The limits of language

After two weeks on the job as editor-in-chief of Washington Jewish Week, I have started to receive phone calls and letters about our articles.

I am grateful for both the cheers and the jeers; you are clearly reading our work and reading it intently. One of those critical, close readers, an Israeli native living here in the Washington, D.C., area, said it was “shameful” that we referred to the disappearance of the three Israeli teens, Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Frenkel, as an “alleged” kidnapping in our June 26 story “Hundreds rally to ‘bring back our boys.’”

I responded by reminding the reader that on June 26, no ransom had been demanded for the boys’ safe return, no witnesses had come forward to describe their kidnapping and no one had been charged with any crime in connection with the case. “At that early date, we were right to exercise restraint, given how few facts were in,” I said, pointing out that The Washington Post and the Associated Press had used the words “alleged” and “suspected” to describe the kidnappings in their stories that same day.

By June 30, of course, it was far clearer that the boys had been kidnapped, as evinced by a published report by the committee investigating the conduct of operators of the Judea and Samaria Police emergency hotline, which fielded a cellphone call from one of the abductees in which the caller whispered: “I have been kidnapped.”

Our subscriber was not persuaded that WJW’s early attempt at caution was warranted, telling me that our use of the word “alleged” implied that we mistrusted a statement by the Israeli government. She also expressed her belief that the Jewish media ought to show more deference to Israeli government officials than we would leaders of other countries. Her latter comment—Jewish journalists ought to lessen their trademark skepticism when reporting on Israel—reflects a real and ongoing dilemma in our business.

In a recent column for his own publication (“Take Us Seriously”), Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The Jewish Week of New York, reports on a tense exchange between Jewish journos and Israeli government representatives at a global Jewish media conference held this summer in Israel. At one of the sessions he attended, panelist Sue Fishkoff, editor of j, the Jewish news weekly of Northern California, described “a profound misunderstanding” on the part of officials in terms of the relationship between the Israeli government and Jewish media.

“Don’t feed us pap,” Rosenblatt says Fishkoff told the Israeli government representatives, adding that it is not the job of journalists to promote Israel’s image.

Here, I do not believe the Israeli government was feeding journalists (or the public) pap by pronouncing the teens’ disappearance as a kidnapping from the outset. As I said to our reader, kidnapping was a viable “theory of the case,” as we say in criminal law. But I argued to her that neither WJW nor the rest of the media were duty bound on June 24, when we went to press, to call the disappearances a “kidnapping” before more facts were available. We were not trying to be “politically correct,” as this reader suggested. We were trying to be accurate. In the end, she and I agreed on at least one thing – the limits of language.

“Alleged” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as an adjective meaning “cited, quoted,” or “asserted but not proved.” When we went to press with our story, the kidnapping of the Israeli boys was just that: asserted but not proved. But one of our readers had a visceral reaction to that word, finding a meaning in it that we never intended.

This happens all the time, in texts everywhere, from newspapers to Nicholas Nickleby, magazines to Madame Bovary.

The Algerian Jewish philosopher Jacques Derrida, building on the work of Friedrich Nietzsche and others, helped to launch an influential critical theory in the late 1960s called Deconstruction, which contends that language is so riddled with aporia—so thoroughly shot through with unintended meanings—as to be virtually useless in conveying real feeling, real thought, real human experience.

Since at least the 1980s, English departments at American colleges (including at my alma maters of Haverford and Bryn Mawr) have been teaching this theory, applying it to the great works of literature. Some find it freeing, and choose to revel in the Dionysian free play of language. Others find it depressing, even nihilistic, to think of language as this debilitated.

I believe it is possible to stake out a middle ground here. Very often, language is extraordinarily effective at communicating our subjective lives – our thoughts, intentions and feelings. At other times, despite our best attempts at using the dictionary we were born into, the meanings we intend to convey fall into the abyss and disappear into Deconstructive darkness.

By the end of my phone conversation with our riled reader, I think she understood that our use of the word “alleged” to describe the disappearance of the Israeli teens, early on in what would become a developing story, was coming from a place of journalistic caution, not anything more sinister. At least I hope she did.

I also hope that I can offer my hometown newspaper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the same benefit of the doubt. I was angered, too, by that paper’s recent use of the word “relationship” to describe criminal sexual acts performed by an adult man on a minor female. The Pennsylvania Crimes Code negates any possibility of a “relationship” between an adult and a child who is not legally capable of consenting to sex. “Relationship” in this context tends to add an air of credibility and respectability to a form of interaction between adults and children that our society has criminalized for good reason.

The offending word was written by an experienced courts reporter I remember from my days as an assistant district attorney. I believe that she was searching for and failed to achieve the meaning she intended. This can—and does—happen to even the most vigilant writers among us.

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