|Herb Keinon: Hometown boy makes good as diplomatic correspondent|
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In a coffee shop in his native city, as a Denver spring blizzard howls outside, Herb Keinon contemplates the roads not taken.
More than two decades ago, with a brand new master’s degree in journalism in his pocket, he chose to head for Israel, over any number of other options that might have been open to him.
“It’s amazing,” he says, sipping coffee and staring at the Colorado snow. “Sometimes I think I might have gotten a job at the Topeka Standard, or whatever the name of the paper is. I would have been covering city council.”
Instead, he landed a job as a copy editor at the Jerusalem Post, a job which turned into reporter for a weekly supplement, then reporter for the main daily edition, up to the present day, when his business card carries the title of diplomatic correspondent.
Translation: That’s a frontline job at a frontline newspaper in a frontline city in a frontline country.
Covering the doings of prime ministers, foreign heads of state and ambassadors; observing and analyzing peace processes, wars and their aftermaths, the struggles and aspirations of entire communities — these are the subjects that have occupied the major part of his professional life.
“I’ve had the privilege of covering major, history making stories,” Keinon says, journalistically summarizing the whole experience. “And it’s a real privilege.”
Keinon speaks rapidly and directly, as many journalists do, and like many who spend their lives covering the news he’s instinctively adept at directing attention outward, away from himself.
Thus, he dispenses with his biographical details efficiently and methodically: Born and raised in Denver; worshiped at Beth Joseph; earned a BA from CU and an MA from the University of Illinois-Champaign; moved to Israel in the mid-80s and has been living there ever since, married for more than 20 years and is the father of four.
This fall, his first book will be published — Lone Soldiers: Israel’s Defenders From Around The World — which deals with Jewish youths from outside Israel who volunteer to serve in Israel’s armed services.
“It’s about who these people are, why they come, what their motivations are,” says Keinon, enthusiastic about this significant expansion of his writing career.
Going back to the dawn of that career, he mentions a hometown note, a youthful stint he served as an intern at the Intermountain Jewish News, answering telephones and writing business letters.
“Answering the phones at the IJN notwithstanding,” he says with a laugh, “the Jerusalem Post was my first journalism job.”
But he’d known considerably earlier that journalism was his calling.
At CU, he started out as a political science major.
“At a certain point, I realized that the only thing I could do was to write,” Keinon says.
“It was the one thing I was relatively okay at. I was never big at math or science. I worked for a little while in public relations in Israel and decided I didn’t like it. So I thought, how can I write and make a living doing it? At that time, journalism was still an option.”
His starting place, the Jerusalem Post was an excellent training ground, not only in journalism but in learning the ropes of Israeli life.
Keinon’s work at the newspaper’s local supplement involved “covering all kinds of stuff, city hall, police, a lot of politics. I covered a couple of murders. I covered a lot of ultra-Orthodox, chasidim and haredim in Jerusalem — all strictly Jerusalem news, and a lot of features.”
In 1990, he moved on to the big paper, the daily edition of the Post. He started out covering immigration and absorption — lots of news about Russian and Ethiopian Jews — and then moved on to the “settlement beat,” covering Jewish settlers on the West Bank.
Today, as diplomatic correspondent, he does a lot of features, news analyses, daily hard news and a monthly column.
“It’s an extremely small staff,” he says, “so you do a lot.”
Keinon says he doesn’t speak for the newspaper per se, but figures that after 24 years he’s earned the right to voice his opinion — about the paper itself, about media in Israel and about his perceptions of Israel’s future — all of which he readily does.
Keinon places his own newspaper close to, and just to the right of, Israel’s political center.
Although once derided by the ultra-rightist Rabbi Meir Kahane as the “Palestine Post,” today’s Jerusalem Post has moved considerably toward conservatism, he says.
“Roughly until 1990, it was the Histadrut paper, a Labor Party newspaper. After that it was sold to an owner who made it into a strong right-wing paper, and then it was sold again. Now we’re pretty much middle right. We’re centrist but leaning right.”
He provides a thumbnail sketch of Israel’s newspaper panoply.
“If we’re center right, I think you could say Ha’aretz is hard left, Yediot Achronot is center left, Ma’ariv is maybe center — a little more right than Yediot — and there’s a new newspaper now, a freebie, called Yisrael Hayom, and that’s right-wing.”
The Jerusalem Post is an English language paper (although it now also publishes the Israel Post, a supplemental free edition in Hebrew) and the bulk of its readers are English speakers. Its readership also tends to have a high percentage of German immigrants, Keinon says.
It is far from Israel’s biggest or most powerful paper, he adds, but its online edition has greatly expanded its influence in recent years.
“The advent of the Internet has changed us dramatically. The Internet has allowed us to punch way, way above our rank. It’s given us a lot more influence and exposure than we’ve ever had before.”
Keinon, who is modern Orthodox in religious terms, also tends toward moderate conservatism in political terms, but he says that he does his best to keep those ideologies separate from his professional work.
“Look, I’m a reporter, so my opinions don’t go into my writing,” he says. “Even when I write analyses this is true. There’s a difference between analysis and op-ed. I’ll never come out and say that this is what I think.”
On the other hand, he respects the Post for having never sought to constrain his editorial or reportorial perspectives.
“I have never been told, both when this was a left-wing paper and when it was a right-wing paper and now in its current configuration, what to say,” Keinon says. “Nobody has ever dictated to me what to write.”
He adds that he has never found any shortage of things to write about. Israel is one of the world’s top media centers, with an omnipresent army of international print, broadcast and Internet reporters.
As one of the top correspondents for a major hometown press, Keinon clearly enjoys the bird’s-eye view his job provides him.
“The news cycle in Israel is like nowhere else in the world. Just the pace of every day is incredible. Look at just this year. We’ve had a war, we had elections, we had a prime minister who resigned under a cloud of scandal, we’ve had an economic crisis.”
Keinon speaks regularly to Israel’s movers and shakers, and a fair number of international leaders as well, but he keeps a modest perspective on his level of access.
His queries to prime ministers and others are returned because he represents a major Israeli newspaper, “but I don’t want to give the impression that I’m calling these guys on the phone like best friends. That’s not the way it is. But I do have access to their people.”
He says that since the Post is an English language paper, the powers-that-be in Israel often go to the Hebrew dailies first, simply because that’s the most effective way to reach the majority of the population.
“He wants the biggest bang for his buck,” Keinon says of such figures as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“And it’s the same thing when Hillary Clinton comes to Israel. If she’s got time for one interview, who is she going to give it to? Is she going to give it to us or is she going to reach out to the big audience, to the Hebrew papers?”
On the other hand, the Jerusalem Post has a respectably wide readership, not to mention an international readership that Israel’s other papers can’t match.
“Jewish leadership all over the world reads us,” Keinon says, “so we’re used to convey messages as well.”
Overall, he says, Israel’s newspaper industry is flourishing, unlike many American dailies. He laments the demise of his hometown paper, the Rocky Mountain News, but says that Israel has no parallel for such dire straits.
“I think there’s a greater culture of newspaper reading, a greater culture of reading in general, in Israel,” Keinon says. “Because it’s real. It’s you, it’s your kids. It’s me.”
He has a suitcase-full of examples of how Israel’s troubles have personal impact. One of his children recently planned a vacation to Sderot, and found it necessary to track the Israeli papers just to know whether Palestinian rockets were falling in the area.
“You don’t want to take a vacation in a place where you might get hit by a rocket, so you have to pay attention to the news. It affects your life.”
He can also recite the names of friends or neighbors who were injured or killed in terrorist attacks. His son is now a soldier, aspiring to serve in an elite combat unit.
It’s all very close to home in Israel, he says. “The news affects you immediately and it impacts you,” Keinon says. “It sits there in the back of your mind and it shapes the way you think.”