I lost a good friend and brother-in-law the other day. He fell to cancer. It was a type of cancer that isn’t sudden or dramatic. It worked slowly, almost methodically, taking one part of him after another and it never really stopped. All the remedies from hyper-baric chambers to chemo to gene therapy all seemed so promising. They all failed.
Josh Mitnick was a reporter. By all accounts a good one. He wrote for the Wall Street Journal, the LA Times, the Christian Science Monitor and like many journalists today for lots of other publications, both big and small. He had to hustle to make it work. Josh lived in Tel Aviv and focused on the Middle East. His strengths as a journalist and writer fit that complex region well. Josh didn’t distill everything into a soundbite, he didn’t cut everything down to this side or that. Instead, Josh always seemed to pack way more into his column inches than seemed possible. He tried to tell the whole story. He packed more of everything into all parts of his life.
Josh grew up in Highland Park and was valedictorian of his high school. He went to University of Michigan, became managing editor of the Michigan Daily, and told his little sister that walking the same halls where 1960s political activist Tom Hayden edited the Daily was a legacy he took seriously. Josh felt he had a responsibility to live up to the legacy and history of that newspaper and to journalism as a profession. Josh loved politics and thought he might become a political scientist but soon realized he loved journalism more. He might have left New Jersey early, but it didn’t leave him.
Many mornings I would wake up to a text or email or What’s App from Josh asking me about the latest Chris Christie YouTube explosion. He knew, even from far away, that at one time Christie was a magic politician. He also sensed, way before most, that the magic wasn’t real and wouldn’t last. He followed all the New Jersey reporters and would send articles by Max or Tom or Charlie or Dustin or David or Brent or one of the many Matts (Josh, would be the first to point out that isn’t exactly a diverse brotherhood) and ask what I thought of them. He was always ready with the “what about?” or the “do you think?” Sometimes he asked so many thought- provoking questions I wasn’t sure what to think about. Josh didn’t settle for the first answer. He was always looking for some deeper truth to talk about. That is what made him a good reporter. The truth mattered. Finding it mattered. And he gently and kindly asked questions until he got it.
As Josh’s disease progressed people asked us if they might come back to the states for treatment. Ultimately, the decision to stay in Israel was a no brainer. Israel has national healthcare that is as good or better than anything he could get in the states. Coming home likely meant piecing together freelance jobs with no health benefits. Plus, newspapers don’t hire 45-year-old reporters today, they barely hire anyone. Those that they do hire are constantly asked to do more with less. The market says clicks are more valuable than words and you better get to the point fast. That wasn’t Josh, ever, in anything. Josh was a 7-minute Grateful Dead song, not one-minute, one-hit one-click wonder.
Watching media die hurts. It isn’t sudden or dramatic. It is slow and methodical and every day we lose a little bit more of it. We hear new remedies all the time. Make papers nonprofits. Get private endowments to fund for news coverage. Sell public television stations to better fund local media. Merge back-office functions and differentiate on content. These remedies all seem so promising. They all failed or are failing. The latest idea is unionizing reporters. North Jersey reporters did it and look for a recent Facebook post by Mike Davis of the Asbury Park Press if you want to see a passionate argument for reporter unionization. Will this remedy succeed? Man, I hope so.
The world is a better place when people like Josh dig for truth and fight to bring it life. It isn’t a nicer or easier world, but it is more honest and more real. People say they are craving authenticity, honesty, something real. Real reporters can give us that, but constant attacks on journalism make that difficult for most people to believe. Unfortunately, the people making those attacks go after unions in the same way. They will use unionization as a whipping post to flog, as if being in a union automatically means you must be a far-left activist. The attackers are wrong on all fronts but that doesn’t mean the attacks won’t be made.
On the other hand, if you look for obits about Josh Mitnick in the Jerusalem Post, Times of Israel, Haaretz you can see how Josh formed a union, a connection, a bond with his fellow reporters. The Jerusalem Post article quotes a friend from the Christian Science Monitor;
“(Josh) was an incredibly talented journalist, and one of those rare people who does great reporting not by being aggressive and pushy, but by being everything a journalist should be caring, compassionate and curious about the world.”
We are lucky that we have great reporters in New Jersey, and at least for political coverage, they are making a tenacious go of it. But there aren’t nearly enough of them and because of that there is no doubt that many, many truths get missed. We need to add more reporters to the mix because that means we miss less. I don’t have a cure to save media. No one had a cure to save Josh. So right now, just missing less seems like the best we can hope for.
Matthew Hale is professor of political science at Seton Hall University.