Opinion | No Longer Agreeing to Disagree: A Worrisome Change

Liz Spikol (Courtesy of Liz Spikol)

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 newspaper. It was 1998, and the paper was one of the largest alternative newsweeklies in the U.S. We had a circulation of 121,000+ and significant communal responsibilities.

So the day it was announced I’d been promoted from basically nothing to managing editor, I could feel the sizzle of outrage throughout 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. I was green. 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, applied 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 tell us the paper has erred in publishing it at all.

That is a change.

Recently, I went back to old copies of the newspaper I worked for that I still have at home. 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 in print. After all, back then, many of our readers remembered 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, we 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, sometimes based only on a headline, and readers fly into combat mode, threatening to shut us down for having the temerity to feature someone on the other side.

I often ask angry readers if they support a marketplace of ideas; they always say yes. 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.

This all gets especially contentious with the opinion pages. Though we publish a clear statement every week that says the views on the pages are not representative of the owner, publishing group and editorial staff, people never fail to attack all of those stakeholders if an opinion piece runs counter to their own biases. The result is that we get nervous about featuring bold takes, and we play it safe. That’s not good journalism; it’s just self-protection.

As Jews, we should be good at this. 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.

It’s a predicament that has caused us to consider nixing the opinion section altogether, which shows how far things have deteriorated. There has been an opinion section for more than a century in the Jewish Exponent. Are we going to let the 21st century get the best of us?

An Explanation of the Exponent’s Opinion Section: https://www.jewishexponent.com/2020/01/23/an-explanation-of-the-exponents-opinion-section/

Op-ed by Jesse Bernstein: https://www.jewishexponent.com/2020/01/23/opinion-community-journalism-every-paper-a-portrait/

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