By Harriet P. Gross
Today I share with you something that greatly concerns me. It stems from a collision of modern-day journalism with a badly misunderstood aspect of Judaism.
A recent “Tech Blog Tidbit” in the business section of a local general circulation newspaper, set over a staff writer’s byline, read, in part, like this: “Jews who observe the traditional day of rest aren’t supposed to operate technology from sundown Friday till sundown Saturday … opening a refrigerator door and making the light turn on would violate this, which is why Sub Zero makes at least one fridge that keeps track of time and changes how it operates on the Sabbath….” The conclusion — and this is what raised the hair on the back of my neck — was: “I can’t quite understand how it’s possible for one person to think God is both smart enough to know which people among all the people on Earth keep the Sabbath, and stupid enough not to realize this is cheating….” (The italics are mine.)
This lack of Judaic understanding, and its injustice, moved me to contact the paper’s business editor immediately. Among the things I wrote: “The opening statement about technology in traditional Judaism is deeply flawed … the final sentence, about God, is a sad example of arrogance rooted in ignorance.” Here, I said, is the kind of thing that foments anti-Semitism. How might we go about making positive change? “This was a disservice to your readers,” I said, “but offers a chance for education about Judaism, and about respecting the feelings of others.”
The editor answered, but his response wasn’t at all what I had expected: The blog discussion, he said, was “balanced and enlightening”; had I read the whole thing, I would have felt differently!
So I e-mailed him again: I’m being asked to judge a snippet of writing in a newspaper column by a whole conversation I haven’t been a party to, or included in. Why must I (or anyone else) first have to read a blog in order to understand what’s in the paper I’m holding in my hands?
I’m not a blogger. What people offer in these most informal, minimally supervised settings is too often unverified personal opinion, which is why I’ve chosen not to become involved. Blogging isn’t anything like what I’ve tried my best to practice in a lifetime of print journalism: to be as complete and correct as possible. Fact-checking was once the hallmark of respected publications, but no such vetting is possible on a blog. When bits of blogs are excised for stand-alone repetition in the newspapers that sponsor those same blogs, there can no longer be the accountability that used to be expected, even demanded.
This moving of blog material to print is “journalistic shorthand,” I told the editor. He responded that he completely agreed with me, but offered no options for change or correction. Not even to tell his misguided blogger that traditional Judaism’s Sabbath prohibitions involve creativity rather than technology, that technology can actually be used to help make the Sabbath a more restful day than it might be otherwise, that adapting to modern times is not “cheating” and that God is certainly not “stupid.”
Everyone knows we’re in a sad new era for traditional metropolitan newspapers. Nobody looked far enough down the road when computers were first coming into wider and deeper use to foresee the inevitable. Hindsight may be 20/20; foresight seldom is, certainly not in this case. Today’s world is full of devotees of devices that foster instant communication, and reading is now an adjunct to talk rather than a provider of material to talk about. As general circulation papers die in city after city across the country, few seem to notice how much television news content is drawn directly from the work of their diminishing pool of investigative reporters. As they go, what passes for news becomes only what people post on blogs, or their internet relatives. “I don’t Twitter or Facebook,” a friend writes, “but my children use their cellphones like they’re oxygen lines.” How disconcertingly true!
In this single little column, printed in the shrinking business section of a once larger, more comprehensive newspaper, I find a frightening glimpse of communication’s future. Misunderstandings of all kinds will increase. And for Judaism, which has been the victim of so many hateful misunderstandings in the past, this may be the start of a new kind of distress. I hope I’m wrong. But my hope has already sunk almost to the Sub Zero level.
By Harriet P. Gross