“The Chronicle is just a right-wing rag.” “The Chronicle is just a left-wing rag.” We often hear both sentiments from some of our more partisan readers. We could congratulate ourselves that if we are criticized from both ends then we must be doing something right, but we can’t be satisfied with this situation. Looking back over the past 60 years, it’s worth reflecting on where our Pittsburgh Jewish community is in terms of partisanship and how it got here.
People often remark on how unified the Pittsburgh Jewish community is compared to other Jewish communities, especially larger ones on the coasts.
That may or may not be true, but I think it is uncontestable that we are more divided than we were in 1962 and more divided than most of us would like. The forces driving the partisan divide are national and largely secular, affecting all American society in all places. However, we still must work to make our Pittsburgh Jewish community the best it can be despite these larger forces.
In 1962 the media landscape was much simpler and broader in scope and readership. There were relatively few choices of newspapers, magazines, radio and television — and those news publishers tended to appeal to the broadest set of people. There was also more government regulation about fairness, so there was a degree of balance and a lack of harsh rhetoric. Most people agreed on the basic facts of issues, even if there were still sharp divides over concerns such as civil rights or the Vietnam War.
In the ’80s and ’90s cable television took off, bringing more fragmented audiences and sharper rhetoric to their news and opinion shows, as well as blurring the line between news and opinion. In the ’90s and into the new century the internet greatly accelerated these trends by allowing anyone to publish without professional supervision and standards and allowing ever more niche audiences. Finally, from the early 2000s until today, social media exploded to an extent previously unimaginable and took these trends to the limit. News has always had a bias toward negative and sensational stories — “If it bleeds it leads” has been a mantra for a long time. However, with social media, the management of people’s feeds by algorithms that maximize “engagement” — time spent and interactions — means that data analysis determines what items get pushed. And that data analysis exposes the dark side of human nature. Not just negative stories, but hate and vitriol get promoted. The result is a vicious cycle where nasty partisan culture among people promotes nasty partisan culture in media and social media which reinforces the trend. Couple this with growing ideologies that there is no such thing as objective truth, and that the role of media is to advocate for a cause rather than to portray what really happened, and you get a perfect storm leading us to where we are today.
Where we are is not conducive to a productive discussion, let alone actually solving any of the complex problems we face either as a nation or as a Pittsburgh Jewish community. Our society is increasingly fragmented into segments, each living in its own information bubble where it only sees news and opinions that correspond to one worldview and thereby reinforce it. There is no common understanding among the different segments as to what the facts are or even what the common issues are. As an experiment, try switching back and forth one night between MSNBC and Fox News. It’s as if they are living on different planets. A recent survey found that most Americans were against intermarriage — not marriage between people of different religions, but between people of different political affiliations.
We see this every day at the Chronicle. There are bitter divisions to some extent when it comes to issues surrounding the coexistence of different denominations of Judaism as well as new movements; in national political issues like “racial justice” and “freedom”; and most of all, in the two core Jewish political issues: Israel and antisemitism. The Chronicle cannot ignore these divisions; it is our job to provide news and opinions about all these issues.
Let’s take antisemitism as one example. Antisemitism has been growing and evolving from multiple directions, but many members of our community pigeonhole antisemitism into convenient categories that fit their worldview and further their political arguments. Many people on the right are happy to recognize and denounce antisemitism on the left but seem incapable of recognizing it or denouncing it when it comes from the right. Many people on the left are happy to recognize and denounce antisemitism on the right but seem incapable of recognizing it or denouncing it when it comes from the left. At the Chronicle we try to cover all of it — from the right, from the left, as well as antisemitism that is harder to categorize. Antisemitism from the left and the right don’t always manifest in the same ways, but they are all streams of antisemitism. They are all dangerous to Jews and to society more broadly. The Chronicle’s staff tries very hard to get our stories right and to be fair and objective; in many cases, we believe we do a better job of that than some larger and more famous news publishers.
Our role is to provide that underlying base of quality news and information that can tie our Pittsburgh Jewish community together — that can create common bases of understanding and even empathy for others whose lives and outlooks are different than ours. So if you disagree with what we publish or don’t publish, go ahead and write letters to the editor, write opinion pieces, write comments on stories on our website and on social media — but don’t stop reading us. Embrace us and join us. We will all be better off for it. PJC
Jim Busis is publisher and CEO of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle.