Editor’s Notebook

On the media, cognitive dissonance and ignorance

2014-08-13 14:15:05

Maureen Dowd turned her trademark snark on Brandeis University, Haverford College and Rutgers University when, in a May 17 column for The New York Times, she reported how those institutions of higher learning disinvited their commencement speakers due to protests from students opposed to hearing from them.

In particular, Dowd lamented Rutgers’ snub of Condoleezza Rice, George W. Bush’s secretary of state. “[T]he students shouldn’t have jumped the gun,” Dowd argued. “After all, there was always a chance, a small one, admittedly, but a chance, that Condi Rice would have looked into her soul and told the story of what happens when you succumb to the temptation to sell it. “And that, dear graduates, family and friends, faculty and honored guests, would have been the most amazing and instructive commencement speech of all time.”

I agree with Dowd. I cannot pinpoint when this phenomenon began, this stubborn refusal to listen to people with opposing points of view. In American political and social life, we are becoming increasingly polarized and shrill in our dialogue.

Moderates are retiring from elected office en masse, or being voted out. Americans are losing their appetite for a varied news diet, too, as evidenced by the latest cable news ratings.

As reported by Mediabistro, the partisan Fox News Channel (Right) and MSNBC (Left) currently rank #1 and #2 in prime time; the comparatively moderate CNN trails a distant third. So it did not surprise me that I received emails from subscribers this week urging me to pull WJW to the Left and Right, and to purge the editorial pages of viewpoints they do not share.

This would not only compromise our mission to engage the entire Jewish community, a diverse group, but also, I believe, make us all dumber. There is science to back up my belief. According to a 2012 study by Fairleigh Dickinson University, exposure to partisan sources, such as Fox News and MSNBC, has a negative impact on people’s knowledge of current events.

This nationwide survey confirms initial findings presented in a similar 2011 survey. In the FDU study, 1,185 respondents nationwide were asked about what news sources they consumed in the past week and then were asked a variety of questions about current political and economic events in the U.S. and abroad.

On average, people were able to answer correctly 1.8 of 4 questions about international news, and 1.6 of 5 questions about domestic affairs. Someone who watched only Fox News would be expected to answer just 1.04 domestic questions correctly — a significantly worse figure than if they had reported watching no media at all. Incredible, right? I was asked this week what news source – singular – I read to understand the situation in Gaza. I replied that, with respect to Gaza and all other important topics, I am a news omnivore (starting with WJW, of course).

Psychologists have a word for people who cannot stomach such variety. “Cognitive dissonance” is defined as: “The feeling of discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs.”

My advice: always be open to hearing opposing points of view. If your convictions are firmly rooted in logic, hearing a contrary point of view should not shake your belief in your opinions or in yourself. And if it does, so be it. Edward Said was the commencement speaker at my college graduation, from Haverford. Said, the famous Palestinian activist and literary scholar, was no threat to my beliefs about Israel.

And if he had said something slanderous or dunderheaded about the Jewish state, I would have been grateful for the chance to be among the first to listen and respond.

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Let slip the dogs of war

2014-08-06 13:18:52

My mother, Linda, woke up last week to the sight of blood – on her bedroom floor, in the hallways of her house in Pittsburgh and on the stairs. Her two year-old Havanese, Sasha, was nowhere to be found.

Following the trail of blood to my stepfather’s study, she found Sasha, still bleeding, the result of hemorrhagic gastroenteritis, an acute disorder that plagues small and toy breeds like the
Havanese. He survived after several days of treatment in a veterinary hospital and is home resting comfortably, I am pleased to report.

Stress, anxiety, and hyperactivity are believed to be contributing factors in many cases of canine hemorrhagic gastroenteritis, I have since learned.

But Sasha, stressed and anxious? How could this be? Sasha is possibly the most loved and pampered pooch on the planet. He has his own life vest for swimming, sleeps in the cushy center of my mother and stepfather’s bed and owns more toys than my brother or I did as children – combined. Nevertheless, it would appear that Sasha is stressed out about something (the new neighbors and their dogs?).

Before Sasha joined my family, I did not realize that dogs experienced emotions, especially ones as characteristically human as anxiety. But it is impossible now for me to think of him as a merely instinctual being, a creature of raw intelligence. I have seen him be surprised, curious, grateful, loving, suspicious, mischievous, manipulative and even jealous.

I do not believe I am imagining all this, or suffering from what biologists call “vertebrate bias.” Indeed, a new study by researchers at the University of California, San Diego, just published in the
online peer-reviewed journal PLOS One, found that dogs displayed jealous behavior when their owners paid attention to an animatronic stuffed dog that barked, whined and wagged its tail. Sasha does the same thing when any one of us gets too cozy with the lifelike, stuffed dog we bought for him.

Given what I now believe I know about animals, I am appalled by the Palestinians’ use of donkeys as unwitting suicide bombers in their terrorist campaign against Israel, a fact we reported in WJW back on July 23 (“Hamas terror donkey draws PETA attack”). On July 18, Israel Defense Forces in the Rafah area noticed a donkey approaching, and opened fire, causing the explosives to detonate.

“They used this donkey as a human shield, or an animal shield, if you like,” Major Arye Shalicar, an army spokesman, told London’s The Telegraph. “Anything, an animal or an international building, that can help make use of innocent people or international [citizens], they will use it. We see it time and again.”

This wasn’t the first time the Palestinians abused animals this way. During the Second Intifada in 2003, a Palestinian terrorist strapped a bomb to a donkey and then exploded it remotely near Gush Etzion.

As we go to press tonight, a cease-fire agreement has been reached between
Israel and Hamas. I hope that it holds. But if Hamas once again strikes up its terror campaign, I pray that no innocent lives are lost – human, equine, canine or otherwise.

If I possess a soul, I am quite certain that Sasha, and other animals, do, too.

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A study in contrast

2014-07-23 13:02:52

President Obama’s remarks last week following the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-17 over Ukraine by suspected pro-Russian rebels were unusually eloquent, even for this president.

Noting that there were some 100 AIDS/HIV researchers and advocates traveling to an international conference in Australia on board the exploded plane, Obama deplored the loss of men and women who had dedicated their own lives to saving the lives of others and were killed in a senseless act of violence.

“In this world today we shouldn’t forget that in the midst of conflict and killing, there are people like these, people who are focused on what can be built rather than what can be destroyed, people who are focused on how they can help people that they’ve never met, people [who] define themselves not by what makes them different from other people but by the humanity that we hold in common.”

The last time I heard this particular formulation, this stark contrast, was in April 2003, when I heard Yaron Brook, executive director of the Ayn Rand institute, speak at the University of Pennsylvania. I recall asking this Israeli-American intellectual how Rand, a passionate devotee of, and writer about, free-market capitalism (The New York Times has called her 1957 novel, Atlas Shrugged, “one of the most influential business books ever written”) could have counted herself among Israel’s early supporters given Israel’s roots as a quasi-socialist society. Brook wasted no time in answering. Israel, he said, through hard work, determination and creativity (and yes, a little help from its friends) turned a desert into an oasis. In a world divided by “creators and looters,” he said, echoing Rand, Israel has proven itself to be the former.

As Israel continues to endure criticism by world leaders, journalists and protesters in the streets (an anti-Israel rally in Pittsburgh last week featured stuffed bedsheets simulating dead Palestinian “bodies,” reported The Jewish Chronicle), as well as Hamas’ steady stream of rockets directed at civilian areas, I cannot help but return to Obama, Brook and Rand’s binary equation of creators and looters. Israel is not a perfect nation. No nation made of people ever will be. But on balance, how could anyone credibly argue that Israel has not given the world more than it has taken?

Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer was recently quoted in Washington Jewish Week as complaining that, for many observers of Israel, “history begins at [this morning’s] breakfast.” If Israel’s critics would look farther back than Israel’s (provoked) military response to the murder of the three Israeli teenage boys and Hamas rocket fire, back instead to Israel’s founding in 1948, they would see that Israel’s first gift was peace. Israel offered to share the land it now controls with the Arab people who lived there; its offer was refused.

Moreover, Israel’s Arab neighbors ganged up to destroy the nascent Jewish state. In the decades since, Israel has made many other remarkable peace offerings. Those, too, have been met with rejection and more violence.

But Israel has offered more to its neighbors and the world than simply a path to peaceful coexistence. Israel has pioneered a whole host of scientific, medical and agriculture inventions and innovations. Israel gave us the world’s smallest medical camera; the optical heart monitor; the drip irrigation technique; the 8088 processor (the “brain” of the first PC); biocatalysts used in the production of biodiesel; solar windows. Would that I had the newsprint to continue. The list goes on.

In closing his remarks last week about the doomed Malaysian plane, President Obama urged us to “lift up” and “affirm” those who work to repair the world rather than destroy it.

Let’s start with Israel.

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Stepping out of the shadows

2014-07-16 18:14:04

In a recent Torah portion, Hukkat, Moses is punished for conflating his authority with God’s.

Instead of telling the restless and thirsty masses that God would produce water for them from a rock, he says: “Listen you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” For the sin of self-deification, wrote Joshua Hammerman in a blog for the Times of Israel on June 27, Moses is barred from entering the Promised Land. That was actually a good thing, according to Hammerman, because, had Moses not been rebuked, the proto-Jewish people might have been misled into thinking that Moses was not simply a witness to God’s power – a reporter – but also the source of that power.

“Whether intentionally or not, Moses would have laid the seeds of a personality cult that would have destroyed the fundamental teachings of the Jewish people. It would have been the ultimate idolatry.”

Moses remains one of our tradition’s greatest heroes, but, as this parsha demonstrates, he was only human, after all. (Aren’t those the best sort of heroes, anyway?) He did something journalists who cover those in power are perennially tempted to do, wittingly or otherwise – insert themselves into the story. In a sense, Moses was the first celebrity journalist.

Self-glorification was, for a very long time, considered declasse in our business. I remember attending a Pennsylvania Newspaper Association conference back in 2002, as a reporter for the Jewish Exponent, when a media consultant expressed his bewilderment and frustration that we print journalists weren’t “branding yourselves” like our TV news counterparts, especially the anchors over at Philadelphia’s NBC10, whose coiffed and maquillaged faces graced billboards up and down the Schuylkill Expressway. “You are celebrities! Why aren’t you taking advantage of that to promote your work and get more readers?”

It took a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, as I recall, to explain news reporters’ historic reluctance to step out into the limelight and share in the attention we are accustomed to devoting to our sources. He quoted Roland Barthes’ famous essay, “The Death of the Author,” in which the French philosopher described writing as the “destruction of every voice, of every point of origin.”

Writing, according to Barthes, “is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost… .” Barthes sought to wrest writing away from the tyrannical “person” of the author – the author’s life, taste, passions. To dwell on the author of a text is to impose a limit on the meaning of that text, to close the writing. Kill the author (metaphorically!), Barthes argued, and suddenly the reader is free to fully take up the joy and the responsibility of making meaning.

The media consultant shook his head exasperatedly, either at Barthes or at us. Maybe both.

Now, more than a decade later, I have come to believe that the consultant was right about the need for journos to think of themselves as brands, with brand identity and recognition – not unlike Coke, Apple or American Express. The digital age we kept hearing about when I was a cub reporter is here, with all its sound and fury. And we creators of content must do more than we’re accustomed to doing to stand out amid the din.

With that in mind, I want to (re)introduce to you the Washington Jewish Week’s editorial staff, a talented group of journalists I have come to know well since I took up this post a month ago. I want you to learn more about them – their beats, their intellectual curiosity, their online handles. This isn’t self-aggrandizement or a coup to reinstate the dictatorial rule of the author over the reader. This is necessary if we are to find each other in the ether of cyberspace and tell great stories.

• David Holzel is a senior writer with many years of experience editing and writing for Jewish newspapers and magazines. His award-winning work for WJW focuses on history, Jewish communal trends, personality profiles and features. He also now serves as the WJW’s chief diplomatic correspondent. Call him at 301-230-6685, email him at dholzel@washingtonjewishweek.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidHolzel.

• Suzanne Pollak, senior writer, is an experienced breaking news and investigative reporter who covered beats in Philadelphia and South Jersey before joining our staff, and has won many awards for doing so. Suzanne is the point person for our new health and science beat. Call her at 301-230-6695, email her at spollak@washingtonjewishweek.com and follow her on Twitter @SuzannePollak.

• Dmitriy Shapiro, political reporter, covers national politics in the form of both hard news and insightful analysis. His background includes radio and print reporting, both here in the capital and in the Deep South. Call him at 301-230-6683, email him at dshapiro@washingtonjewishweek.com and follow him on Twitter @dmitriyshapiro.

• Alexa Laz, general assignment reporter, is a multimedia journalist who honed her television, print, audio storytelling and social media skills at Towson University and through previous internships at NBC, FOX and PBS affiliate stations. She will be reporting our new higher education beat, so expect her to be a regular presence on area college campuses. Call her at 301-230-6684, email her at alaz@washingtonjewishweek.com and follow her on Twitter at @alexalaz130.

• Ian Zelaya, another recent graduate of Towson University, is a staff writer specializing in arts and culture stories, features and personality profiles. Look for his scintillating and surprising Q&As with rising stars in our community. Call him at 301-230-6686, email him at izelaya@washingtonjewishweek.com and follow him on Twitter at @IanDavidZelaya.

• Aaron Leibel, copy chief, holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Maryland. For many years, while living in Israel, he worked as an editor and writer for major Israeli newspapers and magazines, including The Jerusalem Post. His novel, Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family, was published this year. Call him at 301-230-0467; email him at aleibel@washingtonjewishweek.com.

• Eliana Block is WJW’s intern. A current sophomore at the University of Maryland, double majoring in English and journalism, Eliana spent a year studying in Israel before joining WJW. She is enrolled in Maryland’s elite creative writers program, the Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House.

Here we are. We are the multimedia journalists committed to giving you the best Jewish journalism in the capital, or anywhere. In the coming months, you will see more of us in print, on the Web, on social media and in person. We are not the story, but we are part of it. And we are giving it our all.

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The limits of language

2014-07-09 16:40:51

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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