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It Sounds Counterintuitive

All media outlets are “mainstream” within the universe of their target audiences


IT sounds counterintuitive, but it’s true: Reading the newspaper has been good for my ruchniyus.

A year ago, I accepted a discounted offer for a digital subscription to the New York Times that enables me to peruse the daily paper on a filtered device. I don’t usually spend lots of time reading, but instead skim the descriptions of the day’s articles to see if there’s anything of interest or that might be useful.

The Times’ long reputation for anti-Israel bias, both subtle and overt, has contributed to making the paper slightly less popular among Orthodox Jews than heart disease, and deservedly so. It has also often been accused of a slant against religious Jews and Judaism, and over the years I’ve written a number of pieces debunking and defending against Times reportage and punditry of that sort.

Still, the case for the latter contention is a bit more complicated, because some of what we insiders see as conscious bias is simply the cluelessness of outsiders toward any culture foreign to them, which is an occupational hazard of journalism in general. And the fact that the paper has run its fair share of positive, even warm pieces about our religious communities, and religion in general, might indicate that it’s more about the particular writer than the institution as a whole.

Still, the Times has yet to publish an essay defending the Spanish Inquisition and the Catholic Church’s 19th century kidnapping of the little Jewish boy Edoardo Mortara — which actually did appear in the prominent right-wing magazines National Review and First Things, respectively, in recent years. It’s a reminder that sympathy toward religion and sympathy toward Jews are not one and the same, and we disregard the difference at our own risk.

Reading the Times regularly has enabled me to see the words “mainstream media bias” for what they are: an empty phrase. The words are true enough, but essentially meaningless. For one thing, are the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Examiner and Fox News and National Review and the Daily Wire and the entirety of the talk-radio universe, which reach many millions of Americans every day, somehow not mainstream? And are they strictly nonpartisan reporters of facts, with no editorial stance, featuring no commentary on current events and issues and no obvious overall slant to them? Closer to home, is the same not true on both counts of all frum publications?

The term “mainstream media bias” is intended to conjure up the image of a courageous, embattled right-wing media, struggling to attract readers and facing sustained persecution from the all-powerful liberal media. The truth, however, is that all media outlets are “mainstream” within the universe of their target audiences. All exhibit “bias,” too, in the sense that they take editorial positions and feature only the pundits they choose, slanting toward one or another side of the political spectrum. Bias, albeit more subtle, creeps into all news coverage, too. That’s just journalism — and human beings — at work.

So the Times has a clear liberal bias, in its editorials, in the predominance of left-leaning commentators, in the choice of stories to cover or ignore, the emphasis given them and the way they are written, and its overall orientation. The paper’s management has also been guilty at times of more egregious forms of journalistic bias, such as muzzling or dismissing writers or editors — just as right-wing publications have been.

But here are some other things the Times has as well — at least in its opinion section. In addition to the several conservative pundits who are part of its opinion section rotation, the paper regularly invites right-wingers into its pages to offer their perspectives even on the most contentious issues — rock-ribbed kind, not those insufferable RINO squishes — people like Sohrab Ahmari, Adrian Vermeule, and Patrick Deneen, all of them hard-right integralists arguing for an explicitly Catholic political order.

When the Times featured seven commentators offering their ideas for new amendments to the US Constitution, one of them was Alexandra DeSanctis, a writer at National Review, who advocated an “amendment that would affirm that, like each of us, every unborn human being possesses the intrinsic right to life,” thereby putting an end to “the dehumanizing injustice of abortion and securing the right to life of unborn human beings.” The liberal holy grail itself, assailed right on the Times’ front page, with no equal-time response.

When talk-radio icon Rush Limbaugh died, the paper featured four writers reflecting on his legacy. Ben Shapiro praised him, another right-winger rued the “long run of political disasters and cultural defeats” conservatism suffered during his era, a left-winger criticized him, and yet another liberal argued that disdaining him didn’t give license to be gleeful at his demise.

The pages of the Times also feature many thoughtful exchanges between right and left. Writers like Ezra Klein and Joan Coaston often engage in in-depth, non-adversarial interviews with conservatives about their views or have conservatives debate each other. Each week, conservative Bret Stephens and liberal Gail Collins banter about the latest headlines.

Last week, there was a lengthy, thoughtful piece by National Review’s Nate Hochman on the religious right and the new cultural conservatism; there was also an op-ed about the Supreme Court’s famous Heller decision on Second Amendment gun rights that’s cowritten by John Bash, a former law clerk to conservative Antonin Scalia who wrote the majority opinion in Heller; and Kate Shaw, a former law clerk to liberal John Paul Stephens, who wrote the dissent.

Shaw, now a law professor in New York, and Bash, a lawyer in Texas, acknowledge at the outset that they “continue to hold very different views about both gun regulation and how the Constitution should be interpreted. We disagree about whether Heller should be extended to protect citizens who wish to carry firearms outside the home for self-defense and, if so, how states may regulate that activity….”

But they joined together to write this op-ed because “despite our fundamental disagreements, we are both concerned that Heller has been misused in important policy debates about our nation’s gun laws….” That’s the kind of thing that’s very healthy for America, and anyone who cares about this country should hope to see more of.

But perhaps even more important than the space the editorial pages of the Times makes for right-wing views is that it features strong critiques of left-wing positions by liberals themselves. Week in, week out, writers like David Leonhardt, Ezra Klein, John McWhorter, and too many others to mention, take progressive and liberal policies and politicians, including the president, to task with no holds barred.

By all means, if you’d like to hate on the Times, go right ahead. But do so for reasons that comport with reality, not based on some bill of goods you’ve been sold about the “mainstream media,” a caricature of a hotbed of conniving journalists who find no fault with anything to the left and every fault with anything to the right.

So why has my ruchniyus been enhanced by a subscription to the Times? Because it has brought home to me something I knew in the abstract: That most of the issues that people like to blithely dispatch with 30-second sound-bites and cartoonish, one-dimensional, good-versus-evil explanations, are in fact complex and multifaceted, and when two sides face off over them, the truth is often somewhere in the middle.

Economics, immigration, crime, foreign policy, you name it, all require reading and thinking through a maze of considerations and implications. This is what Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb, discussing outsiders’ critiques of Judaism, calls the “burden of competent scholarship.” Translation: When you talk about stuff, you really have to know what you’re talking about. Too often, however, not only do people not know, but don’t even have any conception of just how much they don’t know. But that’s okay, because the other person usually doesn’t really want a real conversation about those things anyway.

And that — thanks to the Times — means more time to learn and less conversation unfit for the Shabbos table and the beis medrash.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 914. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com)

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