Paper Chase

Having grown up Jewish in Dallas, I rarely read the Texas Jewish Post--OK, one time when my sister got married and the newspaper ran her picture, and another time after I had heard a rumor that the weekly had extended birthday wishes in its pages to a dead guy. It seemed like such an antiquated rag, a poorly pieced-together hodgepodge of Israeli boosterism and community gossip. Its better features were straight off the Jewish wire (Jewish Telegraphic Agency); its editorials were indistinguishable from its news stories; its endless listings of life-cycle events seemed a trivial chronicle of local Jewish life.

And my parents loved it.

Sitting on their kitchen countertop every Friday for more than 40 years, next to the coffeepot and the stale box of matzo, was the Texas Jewish Post. For them, it offered a sense of community, connective tissue between the layers of their Jewishness--chicken soup for their soul. Once every decade or so, I might peruse its pages, amazed that it continued to be in business, surprised that it looked and felt and read the same.

Why I glanced at the September 7, 2000, edition, I don't recall. But beneath the fold in bold red print was the headline, "Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas Declares War on TJP: Imports New Jewish Weekly."

Apparently, the Dallas Federation, the powerful fundraising arm of the Jewish community (a.k.a. the Jewish mafia--using guilt not guns to separate donors from their money) felt that after 54 years, the Texas Jewish Post was no longer serving the needs of the local Jewish population. It had organized a newspaper committee to study those needs and, based on the committee's findings, induced the for-profit Washington Jewish Week to begin a sister paper in Dallas. According to the article, the federation guaranteed the new paper, Dallas Jewish Week, at least 6,000 subscribers, access to its prized mailing list of donors, and "bountiful" advertising revenue. The Texas Jewish Post claimed this arrangement was "an open attack for the subjugation and demise" of the newspaper. Yet even as the newspaper accused federation officials of deceit, favoritism, unfair competition, and "chutzpah a la carte," it praised Stephen Waldman, the organization's president, as a "fine young man whose bar mitzvah story and photo the TJP printed some decades ago."

Despite the folksy asides and the blatant editorializing in what was billed as a feature story, the author (also the editor and publisher) Jimmy Wisch raised some provocative questions. What business did federation--a kind of Jewish United Way--have going into the newspaper business? It was a charitable organization, a vital, effective fundraiser not only for Israel but also for dozens of needy organizations within the local community. Even if federation honestly believed that the Dallas Jewish community needed a better newspaper, why should it allocate donor dollars to help a private enterprise generate a profit? How could this new paper, billed by the federation as an independent voice, critically report on the federation when the paper owed its very existence to the organization? Could any Jewish newspaper, for that matter, truly operate independently when it attempted to serve both the community and the truth?

When I phone Jimmy Wisch for an interview, Rene, his wife (also his managing editor, co-publisher, and staff writer), takes the call in their Fort Worth office:

"Mrs. Wisch, my name is Mark Donald, and I am a writer with the Dallas Observer, and I read your husband's article about the newspaper war, and I would like to do a story for my...."

"Is Ann Donald your mother?"

"Yes," I say, instantly reduced to adolescence.

"So, how is she?" She spoke with a deep, scratchy voice. East Coast accent.

"Fine, fine. Is your husband there?"

"Yes, I'm sure he would like to speak with you."

She puts me on hold, but only for a beat.

"Jimmy Wisch." He sounds just like her. Tough, throaty.

I begin my spiel again, telling him that I think this is a story of general interest--how this same Jewish newspaper battle has been fought in major cities across the country, and wondering why he thinks the federation is trying to run him out of business.

"Are you Martin Donald's boy?" he asks.

This is going to be harder than I thought. "Yes. I'd like to come over and interview you."

"It's a classic David and Goliath story."

"That sounds great."

"Not to me!" he shouts.

"How about tomorrow? Are you free?"

"Tomorrow is bad. We go to press on our Rosh Hashana issue tomorrow."

"You publish for the high holidays?"

"Fifty-four years, every week. I never missed an issue."

"Well, Thursday then. That way I can tell my editor right off if the story is a short news piece or a longer feature."

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Mark Donald
Contact: Mark Donald