By Michael Miner
Who is David Bright? He's a man of mystery, an Orthodox Jew with a restaurant and bakery on Devon Avenue who dropped out of sight last month after the federal government accused him of laundering $2 million in drug proceeds.
When Bright vanished and his Nosh Stop restaurant closed, people began to talk. The talk didn't have to travel beyond Chicago's Jewish community to reach a young and exceptional weekly paper, the Chicago Jewish News.
"We got a call from somebody in the community who gave us a vague notion of rumors going around involving David Bright," editor and publisher Joseph Aaron told me. "We started doing some reporting, and one thing led to another. When we really knew we had something was when two of the most prominent rabbis in the community heard we were working on the story and called me begging me not to pursue it. They felt it was bad for the community, that it would be washing dirty linen in public."
Aaron is an Orthodox Jew himself. He's also every inch a journalist. His only apprehension about the Bright story was that he'd be beaten to it. "We wanted to get it in as soon as possible out of the feeling that we were going to get scooped. So we put everything aside and had everybody on the staff working on it. It was very intense. I'm telling you, every day I would open the Sun-Times and Tribune with dread, thinking they would have that story. A week never seemed so long before we went to press."
The Chicago Jewish News broke the story on May 24 in a big way: under the headline "Unkosher Behavior" a picture of Bright covered the front page. Who is David Bright? He's a face on the front page of the Chicago Tribune of June 6. Aaron didn't just get his scoop--he got it by nearly two weeks.
The Tribune, in fact, went to work on its account after reading the Jewish News's.
It's a pretty fascinating story. The Jewish News described Bright's origins in England, his arrival here in 1994, his work as a mashgiach--overseer of Jewish dietary laws--at a Michigan Avenue hotel, his business ventures in Chicago and Skokie, his donation of prayer books to Bnei Ruven Congregation. But the paper's focus was on the investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration; on Bright's arrest at La Guardia Airport on April 8, when he was about to fly here with a briefcase that allegedly contained $200,000 in cash; on his release and return to Chicago; on speculation that he "sang like a bird" and in return was taken into the government's witness-protection program. But this wasn't the only speculation the Jewish News passed along. On May 9, the day Bright disappeared from Chicago, his brother Alan, a rabbi, vanished in Medellin, Colombia, and there were rumors that one or both Brights had been murdered.
From a point of view more likely to be held by readers of the Chicago Jewish News than by readers of the Chicago Tribune, all this amounted to what Aaron called "dirty linen." He heard from so many readers who reacted along these lines that he devoted a portion of his column in the next issue to educating them on journalism's facts of life. "A Jewish newspaper, if it takes its job seriously, plays a unique role in the Jewish community, as tellers of truth, as the one institution with no agenda other than the truth," Aaron wrote. "We believe a newspaper does the community no favor, and no good, by filling its pages with puff and feel-good stories...
"It is almost always better for a newspaper to report what it knows. Keeping information away from the public may seem to serve some immediate goal for those who wish to deny reality, but concealing acts almost always leads to something worse."
Rabbi Asher Lopatin of the Orthodox Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel Congregation in Lakeview admires the Jewish News, but he gave me some idea of what troubled some Jews about the David Bright story.
"The guy hasn't been found guilty," Lopatin said. "They thought it was a little unfair. This is a poor guy with a family, a wife [who disappeared with Bright]. This was more like gossip, because it wasn't as big a news story anywhere else. The value of the story was, wow! He was a guy in our community, and he had a store in our community with kosher supervision. So the value of it in our community was a gossip value, and it was wrong to gossip.
"Unless it's a case where someone might be harmed, you're not allowed to speak ill of anyone else. It's worse if you're lying, but definitely, even if it's true. It's really considered a Torah violation, except in the case where there's some need for it."
Lopatin admitted that this is "one of the least observed laws, even less than not wearing woolens and linen. But it's talked about a lot, so people know about it."
And Avrom Fox, owner of Rosenblum's World of Judaica on Devon and another admirer of Aaron's paper, said, "If it had been about a wealthy Jew living in Lake Forest I'm not sure there would have been any newsworthiness. The fact it was a practicing Orthodox Jew living in Rogers Park caused the excitement. A lot of people wondered why he went to town with the subject."
As tends to happen with journalists, Aaron and his critics have been talking past each other. Aaron went to town with the story because of its news value. He explained to me, "If the guy was not Jewish but ran kosher restaurants it would have been a story. If the guy was Jewish but didn't run kosher restaurants it would have been a story." Bright was Jewish, owned two kosher places on Devon and another in Skokie, and was active in the community. "It was a quintessential story from the Jewish standpoint."
A Medill graduate, Aaron, who's 40, founded the Jewish News 20 months ago because he believed he'd identified a "gaping hole"--the lack of a paper "practicing real journalism" on behalf of the 260,000 Jews in metropolitan Chicago.
A crucial role of journalism--as we're constantly reminded by critics lamenting the decline of the metropolitan press--is to bring coherence to heterogeneity. "We very much feel one of the weaknesses of the Jewish community is that it's so segmented," Aaron told me. "There's just tremendous divisiveness. Our philosophy is to appeal to all segments of the community. We want to be a central place that gives them all a voice."
Aaron's own column, which in its heart-on-its-sleeve way is one of the most articulate and engaging written in Chicago, is preoccupied with a single theme: tolerance and unity. But on his way to preaching that sermon there's no ox he won't gore. "I bring up issues people in the community have in the back of their heads but nobody has the guts to say it," Aaron said.
Why? I asked.
"There's this notion we ought to have consensus. We shouldn't take a stand unless everybody agrees with it. We're still reacting to the Holocaust--the world is against us, so we ought to stick together. So whenever Israel or any controversial issue comes up, they take a pass. They can't agree, so nobody says anything that isn't just pabulum. There's a word in Hebrew--pareve. What it means is that under the dietary laws certain things are meat or dairy, but things that are pareve are neither. And so much of the Jewish community is just pareve these days."
As the David Bright story revealed. "We've gotten a tremendous amount of reaction--E-mail, phone calls, letters, people on the street. It's been evenly split. Some said, finally Chicago has a quality Jewish newspaper that isn't afraid. A lot of people said, why do you write a story like that? A Jewish paper should be about who's getting a bar mitzvah, hadassah meetings, and kosher recipes. Some believe Jewish weekly should be spelled Jewish w-e-a-k-l-y. To me David Bright is the perfect example of precisely what we should do."
I happened to talk to Aaron the day after the Tribune published its own story on Bright. If in some minds this secular attention validated the lavish Jewish News coverage, in others it made matters worse. "I got a lot of calls yesterday blaming us," Aaron said. "They said if we hadn't run the story then the Tribune wouldn't have."
The staff--the surviving staff--of Advertising Age read with some incredulity a recent column by their leader, Rance Crain. Crain, who's president of Crain Communications Inc. and editor in chief of Ad Age, had taken his weekly space to reflect on family values in big business.
He wrote, "The other week my daughter Cindi and I attended a meeting of the Family Business Council of Greater New York, and I had the opportunity to say a few words about our mission should we choose to accept it. 'Our companies, I deeply believe, are one of the last bastions of caring and humanity in a world where companies only seem to care about the next deal, where employees are bought and sold with the rest of the merchandise.'
"Most family businesses always have known that this callous approach is wrong. We have a special relationship with our employees because they are an extension of our family (warts and all). They sign on with us knowing that a family member will most likely always run the joint and knowing their loyalty counts for a lot. And there's new evidence that all the layoffs that have so disrupted our workplace haven't done much to increase productivity."
Home, as Robert Frost said, is "the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." The office is where, when times are tough, they can boot you out. Crain sounded particularly fatuous overlooking that distinction; 17 months ago, after a decade of dwindling advertising, he laid off nine of Ad Age's editors and reporters, about 16 percent of the editorial workforce. Crain repaid their family loyalty with tough love.
As far as the media were concerned, Princess Di's visit was pure phenomenon. Writers made judgments with a recklessness only permissible when the subject's something insentient--say, a mudslide or tornado. Little of the coverage showed any imagination.
Princess Di would be trashed--"Shallow as a pan of milk and intellectually thick as a plank" (Ellen Warren, Tribune). She would be fawned over--"Her full-length purple gown hugged every royal curve (and showed off those perfectly toned shoulders and arms). But all in perfectly good taste" (Maureen Jenkins, Sun-Times). She would be beatified--"I touched her hand and I got a little bit of pain out of me already" (gunshot victim quoted in the Sun-Times).
Coverage of her would be trashed--"Some blond bimbo marries an inbred freak who can't stop falling off his polo pony and these idiots at Channel 2 give her limo helicopter coverage?" (Mike Royko, quoting "Don" in the Tribune). Coverage of her would be slyly defended--"Princess Di is a relief from Hillary Clinton (although she may be out of office even sooner). The once future queen doesn't hector us, chide us, try to persuade us to vote for her husband or tell us she doesn't know how her law firm billing records could have been mislaid for two years" (Joan Beck, Tribune). The rich would be pilloried--"Di's visit says more about us than her. And it makes me want to punch someone other than Di--a graceful and likable young woman--in the snoot" (Dennis Byrne, gallantly, in the Sun-Times). Real people would be hailed--"If Di were to see some real Chicago, we'd have to take her to...Schaumburg. To see the soccer fields and ball diamonds where kids play. Princess, I'd say, this is my lawn. Grand, ain't it? And while she was out there, she could stop by a family or two to check out how to raise one" (Byrne again).
There would be at least one demonstration that where Princess Di was concerned, nothing was too gratuitous or offensive to print--"The most serious [affair] was with art dealer Oliver Hoare. If he would have divorced his wife and married her, she would have gone from princess to Hoare" (Ellen Warren and Cheryl Lavin, Tribune).
And someone, predictably, wouldn't just write about Di, or the meaning of Di, or the meaning of the coverage of Di, but the meaning of the coverage of the meaning of Di. And that commentary could easily have continued for 2,000 dreary words.
Be glad it didn't.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.