Last week, the Forward, maybe the only publication I’ve ever publicly railed against, published what, at first glance, seemed like a surprisingly introspective piece about their role in turning the negative aspects of the “orthodox” world into their own personal peep show.
Elissa Strauss, an editor at the Forward, wrote a piece called, "What Did the Orthodox Do Now?!” in which she says, "I fear we’ve reached a tipping point with these tales. Our interest has morphed from an authentic, even humane, curiosity to a fascination rooted in a hunger for sensationalism, shame and that smug feeling one gets when his worldview is validated.”
But then the article (which it seems most orthodox people welcomed with open arms) took a perplexingly bizarre turn.
First, Strauss claims that, “the problem here isn’t the writers.”
As I read this part of the article, and she went on to describe the great work of ex-Orthodox memoirists and the “deep and investigative” work of “outsiders” I started to get excited. Surely she was going to put the responsibility squarely where it belonged!
And then she said, “The problem is us, the audience; we have not been Orthodox, and we have no intentions of ever becoming so, but we just can’t get enough of the anachronistic goings-on inside the eruv.”
Us… the audience?
So according to Strauss, she is no longer an editor of the publication most guilty of the negative actions she describes, but she is a part of the audience.
In other words, in an attempt to hide the fact that she is attacking her audience, she claims to be the audience. In an attempt to shift the blame from herself and her colleagues, Strauss pretends to take the blame.
Before we go further, let’s get it clear: no one deserves the blame for what a publication puts out except for the publication itself. Just like prostitution was one of the earliest jobs invented, gossip has been around just about since the moment people could speak. Why? Just like sex, there will always be a human desire to look down on a different group, to mock the “other”, and to imagine that we are somehow superior to them.
Funnily enough, Strauss goes on to explain why these orthodox-shaming pieces are popular: “We aren’t really interested in the Orthodox. We aren’t willing to see a full picture, the good and the bad, the complexity of these many individuals living so differently than us. Instead, our appetites are limited to the salacious stories, those that shame them and allow us to pat ourselves on the back for being so much better.”
She goes on to say that the desire for these pieces is motivated by, “envy, nostalgia, jealousy or even just a raw curiosity.”
What Strauss is doing, whether she realizes it or not, is explaining why tabloids are popular. They feed those lowest of urges. They allow both the audience and the writers to be lazy. They are popular simply because they exploit their audience, not because they are fulfilling a temporary desire. Rather, a permanent one.
Whether we are shocked at the behavior of celebrities or, as Strauss herself puts it, turning the, “Orthodox [i[i[i[into]ery own Angelina Jolies and Brad Pitts, tabloid stars whose every misstep is quickly turned into clickbait,” the equation remains the same: shaming others, spreading gossip about them, and focusing only on their negative side, sells papers. Or, on the internet, clicks.
It is up to a publication to choose whether to feed the appetite or not.
Strauss, unfortunately, misses this point. She makes it sound as if the fact that the hunger to alienate and viciously attack another community inherently forces sites like the Forward to publish pieces that feed that appetite.
Nowhere in her piece does she suggest that, perhaps, the Forward should have resisted that temptation. Instead, she seems to imply that if all people simply chose not to read said articles, the Forward would choose other things to write about.
Of course, in this day and age, when Buzzfeed is ripping apart all the publications of the past, when everyone is trying to Upworth-ify themselves by selling their souls for the lowest common denominator, perhaps it seems that any article that gets you the most hits is worth writing. Perhaps we even feel like we are fulfilling some civic duty by fulfilling the basest desires of our readers.
And perhaps that is why today most news sites seem like some amalgamation of tabloid and proper news source. The desire to get clicks seems to have destroyed any separation between the two. Now, it seems, editors feel fully justified in heaving all their dirty tactics onto their audience.
Unfortunately, these editors, including Strauss, have forgotten the fundamental truth of morality: we do the right thing because it is right, not because it’s easy.
The worst part of this is what Strauss’s article implies: that nothing will ever change at the Forward until somehow, magically, the desire for tabloid articles disappears. It seems to say, “We’re sorry we’re publishing these articles, but as long as they’re popular we’ll have to keep putting them out!”
This is not an article, as some orthodox have been confused into believing, that implies the Forward will change anything. The complete opposite. It is an attempt to acknowledge the wrong it has done, but a refusal to take any responsibility for that wrong.
And thus, she is missing the most important part of her article: “Degradation is contagious. We are all brought down by a taunt, our discourse compromised, our empathy blunted.”
Contagious… exactly. Which is why the Forward deserves even more blame than she is ignoring: by allowing their site to turn into a gossip-fest, they have spread their contagious disease further.
Until editors learn that they are responsible for the work they publish, nothing will change. In fact, they will get much worse.
The Forward is just as guilty of this as any publication. Unfortunately, now they’re guilty of one more thing: blaming everyone but themselves for that reality.