Confessions of a Frustrated TV Consultant

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Yaakov Menken’s recent postings (which I just saw, having returned from my son’s wedding and related festivities) set off a cascade of inner reactions.

If you are at all a public figure here in LA, you have to try hard to ward off the invitations to comment to and consult for media. They often come back to haunt you. I have tried (usually successfully) to do the opposite of what many of my neighbors here are doing. They work feverishly to get as many “credits” as possible; I try stipulating that my name should be left out. Occasionally, there is a slip-up, and some gracious director figures that I have spurned the limelight out of a sense of rabbinic humility, and puts my name in anyway. He thinks he is doing me some sort of favor. Mercifully, Divine providence has insured that they usually misspell my name, so nobody finds out about it, and my kids can still find shidduchim (matches).

The worst case I can remember is a constant source of irritation. I have been told that the single most popular segment of the Discovery Channel concerns the Bible Codes. They continue to use it as a favorite rerun. Travelers on Jet Blue alleviate transcontinental boredom by watching it on their personal TV consoles. As a result, every few weeks, different people walk over to me and say, “Hey, rabbi! I saw you on TV last night!”

Small problem. What they see me say was the polar opposite of what I actually said in the taping. How it happened demonstrates some important realities about the news business and our role in it.

I was approached by someone whom I had known for years, since he had previously been employed by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, where my day-job tends to reside. I had little to no reason not to trust him – or so I thought. Nonetheless, before I dragged my friend Dr Barry Simon into an interview, we insisted on a meeting in which the production company outlined just how objective it intended to be. They had done their homework, and it seemed like a good bet.

To some people, so does putting their life’s savings on red at the roulette wheel. Not a good policy for success. Neither was mine. I taped for two hours. The questions were right on target, and I got to say exactly what I wanted. I was allowed to retape any response that I was not happy with.

Now, I happen to be an implacable foe of the use of so-called Bible Codes in the world of kiruv (outreach). No, I have no doubts that G-d intertwined many levels of deep meaning in His Torah. It is not the existence of “codes” or messages I object to. What I have little doubt about is that the authors of a particular paper claiming to demonstrate one type of code as meeting the requirements of scientific “proof” were not even close. Trying to “prove” Torah by using scientific proof is anathema to me hashkafically, and doubly so if the science will ultimately be unseated (as actually happened in subsequent articles and studies.) To me (and to a number of gedolei Yisrael (Torah sages) I consulted with), it was not kosher to use falsehood even for the purpose of kiruv.

This is not the place to dredge up an old discussion. (Don’t take the bait!) It is all a matter or record. What happened next is interesting no matter what you believe about the Codes.

When the show aired, it included some great footage of me – all saying what I did not believe. How did they do this? They slipped in one question: How do you explain what your opponents believe? I answered it – and spent the rest of the interview demonstrating why I felt it was all incorrect. They then stripped the question, and discarded every bit of the interview, except my explanations of the other side! Effectively, they presented me as an advocate for the position that I rejected in toto.

What have I learned from this? Certainly, I am more careful. But there is no way that I have found that will give me the control that I want – none that the papers or radio stations or networks will live with. I have learned as well about the power of the visual media. People remember seeing you on TV months later, even if they saw you on an off-the-beaten-track venue. (Most people who’ve approached me about the Codes program didn’t remember what I said, Baruch Hashem. They did remember seeing an Orthodox Jew on the air who seemed upbeat and articulate.) There is a power in TV that we should try to use to our advantage, if there is a way to do it without compromising ourselves.

Have I given up on giving interviews? No, and here’s why. They get me wrong much of the time. Let’s be conservative, and call it one third of the time. Two thirds of the time, I can contribute something accurate about Torah and traditional Jews. If they don’t come to me, they will go to someone outside our community, who will get it wrong 100% of the time, or close to it. I see it as a net gain. I may be wrong. Time (and our readers) will tell.

Meanwhile, I wait to see what ABC’s 20/20 will do in a few weeks with the two hours of time I gave them regarding the Kabbalah Center. I tried explaining that Kabbalah is not hocus-pocus, but an honored part of Torah She-B’al-Peh (the Oral Law). I explained what deep questions it answers, but how the answers require living a Torah life-style to understand them properly. I showed how practices like scanning the Zohar with one’s fingers or drinking water that had absorbed the energy of the Kabbalah Center were illegitimate. I pointed to where interested people can go to find a legitimate introduction to Kabbalah, such as the writings of Rav Aryeh Kaplan z”l. In short, I tried to defend the honor of Torah. The rest is in their hands.

I can hardly wait to find out what I said.

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9 Responses

  1. Michael says:

    Malcolm, maybe you should read this article. It will explain the problem.

    If you purchased something from the Center then you were, according to the magazine, ripped-off. According to the article, the Kaballah Center advertises on web sites, looking for ghostwriters to write those “kabbalah” books. The red string they sell for $26 can be bought in Israel for a buck.

  2. malcolm says:

    As a cold black man from the deep south, I’ve taken two courses at the Kabbalah Centre here in LA. No, I don’t buy the water nor do I wear the red string. But I have been exposed to “ideas” and “points of view” that I would never have been offered by, I think, an orthodox Jewish person as yourself.

    I’ve read several Kabbalah books, both purchased at the center and outside. The information seems very consistent with the Luria flavor of Kabbalah provided at the center.

    I’m amazed that as a Jew you would object to what the center is doing, and that is educating people. Yeah, they have bills to pay, I’ve seen no-one twisting any arms. If they were Presbyterian, no one would say a word.

    I know for me, the lessons have really widened my prospective on many things in life, especially my opinions of other peoples’ points of view. I respect everyone’s right to believe, what they believe, with out judgement. What ever works for you, is good for you, as long as you’re not hurting anyone else.

    Please explain something to me, Why is teaching jews and gentiles a practice of helping others and not thinking only of yourself such a threat?

  3. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    Shira –

    Back in the ‘50’s, shows came equipped with the slogan, “This show was prerecorded.” By now, all viewers have long learned that the only programming that is not prerecorded is live sports (if you discount the six second delay for the unexpected.) Airing at a different time is simply not a possibility for network television. I have gone the announcement route when I thought it was necessary, and when I could get away with it. I had a radio program that ran for a while. I couldn’t show up on Yom Tov; the station wanted to rerun a previously taped segment. I was successful in having them announce its prerecording. The only time I got away with it on TV was when a large station couldn’t find a seder to transmit from live in the evening. I allowed them to shoot the set table in the afternoon, with a few talking heads explaining the importance of Pesach, with the proviso that they include the warning you suggested. They were desperate enough to do it.

    Edvallace –
    My experience is that most journalists have a really hard time with allowing the interviewee some final say in the piece. So it becomes a negotiating item. If they want you badly enough, some will do it. It helps to have a relationship with them (which grows out of enough experience with you that they trust you not to make unreasonable demands) from years of NOT making your suggested request! Often, they will meet you half way, and agree to read back to you any verbatim quotes they are attributing to you. This works imperfectly, but is better than nothing.

    One bargaining chip I use works this way: I offer them a choice. I will speak off the record, and walk away from the interview. Or I will allow them to use a quote – but only if I am given the opportunity to vet it before publication.

  4. Edvallace says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein,

    I imagine you’re smart enough to have figured out what I’ve done in this situation and maybe it doesn’t work for you but anytime I’m interviewed by the press I stipulate that I must sign off on the finished version before they can use it. Some have refused to agree to that citing any number of reasons and that’s fine with me. Let them go find someone else. Sometimes it’s been agreed to and then we can work together. Until I learned to do so, I got zapped twice and that’s when I decided that I’d had enough. Perhaps thiss wouldn’t work for you but unless you try you’ll never know.

    Hatzlachah!

  5. Shira Schmidt says:

    Friday night 10 b’Sivan ?!? Rabbi Adlerstein said the segment will be shown Friday night June 17. This reminds me of an Israeli Supreme Court “bagatz” case a few years ago when Israeli Tv filmed a segment involving observant people and planned to air it on Shabbat. The Shabbat-observers objected to their interview being included, and eventually won the case, although several judges ruled against them. There are some shomrei-Shabbat who allow themselves to be filmed and shown on Shabbat, on the condition that there appear a caption “this was not filmed on Shabbat.” I realize the situation in the US is different since the overwhelming number of viewers (I wish it were all viewers) will be non-Jews. I thought Rabbi Adlerstein’s point about the Benefit/Cost ratio of doing the segment with the entailing risks; but I wonder what the Rabbi’s thinking is on this issue. Is it possible to have some disclaimer like the aforementioned caption? Or ask them to reschedule the episode?

  6. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    Manny – You better wait! I conveniently left out the airing time, since none of our readers should be watching it. It is scheduled for Friday night, June 17th

    Sarah – That’s the point. There are no grounds whatsoever for a suit. You can’t sue someone for deceiving you. There is no legal recourse that I know of.

  7. Greg says:

    My perception and experience is that reporters, journalists, filmakers, etc. know what they want to say, they just want someone else to say it for them. It doesn’t matter to them the context or the vehicle, just that their point is made, which is unfortuneate. Hopefully the Kaballah program will work out better.

  8. sarah elias says:

    Why didn’t you threaten to sue Discovery for distorting your words? Maybe you could have forced them to redo the segment and saved your reputation.

  9. manny says:

    When does the 20/20 episode air? I can’t wait. Oh, and by the way, I hope there’s enough room on your porch for a severed non-kosher animal head.