David Simon doesn’t mince words when discussing President Donald Trump’s disdain for the media. He calls it “the rhetoric of straight-up fascism.”
“It’s beyond anything even the most frustrated American president has ever indulged in,” says Simon, 57, a former Baltimore Sun reporter and creator of such acclaimed TV shows as “The Wire” and “Homicide: Life on the Street.” “Even at the height of his alienation from the press, Richard Nixon never got to that point. He never declared reporters to be the enemy of the state. We had to leave that for this man.”
On Saturday afternoon, Nov. 4, Simon will kick off a four-part speakers series at Reservoir Hill’s historic Beth Am Synagogue titled “Press Freedoms Under Siege: The First Amendment & the Jewish Commandments.”
The series will feature four journalists talking about media coverage during the Trump era and how Jewish values impact their reporting.
Simon will be the inaugural speaker, followed on Dec. 2 by Ben Jacobs, a political reporter for The Guardian. Jacobs made national headlines last May after being assaulted by a Republican congressional candidate in Montana. Jacobs’ glasses — which he donated to The Newseum in Washington, D.C. — were broken during the attack.
Rachel Fishman Feddersen, publisher and CEO at The Forward in New York, will speak on Jan. 6, and Robert Blau, a Bloomberg News editor, will close out the series with his talk on March 3..
“The critique I hope we get into talking about [during the series] is the idea that defending open speech isn’t a left or right thing,” says Simon. “It’s fundamental to understanding what tools people have in a republic, and this is the most important one. This is relevant to any community in America right now. We should all be talking about this.”
Last February, Simon and his Blown Deadline Productions organized and hosted a fundraiser at Beth Am protesting Trump’s controversial travel ban. Approximately 900 people attended the program, which featured speeches by Black Lives Matter activist Deray McKesson and Grammy Award-winning folk singer/songwriter Steve Earle.
Beth Am’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg, says the congregation is delighted to present the “Press Freedoms Under Siege” series.
“These are real superstars in the field who can speak to these current issues,” he says. “While there has always been a certain amount of tension between government and the media, this level of animosity is really a foreboding sign of the state of the country. It seems like an urgent consideration to talk about the importance of a free press.”
Rabbi Burg says his congregants felt the subject matter of the series was particularly crucial at this time in American history.
“I hope we are able to give voice to concerns, challenge some assumptions and shine a spotlight on four extraordinary individuals who have something to say,” he says. “We are looking to answer two primary questions with the series — one is to identify the underlying Jewish values and principles that inform how we think about free speech and freedom of the press. The second is to learn how these individuals relate to their work through their own Jewish experiences, upbringing, backgrounds.”
All four speakers have ties to Beth Am. While Simon and Blau are congregants, Feddersen and Jacobs grew up attending the synagogue.
Although the series is free and open to the public, an RSVP is required. Each journalist will speak on their allotted Saturday after worship services and a kiddush lunch.
“Shabbat is a good time for this to take place because our community is coming together to think about meaning,” says Rabbi Burg. “That’s why people come to shul — to infuse meaning into their lives. We hope using this time in the afternoon after kiddush will elevate people’s consciousness and add to their Shabbat experience.”
While recognizing the importance of other matters taking place in American society today — such as health care, gun control and immigration – Rabbi Burg says he believes “many other things quickly become very vulnerable” if freedom of the press is endangered.
“Having a media that is able to do their job unconstrained and not vilified in the halls of power is good for a free society,” he says. “As Jews, I think our people in particular know what it’s like to suffer under autocratic regimes that limit the flow of information and freedom of the press.”
Simon says he feel the freedom of the press is a right that everyone should cherish and work to preserve. “The only way you can protect freedom of speech is by utilizing it,” he says. “If it’s not exercised as a matter of routine, it becomes vulnerable.”
Aliza Friedlander is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.
Top Photo: David Simon
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