From the Gray Lady to Columbia U

Professor Ari Goldman
Professor Ari Goldman

An interview with Professor Ari L. Goldman 

From a young age, Professor Ari L. Goldman felt that journalism was his calling. After 20 years with The New York Times, Prof. Goldman has spent the last 20 years teaching his trade at Columbia University.

It was 10:15 a.m. as I bounded up the steps of the 116th St. and Broadway subway stop, a few minutes late for my interview with Prof. Ari L. Goldman. Rushing through Columbia University’s square, I quickly passed by the manicured lawns and monumental structures that make up the main campus, and a few minutes later found myself in Prof. Goldman’s light-filled and book-lined office on the sixth floor of the Columbia School of Journalism or, as it’s known, the j-school.

For 20 years, Prof. Goldman worked as a reporter at The New York Times, covering local and state issues and later working as a religion writer. In 1985, while at the Times, he took a year off to study at Harvard University, penning The Search for G-d at Harvard in 1991, a best-selling book about his experience. It was Prof. Goldman who wrote the Times’ obituary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt”l, as well as Harav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, zt”l, and Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, z”l. When he left the paper in 1993 he came to Columbia University to teach a new generation of reporters, and today he is the director of the Scripps Howard Program in Religion, Journalism and the Spiritual Life at Columbia.

Prof. Goldman’s office in Pulitzer Hall is smaller than I had expected, but inviting. The wall behind his desk is dominated by a large window, allowing the room to be flooded with natural light. Almost anywhere else I look I see shelves packed with books, among them Prof. Goldman’s own — The Search for G-d at Harvard, Being Jewish, and Living a Year of Kaddish — as well as many other Jewish and non-Jewish volumes. Behind me is an old Vilna Shas. “It was my father’s,” explains Prof. Goldman when he sees me eying it.

Life at Home

“I was born in Hartford, Connecticut,” he begins. “My parents divorced when I was six years old and after that my two brothers and I moved with my mother to Queens; I grew up there and in Manhattan. At first I studied at Dov Revel, then RJJ (Rabbi Jacob Joseph School) on the Lower East Side, and finally the Crown Heights Mesivta under Rabbi Chaim Segal, z”l.”

Prof. Goldman explains that he was very much affected by his uncle — his late mother’s sister’s husband — Rabbi Norman Lamm, the past president of Yeshiva University and the school’s outgoing chancellor. “I’m very close to YU. While I don’t claim to represent YU — I represent myself — I was certainly influenced very much by my uncle and by YU.”

As a child from a divorced home, his youth was a turbulent one and because of that, his grades in school suffered. Writing eloquently in The Search for G-d at Harvard, Prof. Goldman explains that those who divorce neglect to consider the opinions of the people who will be most affected by the split: the children.

“But didn’t my parents spare me an unhappy home where fighting and angry confrontation were the mode of communication?” writes Prof. Goldman. “I believe not. I believe that they — as incompatible as they were and remain today — could have learned to stop shouting or slamming doors. At least they could have learned all that more easily than I learned to be a child of divorce.”

Professor Goldman at a speaking engagement in New Jersey last year. (Debra Rubin, New Jersey Jewish News)
Professor Goldman at a speaking engagement in New Jersey last year. (Debra Rubin, New Jersey Jewish News)

A Subway Discovery

As a 12-year-old boy growing up in Jackson Heights, Queens, Prof. Goldman would take the two-hour-long round-trip subway ride to and from RJJ in Manhattan. It was on those rides that he began picking up and reading discarded newspapers — the New York World-Telegram, the Daily Mirror or the New York Journal-American. The New York Herald Tribune was his favorite. Through the pages of those now-defunct newspapers, the boy learned about the Nixon-Kennedy presidential campaign of 1960 and the great Space Race that had begun with the Soviet Union. It was the start of a lifelong love for newspapers and a passion for journalism.

Today Prof. Goldman is a sort of news junkie, reading newspapers from around the world and from different communities on a daily basis. When I interviewed him on a Wednesday morning, he had by that time already read the weekly edition of Hamodia, which he had received that morning.

“I once heard… that a woman cannot pass a shoe store without looking in the window,” Prof. Goldman said during a presentation to a group of reporters. “Well, I cannot pass a newsstand without buying a newspaper.”

Although he struggled through school, Prof. Goldman was accepted to Yeshiva University where he studied English, simultaneously learning in the pre-semichah program at Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan (RIETS). But more than his classes, what really interested him was the school’s student newspaper, the YU Commentator.

“I enjoyed writing from a very young age,” Prof. Goldman tells me, “and I was successful at it. I expressed myself well and got a lot of positive feedback. In YU, I began writing for the college paper and when I was a sophomore I wrote an article about The New York Times’s campus stringer at Yeshiva University. When he graduated he recommended me for the job.”

Campus stringers were students at universities who would report stories of interest that were happening on campus. In large part due to the student riots and protests that were affecting many universities in the tumultuous late 60s, knowing what was going on at any particular university campus was of interest to the newspapers. When Prof. Goldman wrote an article explaining why the Times wanted a stringer at YU’s campus, he got noticed.

“There was a yeshivah student who was on a plane that was hijacked, so I wrote about that. Most of the stories I wrote for them were about Judaism, student demonstrations and Soviet Jewry.”

The New York Times building in Manhattan. (shutterstock)
The New York Times building in Manhattan. (shutterstock)

‘All the News That’s Fit to Print’

Graduating from YU in 1971, Prof. Goldman got a job with The New York Times as a copyboy, “which is the lowest level in the newsroom. They had these big Gutenberg presses then, and the copyboys would go running each time a reporter or editor called out ‘copy!’ When I was there, it was right before computers came into the newsroom so we had 30 copyboys on the night shift. Today there are two.”

After leaving to attend the Columbia School of Journalism — where he was particularly affected by one of his teachers, Melvin Mencher — and graduating with the class of ’73, Prof. Goldman came back to the Times. Initially only rehired as a copyboy, he soon became the clerk for A.M. Rosenthal, the celebrated executive editor of the Times, and in 1975 was promoted to reporter.

Throughout his time at the paper, Prof. Goldman tried to the best of his ability to stay true to his Orthodox roots, something that was sometimes a challenge for him in the high-stress atmosphere of one of the world’s most important newspapers.

While proud of his two decades of work at The New York Times, and of the paper as a whole, Prof. Goldman does point to some events where he felt the Times bent over backwards so much in an attempt to appear evenhanded and objective that the truth was distorted. One such case was the reporting on the infamous 1991 Crown Heights riots.

“I was sent to Crown Heights, where I saw the story unfolding in one way and the Times reporting it a different way. I was one of several reporters there doing the legwork, and while I was seeing blacks rioting in the streets, The New York Times was reporting that blacks and Jews were both rioting in the street. It was almost as if they had a scorecard that they had to keep track of.

“Nowadays reporters can post stories directly from their BlackBerries, but then you had to get to a payphone and give your notes to a rewrite man who would put the story together. I was yelling, ‘Jews aren’t rioting, they’re the victims here!’ And then when the story appeared it would be completely distorted.

“In that case it wasn’t the Jewish side of me being in conflict with the Times; it was the sense of what was right and what was good journalistic process. They eventually did listen and got it right at the end, but it took a few days.”

Entering the Ivory Tower

Prof. Goldman’s office overlooks Columbia University’s beautiful main campus square. On one side of the square rises the granite-domed Low Memorial Library and directly across from it stands the massive, columned Butler Library. Looking down at the calm and collegial grounds, it is hard to believe that they were once the center of the student riots of 1968, when large groups of students occupied a number of university buildings to protest the Vietnam War and other issues. Now in the middle of the summer break, the campus is even quieter than usual.

Prof. Goldman left The New York Times to teach journalism at Columbia in 1993, and has remained there ever since.

If you loved working at The New York Times so much, I ask, why did you leave?

“I left for a variety of reasons. I had a family with three children, thank G-d, and the stress of daily journalism is very great. The hours are unpredictable and I wanted to be there for my children.

“Second was — this might sound funny — by that point I had been there for so long that I felt I was smarter than my editors, who were sometimes relatively new at their jobs. So I left to teach at Columbia.”

At Columbia Prof. Goldman has taught a variety of classes, from magazine writing to a course on covering religion. He finds that instead of decreasing in importance, religion has become an ever more important subject in our post–9/11 world. “It’s become more important in politics, in global conflict, and in the news in general. Religion is a very powerful factor that motivates people’s decisions, and journalists tend to be very cynical and skeptical about it.”

Oftentimes we hear about objectivity and fairness in media, but the results seem to be anything but. Is it possible for objectivity to even exist in the news media?

“Objectivity is an impossible ideal. Of course everyone has their own way of looking at the world and that will come through. Even the way writers will order a story can have some sort of bias; they’ll put one point above the other. But I do think that itpossible to be fair. That’s not to say that both sides are equal; they shouldn’t be. You don’t let the story weigh towards the murderer; it should be towards the victim. But you have to tell the story of the murder, and you have to do it in a way that the story is told honestly.”

The world has changed so much and the way people get their news nowadays is so different than when you were a journalist. How do you keep yourself relevant in this day and age?

“I constantly try to stay in touch with that world and keep up to date with all of the newest innovations. A few years back I spent a summer in The New York Times’s newsroom. I constantly visit newsrooms to see what’s going on and Columbia is a leader when it comes to educating about new technologies.”

The Future of Journalism

With seismic shifts occurring in the world of journalism, and many traditional newspapers and magazines going the way of the telegraph, the future of journalism stands uncertain.

“We’re in the middle of this revolution, and no one knows where it’s going. The newest thing is that people are now receiving the news on their phones and that is actually shaping journalism content. I think we have to be somewhat humble and understand that we really don’t know what the future holds.”

There are, however, aberrations in the general trend towards the new forms of media, and Prof. Goldman points out that Orthodox newspapers such as Hamodia are one of them.

“I think the development of papers such as Hamodia is a very positive one. Observant Jews can read a newspaper that speaks to them and doesn’t distract them with things that they don’t want to read.

“When you go into some communities, you can see how thin and flimsy their newspapers are. Hamodia, on the other hand, is a big, thick paper, full of color and advertisements. Religious Muslims and Christians can always get their news from the internet on Fridays or Sundays, but shomer Shabbos Jews cannot. Observant Jews will always need paper.”

Although it’s the summer and the hallways are relatively empty, I feel that my time is up with Prof. Goldman. Before I leave I ask him if he has any advice to share with Hamodia’s readers.

“The advice I give is to do something you love. Being an observant Jew shouldn’t restrict you; it should challenge you to share what you have with the world, to be an or lagoyim — a light unto the nations — not just within our own community, but to bring the beauty to the outside world as well.”