For years, friends have been trying to convince me to stop reading The New York Times.
Usually they are outraged by its unfair treatment of Israel. Sometimes they are reacting to its overly sympathetic treatment of Israel’s adversaries.
These past few weeks, we talked about antisemitism. The Times talked about its own antisemitism. It printed a rebuke, issued statements of apology, and then ran a lead editorial about the poor decision to include a cartoon that appeared in its international edition, showing the president of the United States as a blind man being led by Benjamin Netanyahu, who was personified as a Jewish dog. The president is wearing a kippah, indicating that he has fallen under the spell of the sinister-looking hound.
While some, including the cartoon’s author, have argued that there was no antisemitic intent to the drawing, the Times conceded that the cartoon was “appalling” and “obviously bigoted.”
The Times’ editorial was criticized in turn for specifically calling out President Trump for “practice[ing] a politics of intolerance for diversity,” although it did note that the president did “condemn” the cartoon the Times published. While the Times’ editorial did say that “both right-wing and left-wing politicians have traded in incendiary tropes, like the idea that the Jews secretly control the financial system or politicians,” they failed specifically to mention examples of left-wing voices such as the controversial statements of Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-MN). Special mention was reserved for the president.
But I am keeping my subscription to The New York Times.
A paper of record that can admit to poor decisions — both its mistakes today and its silence during the Holocaust — should be supported, especially in an era of increased polarization, where facts give way to polemics. Although antisemitism is on the rise, the Times committed itself to “stand in opposition.” Admitting its silence through the 1930s and ’40s, the Times wrote that “that failure still haunts this newspaper.”
A self-reflective and self-critical ethos is a laudable editorial culture.
I do not deny that the Times is imperfect. I find myself quite frustrated with a particular bent of a story on certain days. Sometimes I defend my friends’ criticisms of any given article on any given day, and other times I let it go.
But I am keeping my subscription.
I have spent more time in my life reading The New York Times than any other work of literature, with the possible exception of the Pentateuch. While I in no way intend to attribute any element of sanctity to the paper of record, I do start my day with it religiously. As I feel when I read the Torah, I rarely am surprised by what I read in my morning paper. I already know what happened. I read an article online if it is timely or grabbing, knowing that it will appear on my driveway the following morning. And yet when I see an article in print on the following day, I find myself sometimes thinking about things differently.
My children do not understand why I continue to insist on reading articles from an actual printed paper when everything is on my phone. But for those of us who begin our day with the ritual walk down the driveway to pick up the paper, is there any need for a rational explanation? Just as in synagogue when we use scrolls of parchment, we seem to hold on to antiquated technology for such rituals of reading.
Every morning I brush my teeth. Every morning I recite my morning prayers with tallit and tefillin. And every morning I retrieve my New York Times.
I understand that the literary body that makes up the Times is written over a varied period and is contributed to by different authors, reaching its codified form only after multiple layers of editing. Sometimes I look at the small print that reveals the multiple voices. When some reporting is done from one location and another from somewhere else, I sometimes will break down the original components in my mind, imagining what was contributed from Jerusalem and what from Washington. More often, I am content with the resultant composite text, accepting the work of the editors.
Sometimes I am bothered or angered by the text. Sometimes I wrestle with it. Did the original author mean something else? Or did the editor repair an even more troubling viewpoint? Some mornings I resign myself, as I acknowledge that at least on this or that question, which may be of great importance to me, my newspaper just does not speak for me. At other times, I am in awe of the ambitious vision and epic accomplishment of the work.
The way we read the Times is at least in some ways comparable to the way we read the Torah. The comparison I am proposing is not one of quality, and certainly not one of genre. My point of comparison is the self-reflective experience of reading. In both cases, we read looking to recognize our own voices within the text. When we discover our voice, we feel self-validated. When we encounter dissonance, we are uncomfortable and pained. That’s a worthy process.
David J. Fine is rabbi of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood, New Jersey. A version of this column originally appeared in The North Jersey/Rockland Jewish Standard.
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