How Yediot America Covered Its Biggest Story
By Oren Yaniv
The arrest of scores of young Israelis after September 11 made headlines in Israel and shattered many Israelis' perceptions of American civil rights. They also made a peripheral community newspaper, Yediot America, a central channel of information. "The disaster gave us a relevance we never had before," said the editor, Ronen Tal.
The paper, a weekend supplement to the American edition of Yediot Achronot, Israel's largest daily, is going through a renaissance. Based in Kew Gardens, Queens, Yediot America has a circulation of about 55,000 in the United States, including 15,000 in New York City. It began covering the story a week after the planes struck, reporting on movers who were arrested and accused first of terrorist activity and later for working without permits.
The story developed during November when an estimated 100 Israelis, who were selling toys in booths at shopping malls throughout the nation were arrested on similar charges. "The amazing thing," Tal said, "is that Israelis are being charged for terrorist attacks committed by Muslims." Referring to the terrorist attacks on America and in Israel, he added, "We are victims like you."
The charges were eventually dropped, and the men and women, mostly in their early 20s, were released or deported. News of the arrests spurred many Israelis to leave the country, said Hadar Shoshani, until recently the Baltimore district manager for a company named Overbreak.
The story was reported back in Israel, said Tal, 40, who has been editing the paper for almost two years. Israeli news media started using reporters from the publication, which "used to have a peripheral existence," he said. "It gave us an identity."
Yediot Achronot has been distributed in the United States for 13 years and its American affiliate has gradually grown into a comprehensive publication for Hebrew-speaking people in the U.S. An issue typically includes the latest gossip from an embassy dinner party, interviews with aspiring actors performing off-off-off Broadway, and the life philosophy of a club promoter. Suddenly, because of September 11 and its aftermath, Yediot America faced a complicated and multi-faceted story.
Were there difficulties? "Yes," Tal answered flatly. "At every stage, the American law agencies did not cooperate and did not share information, and some of it was intentional." Tal described an incident when Yediot America reporters arrived at a federal detention facility in Brooklyn, and FBI agents politely sent them away.
The next day, an FBI agent arrived at the home of photographer Yaacov Kazma, to follow up a guard's report that Kazma appeared to look like a dark Pakistani. Kazma, whose family is from Iraq, said the agent "was pretty embarrassed by the whole ordeal."
"I would use words like panic and paranoia" to describe the government's reaction in these cases, said Tal, who has been living here since 1993. "Most of the detained Muslims are probably innocent, too, and it looks wrong."
Israeli authorities also created obstacles, Tal said. "The various consulates, in Chicago, here in New York and in Philadelphia, could not do much but there was a demand to deal with it." He said consulate officials declined comment because they were reluctant to appear helpless or to defend people who had, in fact, broken the law. "All they usually want is their names in the paper," he remarked, "but this time they realized it's damaging for them."
The paper reported on the lack of cooperation in a very critical article that accused the consulates of valuing contacts over qualifications when hiring and of providing inadequate service.
Overall, the story of the detentions after September 11th was the biggest story Yediot America ever covered and Tal, who directs three full-time and five freelance reporters, said they would continue covering the story. In a tiny room at the far end of the paper's plain but bustling office, he reflected on the coverage during the past two months. "It restored my sense of being a journalist," he said.