Are journalists being too harsh to Tablet?

The Jewish online magazine made a mistake. Should that overshadow everything else it's accomplished?

In the TV series Breaking Bad, a science teacher’s terminal cancer diagnosis prompts him to cook meth to make as much money for his family as possible before he dies. Twisted logic, but it makes more sense than the idea of a Jewish online magazine publishing a commentary about that show that spends three paragraphs relating it to the author’s belief that Holocaust survivors—including her own grandparents—are “villains masquerading as victims.” Yet that’s exactly what happened on July 13, when Tablet ran a piece by Anna Breslaw entitled
Breaking Bad Karma: how the cancer victim at the center of the AMC series justifies my skepticism of Holocaust survivors.”

Breslaw’s article has elicited an overwhelmingly negative response from many Jewish journalists, including on CJR. Their outrage ranges from Danielle Berrin’s post in The Jewish Journal that called Breslaw’s piece little more than a “juvenile gaffe,” to John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary magazine, who called it “the most disgraceful piece of antisemitism published in years.”

The piece has attracted almost 300 comments, the vast majority of them expressing anger and hurt. Some of those comments suggested that this was Tablet’s goal—there’s no such thing as bad publicity, right? The piece is still one of the most popular articles on the site over a week after its publication. It’s probably generated a lot of outside traffic. Breslaw, as Gawker-owned Jezebel’s weekend editor, should be especially savvy about drawing traffic to her articles.

Was Tablet being deliberately provocative to generate those pageviews advertisers covet? Morton Landowne, executive director of Nextbook, Inc., Tablet’s publisher, said that is “absolutely not” the case. Tablet is funded by philanthropists, he said, not advertisers.

So why, then, would Tablet, which New York Magazine called “a must-read for young politically and culturally engaged Jews” just last month, publish something so seemingly contrary to its mission statement? Editor in chief Alana Newhouse declined to tell CJR, though her short piece addressing the controversy on the magazine’s daily blog on July 18 provided some explanation: “certain staffers thought the piece was an honest attempt by a young writer to use Jean Améry and Breaking Bad to better understand her own painful family history; a number did not—with a few arguing forcefully that it should not have been published.”

In retrospect, those arguing few were probably right. In an email to CJR, Newhouse wrote:

Tablet’s mission has always been to provide the broadest possible conversation about contemporary Jewish life, and maintaining these wide boundaries can lead to the inclusion of material that is inappropriate, troubling, or wrong. It did in this instance, and we apologized.

Tablet isn’t wrong to have those intentions. If it wants to do true journalism, it has to. The fact that it’s won two National Magazine Awards since its June 2009 launch speaks to how well it’s done that in the past.

The mistake Tablet made was in the piece it chose to start that conversation. The experience of a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, and the questions of what people had to do to survive are complex issues that require a great deal of skill and nuance to explore, especially when aimed at Jewish readers who will be sensitive to them. You can’t do it in just three paragraphs. You shouldn’t do it in what is otherwise a commentary on a TV show that has nothing to do with the Holocaust (Breslaw’s attempt to connect the two does not wash).

But it would be nearly as big of a mistake to judge an entire magazine by one post. Podhoretz and The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg have done this, going beyond blaming Breslaw to denigrating the entire publication. Podhoretz wrote, in his typical hyperbolic style, “how anyone at Tablet responsible for the acceptance and publication of this piece of evil filth - no other term will do - can look at herself or himself in the mirror today is a mystery that surpasseth understanding.” Goldberg expressed similar sentiments: “Tablet needs to ask itself why it would publish such a horror … It should apologize to those victims of the Nazis who remain alive today.“

But Tablet did respond to the uproar. First, on July 18, daily blog editor Adam Chandler posted: “I see how she arrives at what she does, though I strongly disagree with what she concludes,” Chandler wrote. “More importantly, though, I don’t deny her the right to go there. It takes a lot to do that.” Later that same day, Newhouse wrote her note to readers, noting that “it was never anyone’s intention” to hurt readers with a piece some saw as a “blanket condemnation of all Holocaust survivors … For this,” she wrote, “we are deeply sorry.”

The questions now becomes: Is Tablet’s response enough? Podhoretz (who declined to comment) and Goldberg (who couldn’t be reached for comment before deadline) don’t seem to think so.

Others argue in defense of the publication. Mark Oppenheimer, who writes the “Beliefs” column for The New York Times and has freelanced for Tablet, saw the piece as an exploration of Breslaw’s relationship with her family rather than a statement about all Holocaust survivors.

“This is so clearly not a case of someone who has written an anti-Semitic piece that the whole thing is fairly troubling,” he said. As for the broader implications for Tablet, Oppenheimer asked, “Ultimately all of these magazines need greater readerships, not smaller ones. It just strikes me as really irresponsible to try to tar either this writer or a magazine with these horrible terms.”

Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, used stronger terms: “The first paragraph of the piece was one of the most sickening things I’ve read in many years,” he told CJR. But Wieseltier saw the decision to run the piece as a “stupid mistake” for which Tablet has sufficiently apologized. (Wieseltier and Oppenheimer are credited as “contributing editors” on Tablet’s masthead).

Landowne, the publishing executive, agreed, saying “the punishment didn’t fit the crime … Some of the hysterical language that was used was totally uncalled for and unfair.”

I do think Tablet has enough “credit in the bank,” as Wieseltier put it, that its readers should give it another chance. It’s not like Tablet has a pattern of publishing anti-Holocaust victim pieces, even if Breslaw might. I think we can assume that Tablet will be more careful in vetting its contributors and how they approach controversial issues in the future.

Breslaw also has many lessons to learn from this. One is not to draw conclusions about an entire group of people based on the actions of a few. John Podhoretz and Jeffrey Goldberg would do well to learn this too.

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Sara Morrison is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @saramorrison. Tags: , ,