Jewish Communal CEO Salaries: Did the Forward’s Coverage Take a Step Backwards?

June 23, 2009

During these days when we are seeing how social media is fueling a Persian revolution in the Middle East, we can quickly forget that not too long ago Jews used the original form of social media, the newspaper press, to help revolutionize the quality of life of trade workers in the lower east side of New York.  The Jewish Daily Forward, originally a Yiddish only newspaper and the ‘conscience of the ghetto’ was (and still is) an important voice of Jewish America. It has maintained a vigorously independent and socially responsible voice of the Jewish press for over one hundred years. It’s reporting has constantly and consistently challenged its readers to look back at a reflection of the Jewish challenges of the time, while encouraging a forward-looking approach to solving those challenges.

Which is why the Forwards recent reporting on the compensation of executives of major Jewish organizations is so dismaying. Its coverage raises numerous questions regarding the balance of the its reporting on the issue, and by raising those questions may actually have resulting in an unintended step backwards rather than its typical forward progress.

For those who have not read the article and editorial, in summary it was a report focusing on how several executives of major Jewish organizations did not take a pay cut or pay freeze notwithstanding the layoffs of numerous employees in their respective organizations.   Accompanying the news article, the Forward editorial board wrote “[t]his is not the time to withhold support out of anger or disgust; the needs today are too urgent. Instead, it’s the time to demand accountability from Jewish organizations and their governing boards.”

Now to be clear, I too believe that there is a need for shared sacrifice, and I think that the questions about executive compensation at Jewish organizations merit serious questions and conversations about accountability. I also believe that these questions cannot be ignored.  However, the reporting of news (as opposed to editorializing) about compensation practices at charitable organizations needs to be thoughtful regarding the context of the facts reported.  Each of the Jewish organizations mentioned in the Forward article are large sophisticated organizations with substantially sophisticated professional and volunteer leadership and it is hard to imagine that each of those organizations didn’t consider the issue of executive compensation thoughtfully.  We may not all like the answers, but we should not (as the Forward article seems to) assume some of the questions were not asked. We may demenad accountability, but does the Forward survey really demonstrate a lack of accountability?  Or did it identify a lack of sensitivity? There is a difference, and thoughtful journalism should distinguish between the two – even when editorializing.

However, even if one takes issue with the Forward’s line of reasoning, there is no question that a role of an independent press is to ask the questions the Forward asked, as well as opine as to its own independent analysis on the answers to those questions.  But in my mind, this recent reporting also raises some important questions to be asked of the Forward, and questions it should be asking itself.

1.    Was the story fully reported in a manner that gave complete context to its subject? The Forward focused on only select data (number of employees, total compensation, and personal compensation reduction).  Are there other factors that should have been included in the sampled data that would have given a more complete picture of the fact patter the Forward was reporting?  For example, are those individual executives subject to performance for pay evaluations?  What impact does the decrease in staff have on the increase in executive responsibility? What was the fundraising performance of the respective organizations and what percentages of contributions of those respective organizations are solicited specifically by the chief executive/executive director?  I’m not sure exactly what all of the relative data points are, but it seems like the Forward picked the smallest data set to make the most inflammatory statement.

2.    Was the news report sufficiently neutral when compared to the subjective comments in the editorial analysis? Rereading the article, one is struck by the first paragraph with its tragic/poetic description of waves of crimson lapping below the suites of chief executives. Far from a basic factual framing of the context of the article, that language  establishes the critical tone of the entire reporting effort.  While the reporting does provide a balance of perspectives, one can’t help but find the rhythm and the layout of the story to have a prejudicial orientation. I am not a journalism expert, but it did raise the question in my mind of whether what should have been an objective price of reporting tilted more towards a purposeful lead-in to a subjective editorial.

3.    Did the Forward live up to its own expectations of open disclosure? While highlighting the lack of responsiveness from some executives, it is hard not to wonder if the Forward’s own self-disclosure was sufficient.  A close read of its self- disclosure reads that its executives took a 10% paycut of compensation in excess of $80,000. If the publisher took that cut, based on the Forward’s information, it means the publisher took a approximately a $13,000 pay cut against an approximate $211,000 salary, a little over a 6% paycut.  That 6% is less than the 10% cuts taken by several community executives identified in the article.  My point is not to judge the pay cut, but rather to query whether even the Forward, by making readers do the math, was as forthcoming as it expected its respondents to be. In an article regarding accountability, transparency and leadership, did the Forward sufficiently walk its own talk?

4.   In responding to the factual reporting, did the Forward’s editorial outweigh its criticism over constructive suggestions about CEO compensation practices? The editorial commentary made some valid observations about the need for key executives of non-profits to be responsible regarding compensation in challenging times.  But rather than propose measures to help reinforce that responsibility, the editorial board missed an opportunity to be constructive, as opposed to just being critical. Interestingly, it punctuated its editorial with a reminder of its offer to create a public conversation between community members and community leaders – an important offer indeed. But while wondering why more leaders haven’t taken it up on the offer, did it consider whether it has adequately created an appearance that the conversation would be balanced and unbiased? And did this editorial help or hinder that appearance?

5.    Lastly, how did the Forward balance its Jewish responsibilities regarding the use of speech in the public forum with its reporting on an issue of community tzedakah? Again, I am not a journalism expert, nor an expert on Lashon Hara.  However, it strikes me that when the Forward makes statements that it knows may result in consequences that are damaging (to individuals, to organizations and to communities of need) then it is fair to ask the question of how the Forward balanced its Jewish responsibilities regarding proper speech.  The editorial is quick to argue that the CEO compensation is not enough of a reason for individuals to withhold their support of otherwise worthy charities, but a review of the reader comments suggests that some felt otherwise after reading the story and editorial. What is the Forward’s responsibility in this regard? Is its editorializing of the topic possibly Rechilut, in that it may incite ill feelings regarding otherwise noble charitable causes? These are questions that I would hope the Forward considered, especially given that the financial impact of its use of language may be very real.

To be clear, the Forward (and other Jewish news outlets, including even blogs) serve an important role, and shine an important light on community affairs, even when what we see in that light makes us uncomfortable. But that role is a powerful one that comes with great responsibility. As readers, we too have a responsibility – to ask the questions that challenge our news sources to serve their role in a fair and excellent manner.

Indeed, when we all ask the hard questions, even about those charged with the responsibility of asking hard questions, then we only move in one direction –



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