Of the pieces published here this summer, the one that made the biggest impact by far was Matti Friedman’s incisive opus on the media and its coverage of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Unlike some readers, who appeared to inhale Matti’s 4,000 words with unseemly glee, I found this piece quite painful to read—for what it said, but also because of one important thing it left out.
“While global mania about Israeli actions has come to be taken for granted, it is actually the result of decisions made by individual human beings in positions of responsibility—in this case, journalists and editors,” he wrote. “The world is not responding to events in this country, but rather to the description of these events by news organizations. The key to understanding the strange nature of the response is thus to be found in the practice of journalism, and specifically in a severe malfunction that is occurring in that profession—my profession—here in Israel.” Matti went on to describe a collection of decisions and judgment calls that, taken together, present a deeply problematic posture toward covering the region’s most intractable conflict.
But there’s also a broader context at play, one that Matti didn’t mention: the increasingly fast disintegration of the American journalism industry. I’d overwhelm you if I tried to list the names of all of the news outlets that have shuttered in the past decade, and I’d overwhelm and depress myself if I attempted an inventory of the cuts to budgets and staffs at those that remain. And yes, some of the newer outlets that have emerged do produce news and employ reporters, including foreign correspondents. But these are rare, and that’s the problem. Journalism, like everything in life except for art, thrives on competition. It’s simple math: The more outlets there are focused on a given story, the better it will be covered. Fewer reporters mean not just fewer stories, but more pallid, less nuanced and, ultimately, less accurate coverage.
So what does this have to do with you? Well, the ails currently afflicting American journalism can broadly be blamed on a series of astonishingly dumb decisions on the part of the alleged titans of this industry (and not, by the way, on the “technology” boogeyman, and you Luddites are free to email me for a full explanation of why.) But one of the effects of this crisis has been the devastating impression, now held on the part of most consumers of media, that reporting should either be free or very cheap to produce. It shouldn’t, nor should you want it to be. News reports are the ingredients from which the meals of our opinion are made. Ever wonder why everyone around you suddenly has an abundance of (often thin) viewpoints on seemingly any and every topic of the day? As actual reporting recedes from our daily lives, too many of us are holding the rhetorical equivalent of Happy Meals—high in the calories of opinion, low on the protein of facts and actual experience.
The latest blow came yesterday, when the New York Times announced its plan to lay off 100 jobs—a number that, according to the paper’s own report, represents 7.5 percent of the newsroom staff. This seems like as a good an opportunity as any to mention another one of this summer’s posts: Rabbi Richard Block’s cri de coeur against the Grey Lady, in which he explained that his exasperation over what he sees as the paper’s slanted coverage of Israel had led him to cancel his subscription. This isn’t a phenomenon limited to Rabbi Block, or to the New York Times. People from all points on the political spectrum seemed particularly quick this summer to “punish,” as someone put it to me, news outlets that had upset them.
I’m sympathetic to frustration with the media, but this impulse actually steepens the problem. If what one wants is fuller, fairer, better news—on Israel or on anything else—the answer is to keep as many news outlets in business as possible. And it doesn’t matter whether you share what you believe to be a given outlet’s perspective or editorial policy. If it is paying reporters and publishing news, it is enriching the entire journalistic ecosystem.
And so, this 5775, I’m pledging to renew all of my subscriptions, and I’m adding one I don’t particularly like—no, I won’t tell you which one—for good luck. After the summer we had, God knows we could use it.