Media panelists slice through pre-election fog

Media panelists slice through pre-election fog

Warn temple audience about rise of white nationalism

An audience member puts a question to the media panel at Temple B’nai Abraham, as Rabbi Cliff Kulwin watches.
An audience member puts a question to the media panel at Temple B’nai Abraham, as Rabbi Cliff Kulwin watches.

With the mid-term elections rapidly approaching, a panel of veteran New Jersey journalists gave a Livingston audience their no-nonsense take on the races — with a sharp warning about the rise of white nationalism.

Speaking at Temple B’nai Abraham on Oct. 25 — before the arrest of the pipe bomber who had targeted political leaders critical of President Donald Trump or the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh — NJTV news anchor Mary Alice Williams said, “This whole election there has been one thing after another. The rise of nationalism is chilling.”

The Star-Ledger editorial page editor Tom Moran said, “I’m 61, and I’ve never felt this way before. It scares the hell out of me.”

Part of the problem, they agreed, is the way information is being gathered and shared. WNYC and New Jersey Public Radio reporter Matt Katz pointed to the huge number of people getting their information from social media sites. “They exist in a parallel universe, consumed by totally fraudulent news,” he said.

On most topics, the panelists were sharply critical of candidates on both the left and the right. Agreeing with one another that immigration and health care are the most discussed topics across the country, they pointed out that local candidates have touched only briefly on them for fear of losing the minute number of undecided voters. If those running did address those issues, it would have very little impact, Williams said. “The partisan brand is so deeply dug in, it almost doesn’t matter who the candidate is.”

Singling out Mikie Sherrill, the Democratic candidate for the District 11 congressional seat, Katz asked the audience, “Is anyone bothered that there is no mention of the Dreamers” — undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children — “on her website?” Not one hand went up. When asked if her party affiliation was all that mattered, heads nodded. Those who spoke up said she was more liberal than her Republican opponent, Jay Webber, and would probably reflect their position on immigration once she gets to Washington.

All three speakers expressed their disapproval of incumbent Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez. Horan pointed out, “He did take gifts. He hid gifts. He did favors.” On the other hand, they all said, they thought he remained a better choice than his opponent, Republican Bob Hugin, who has used what Katz called “the sleaziest lie in the campaign,” the false, later-retracted charge that Menendez had sex with an underage girl.

On some contests, the panelists made their preferences clear. Moran said of Republican Leonard Lance, the incumbent running for the District 7 congressional seat against Democratic newcomer Tom Malinowski, “Almost everyone liked and respected him. He was a person of principle. Then he got elected to Congress and he encountered the Tea Party, and he became the kind of politician who goes with the winds.”

As for Tom MacArthur, the Republican congressman in District 3, Moran said —referring to the incumbent’s “racist ads” (in which his opponent, Democrat Andy Kim, the son of South Korean immigrants, is said to be “not one of us”) and close alliance with Trump — “I hope to see him lose.”

It was the second time the trio has shed light on the political scene for an audience at B’nai Abraham. They spoke last November, too. Welcoming them back, the temple’s rabbi, Cliff Kulwin, said, “I used to think we in New Jersey would be screwed, being between the New York and Philadelphia media markets,” but, he said, the caliber of people like the three panelists had proved him wrong.

One member of the audience of around 80 said of the panelists, “They are terrific — smart and entertaining. I’m so glad they’ve agreed to do this again.”

In their remarks and in answering questions from the audience, they tackled not just the electoral tangle but issues of partisanship and the radically changing information flow.

Moran pointed out that many in the state still rely on newspapers. “The Star-Ledger is by far the biggest website that people go to online,” he said.

But newsrooms, Katz pointed out, have been sliced to the bone. While his own investigative efforts recently ultimately led to the resignation of Bergen County Sheriff Michael Saudino for racist and homophobic remarks caught on tape, Katz said he had been unable to follow numerous tips that flowed in after that. “So I tweeted about them,” he said.

Some of the panelists’ most pointed remarks focused on a politician not running for office, Gov. Phil Murphy. While agreeing in general that they like him and regard him as well-intentioned, all three described him as making a lot of mistakes.

Williams said voters might have been eager “to bring on real businessmen, but there’s something to be said for knowing how things work” in government.

Moran excoriated Murphy for failing to deal constructively with State Senate leader Stephen Sweeney, resulting in a deadlock on funding for issues the governor has championed. The governor is “a good guy and I really like him,” Moran said, “but he doesn’t have any idea what he’s doing.”

Asked for predictions, they all agreed that things are way too close to call. People are so firmly entrenched in their party affiliations, the campaigns have focused on pursuing the tiny number of undecided voters — “all two of them,” as Williams put it.

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