FailedMessiah a journalistic savior

When I was writing for The Jewish Journal, I learned a dirty little secret: Despite the great work being done by my paper, by The Forward, by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, some of the best work in Jewish journalism isn’t being done by journalists at all. While there is nowhere I would rather turn for in-depth coverage about the many facets of American Jewish life than the Big Three (sorry Jewish Week), a good deal of breaking news comes not from reporters but a few bloggers deeply rooted in the Jewish community despite the scorn their blogging earns them.

Indeed, one of my first cover stories for The Jewish Journal was about L.A. Jewry’s own muckraker, Luke Ford. A sample:

The blogger likes playing the role of the outsider journalist, the little guy willing to fight back, more nimble than those dinosaurs we call newspapers. He is — to quote Luke Ford himself — “more a kid who likes to throw manure.”

The son of a Seventh-day Adventist evangelist, Ford is named after the gentile physician who wrote one of the Gospels and he shares his last name with one of the most infamously anti-Semitic Americans in history. But that’s not why mentioning the contentious Internet journalist, who converted to Judaism 15 years ago, gives some Jews the sensation of nails scraping across a chalkboard.

“He’s a lashon hara monger,” said one community leader, who like many agreed to speak only anonymously. “He comes up with the most outrageous conclusions and puts them up on his Web site, passing them off as truth. If a rabbi stands up on the pulpit and says something, by Saturday night it is on [Ford's] Web site, twisted, with his perverted insights, as if it is fool-proof truth.”

But sometimes, Ford is right. And therein lies this tale: what happens when gossip, roundly despised in Jewish law and tradition, turns out to be true and important? What is the difference between making gossip and breaking news? And how, in the brave new world of blogging, do we answer these questions?

There are other big — many bigger — members of the Jewish blogosphere, though they mostly focus on commentary rather than news-breaking. There feeds fill my Google Reader inbox: Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic; Philip Weiss of the anti-Zionist site Mondoweiss; the folks at Jewcy and Tablet and Heeb and Commentary. But then there is Shmarya Rosenberg, who runs the blog FailedMessiah.com and is in a league of his own:

“Shmarya often reminds me of journalism in the old days — when editors would sometimes go at one another physically in the street,” Jonathan D. Sarna, a historian of American Jewry at Brandeis University with expertise in Jewish journalism, wrote in an e-mail message. “I know that he is fiercely hated in some Orthodox circles, but he has had many a scoop, and is certainly THE destination for those who want dirt about Orthodoxy exposed to the world.”

Like Ford, Rosenberg, directs his energy at the Orthodox Jewish community, which, at least for an outsider like me, is much more difficult to cover than other Jewish niches. But, like I was when covering the broader Jewish community, Rosenberg is an insider-outsider.

The blog’s title refers to Rosenberg’s disenfranchisement from the Chabad movement — the Lubavitchers later responded by excommunicating him — and he achieved broad attention for his blogging on the Agriprocessors scandal.

I’m not sure what was the impetus, because FailedMessiah has been big for a while now and I know of no recent major scoop, but The New York Times gave Rosenberg a favorable profile this weekend under the able direction of Samuel G. Freedman, who knows a thing or two about Jews vs. Jews. That’s where I found the above quote from Sarna, who was always my go-to source for a perspective on American Jewish history. More from Freedman:

Blogging on the site FailedMessiah.com, Mr. Rosenberg, 51, has transmuted a combination of muckraking reporting and personal grudge into a must-read digest of the actual and alleged misdeeds of the ultra-Orthodox world. He has broken news about sexual misconduct, smear campaigns and dubious business practices conducted by or on behalf of stringently religious Jews.

Operating thousands of miles from the centers of ultra-Orthodox Judaism in Brooklyn and Jerusalem, waking at 3:30 a.m. and working a dozen hours at a stretch in an apartment cluttered with books, Mr. Rosenberg has had his scoops cited by The Wall Street Journal, Columbia Journalism Review, PR Week and Gawker. The national Jewish newspaper The Forward listed him among the 50 most influential American Jews, and the hip, cheeky magazine Heeb put him in its top 100.

And somewhat regularly, Mr. Rosenberg’s in-box brims with missives like this recent one: “what happened to you when you were young that you are so anti ‘haredi’ were you abused or molested, you are as false and krum as they come, you are not helping anybody with your negative bent. You wanna bring out sad occurrences in the community, im not sure that its your business to do that, there is such a thing called tznius. And to belittle gedolim whole sale just proves that you are insane.”

If you need a Hebrew and Yiddish glossary to fully fathom the diss — “krum” means “crooked,” “haredi” means “fervently Orthodox,” “tznius” is “modesty” and the “gedolim” are the great rabbis — then you have some sense of the almost claustrophobically inward community that Mr. Rosenberg chronicles.

Not to discount the appreciation readers probably felt for Freedman explaining terms they almost certainly aren’t familiar with, but now you know Rosenberg is big. The God Blog, and its creator, didn’t make either of those lists.

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  • Jerry

    This story reinforces my sense that for some time now bloggers are functioning as reporters who can get scoops. The missing functions are too often fact checking the scoop and editing the result.

  • Jon in the Nati

    This story reinforces my sense that for some time now bloggers are functioning as reporters who can get scoops. The missing functions are too often fact checking the scoop and editing the result.

    Yeah, pretty much. A blogger, in many ways, is basically a journalist who is not bound by traditional rules of journalism (unless, of course, they choose to be). They get the ‘scoop’ and pass it on, without any responsibility for accuracy or presentation because, hey, they’re not journalists.


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