Yesterday, YIVO held a panel on "The Jewish press today", featuring top editors from the Forward, JTA, and Tablet Magazine. In the run-up to the panel, I suggested that the Tablet editor, Alana Newhouse, should be sharply questioned on why they continue to publish Liel Leibovitz. This was in the immediate wake of his article decrying synagogue COVID restrictions as a form of idolatry, but that was hardly his only offense, nor were Tablet's dodgy journalistic choices limited to Liel. Remember their alarmingly chummy interview with the infamous antisemite Kevin MacDonald? Or Lee Smith calling arrested 1/6 insurrectionists "political prisoners"? Or the article on California Ethnic Studies that highlighted a completely fabricated antisemitic quote?
In any event, I thought that, on a panel dedicated to the Jewish press, Tablet's representative should be asked about whether her choices adequately met the standards we should expect out of Jewish (or any) journalism. I wasn't alone. But I also got pushback. One of my longtime readers thought Newhouse would have an easy response to me:
"[In my opinion] she will tell you that she publishes a wide variety of opinions from various parts of the political spectrum and she doesn't believe in censoring voices bc leftists want a veto, and [in my opinion] she will be correct in saying so."
imo she will tell you that she publishes a wide variety of opinions from various parts of the political spectrum and she doesn't believe in censoring voices bc leftists want a veto, and imo she will be correct in saying so.— Mordy (@mordygoespop) September 1, 2021
- Citation to "free speech"? ✅
- Acknowledgment that not everyone will agree, but the perspective is important? ✅
- Importance of "challenging mainstream narratives and assumptions"? ✅
- Appeal to elevating "silenced" voices, and suggesting that not publishing this writer is akin to refusing to entertain any divergent perspective? ✅
- Implying that critical backlash is tantamount to "intimidation"? ✅
Persons who have drank of these waters believe we are overwhelmed with attempts at censorship, sugar-coating, and kowtowing to online gangs. For such persons, then, there is no greater betrayal, no greater cowardice, than acceding to the demand for a retraction. It doesn't really even matter if the claim under attack was justified or not; it ceases to be about defending the claim on its merits. The "principle", such as it is, is to stand up to the mob. Anyone who fails to do that is weak.
We cannot disconnect this from the sense of grievance which inspired some, albeit not all, of the popularity of the initial article. There is a segment of the Jewish community (and other communities) which views Ethnic Studies as so much PC claptrap, a sop to loud and angry minorities who want to silence anything and everything that doesn't present America as a bigoted hell-hole. They read the Tablet article and understood this curriculum as reflecting the ambitions of this cohort, they view the critiques of the article as Tablet being besieged by this cohort, and if the article was retracted they'd view Tablet as having been captured by this cohort. Ironically, Tablet's credibility with its readership (or at least large chunks of it), depends on them not correcting even obvious mistakes. Many of the folks who couldn't care less about the realities of the California Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (the author of the article now forthrightly admits that it doesn't matter what's in the curriculum; she thinks it's a poisonous idea no matter what it teaches) would never forgive Tablet if seemed to be giving in to "the left" (whatever that means).
One can predict a similar dynamic here. When a goodly chunk of the appeal of your writer is that he gets the right type of reader to "stay mad", and when you've already staked your credibility on the idea that it would be a failure of ethics, a betrayal of journalism and free speech itself, to give an inch to anyone who is mad, then it doesn't really matter why people are mad. It's already baked into the cake that they will be mad, and that that's their problem. It's not just a matter of "they knew who he was when they hired him." The entire discursive framework they used to promote his hiring now would make it impossible to disavow him, any more than Tablet could disavow a factually wrong smear on an Ethnic Studies article without losing its "anti-woke" cred.
How can this all work? Well, it is, after all, true -- and by no means irrelevant -- that many readers (on this subject and quite a few others) do get and stay mad for partisan, biased, or outright stupid reasons, and a journal which lacked the backbone to tell those readers "sorry, but you're going to have to stay mad" isn't going to be doing its job. Again, the classics are classics for a reason. But that truth offers a refuge to hide from a different truth, which is that sometimes the mad readers are mad for good reason, to which the rote appeal to "free speech" doesn't suffice as a response.
Lashing yourself to the mast of this particular "free speech" genre certainly comes with some benefits, and it shouldn't surprise to see this move appear across the political spectrum. But it is not always virtuous, and it is never cost-free.