I was a 30-year-old part-time proofreader without a journalism degree when I was offered my first job as an editor at a weekly newspaper. It was 1998, and our paper was one of the largest alternative newsweeklies in the U.S.
So the day it was announced I’d been promoted from basically nothing to managing editor, I could feel the sizzle of outrage in every cubicle in the office. One staff writer strode up to me, his cheeks pink with anger: “I’ll be damned if I take my marching orders from someone under 40. This is ridiculous.”
It was a little ridiculous, sure. At one point, I had my mother come to my office to create an organizational system for me because I was so overwhelmed. Meet my mommy and her tickler files, and yes, I’m your managing editor.
Like most of us, I look back on my younger days and cringe. If hindsight is 20/20, moving into middle age is like seeing your past through an ultrasophisticated NASA telescope. You see what an idiot you were; you see how you’ve changed.
But as struck as I am by personal changes, I am almost more jostled by changes to my profession. I look back at journalism before the internet, and I barely recognize it. The initial promise of a sudden profusion of news sources — a democratizing effect; the erasure of national and perceptual boundaries — seems to have fizzled in the last few years. These days, in fact, I see a much lower tolerance for other points of view than I used to, and I am concerned.
If I could ascribe this change to one party or politician, that would make things easier. But at least when it comes to reader response, I see it manifested across the board, and it applies to opinion pieces as well as news stories. Whether the piece is about someone on the left or someone on the right, people espousing the opposite side of the argument will not only insist the article is wrong but also tell us that the paper has erred in publishing it at all.
That is a change.
I went back to old copies of newspapers I keep in my house from the ’90s and early aughts. I looked at the letters pages, the columns. Very often readers disagreed with a columnist, and said so. But I couldn’t find one letter that said the column should not have been published. There was a belief that even if a point of view was different from your own, it was acceptable to see it represented in print. After all, many of our readers remembered the days when William F. Buckley sparred with Gore Vidal on live TV; surely they could handle divergent opinions in a weekly newspaper.
So what’s shifted? I’m not sure. Nowadays, editors get far too many reader responses that ignore the content of a given piece and say, instead, “Why did you write about a Democrat?” or “Why did you write about a Republican?” The outrage is quick when it comes, sometimes based only on a headline, and people on both sides go into combat mode, threatening to shut a publication down for having the temerity to feature someone on the other side.
I like to ask angry readers if they support a marketplace of ideas. They always say they do. But I don’t know if that’s true. It’s like asking soldiers during wartime if they want peace. Well, sure. Of course. But for the moment, my gun is cocked.
As Jews, we should be good at disagreement. Arguing with each other is at the core of our practice. It is both the joy of observance and the irritation at the dinner table. Perhaps we should put that old saw “Two Jews, three opinions” at the top of our Opinion pages — to remind ourselves of who we are, and to laugh a little at our predicament.
We have to laugh because it’s gotten quite serious. Some newspapers have ditched opinion sections entirely; others have considered doing so, even after publishing opinions for more than a century. Nixing opinion because it’s hard is simply not something a newspaper should do, least of all a Jewish newspaper. Instead, let’s all take a breath before we react and think about what it means to encounter divergence. If the Jewish press can’t do it, with our rich tradition of debate, who can? pjc
Liz Spikol is acting editor-in-chief of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle