand, we could definitely use the help - in writing, editing, web tech, layout, building readership - you name it. I think we represent a great opportunity for anyone interested in honing their journalistic skills, especially high school and college students. We also have expenses, so donations are gladly accepted - and thanks to our 501(c)3 status, donations
are tax deductible in most cases. To volunteer or make a donation, drop me an email at
media @ pjvoice.com
- July 2005: Chuck Pennacchio
candidate in the Democratic Primary for U.S. Senate.
- August 2005: Lois Murphy who is
running for Congress in Pennsylvania's 6th district.
- September 2005: Pennsylvania State Representative
- October 2005: Bob Casey
candidate in the Democratic Primary for U.S. Senate.
- November 2005: Gov. Howard Dean,
Chairman of the Democratic National Committee
- December 2005:
Rep. Jim Gerlach
who is running for reelection in Pennsylvania's 6th district.
- January 2006: Rep. Chaka Fattah
from Pennsylvania's 2nd district
- February 2006: Matthew Brooks,
Executive Director of the Republican Jewish Coalition
- March 2006: Alan Sandals,
candidate in the Democratic Primary for U.S. Senate
- April 2006: Ira Forman,
Executive Director of the National Jewish Democratic Committee