Thank you, Jack Shafer

I was a GetReligion fan before I ever began contributing here. And I’d been interested in media criticism for years.

My parents encouraged us kids to read both Denver newspapers, which I did daily for years. But they also encouraged us to think about what we read and not just accept something as true because it was in the paper. They would point out to us, time to time, how a story was slanted to give preference to one side or how certain assumptions were made in the organization or execution. My mother in particular has always been a skeptic and good at spotting problems with a given narrative.

Still, it wasn’t until I read — and met — Jack Shafer that I realized media criticism could be a legitimate vocation. I’ve been thinking about that in light of the news that Shafer was laid off from Slate last week. He wrote PressBox, a media criticism site, that was fun for everyone, not just reporters. I took the news of his layoff hard. He is far and away my favorite media critic.

Turns out that I’m not alone. As the news spread throughout social media sites, people lamented the loss of his PressBox column and wondered what he’d do now.

I wanted to highlight a few things from an article on Shafer that happened to run online the same day he was let go. The piece headlined “A Fearless Media Critic” is from the American Journalism Review.

The curious thing about what Jack Shafer does is the people best equipped to evaluate him are his competitors, whose beats sometimes include one another. Ask them and they will put Shafer at or near the top of a short list of the best media critics in the country.

“Here is what Jack Shafer is,” says Erik Wemple, who blogs about the media for “Obviously, very talented, tremendously original and highly informed. But more important, he is utterly uncorrupted by friendship, money, power, anything. He is ruthless with people he doesn’t know, but what is impressive is how ruthless he can be with the people he knows. He’s impervious to outside influence, and it’s a glorious thing to watch.” Although he has been writing about media in one form or another for more than 25 years, Shafer’s passion and fearlessness make him a favorite of a younger audience with expectations of the chainsaw opinion writing of bloggers, says Hamilton Nolan, who handles media criticism in his role as editor of Gawker.

Nolan sees Shafer as perhaps the sole media critic in the country who is consistently unafraid to print what others only think. “Shafer writes much younger, like someone who doesn’t have as much of a career stake,” Nolan says. “It’s rarer to maintain that edge as you climb the ladder. He shoots from the hip, but it’s not a mechanism, because you know when you read his column that he’s a guy who has all this deep knowledge of journalism.”

Here is another helpful tidbit:

Shafer believes in a few fundamental rules for writing about anything: that the thinking behind the column be original; that the underpinning of a point of view be supplied by solid reporting; and that the conventional wisdom be avoided at all costs.

Shafer isn’t known for analyzing coverage of religion news, although he did come up with the term “Jewspotting” to criticize the myriad New York Times pieces about Jews being “discovered” in far-off locales. Defrocking trend stories is one of his specialties, particularly trend pieces about supposed upticks in narcotics use or ridiculous fashions. He thought the Times should change its Style section name to the “Bogus Trend” section.

My background is in economics and in the academic community, there are plenty of thin-skinned people. While journalists tend to be really good at going after things or people we dislike, we really don’t like it if our work is questioned. If you’re one of those people who is conflict averse, media criticism can be difficult. Shafer really set a great example of being unafraid to go after a wide variety of media outlets and memes:

This fearlessness is what sets Shafer apart and what will help his work endure, says media critic Seth Mnookin, who begins this fall teaching a graduate science writing program at MIT. Many media critics, Mnookin says, write for other media members, forgetting just how small that audience is.

“Jack Shafer is very aware that you can make a choice. You can write for the cubicle next to you or you can write for everybody else,” Mnookin says. “Because he doesn’t write for the person in the next cubicle, he is not afraid of offending the person in the next cubicle.”

It’s so much easier said than done. And I suspect that this has something to do with the reason that there are so many fewer female media critics than male media critics. We tend to be a bit more sensitive to criticism.

One thing that Shafer helped me understand is how skepticism is the most useful tool a journalist has. Another is that media criticism is really something only someone who loves journalism can do well. Tmatt talks about this a lot, but many critics just attack the media and see problems wherever they look. They fail to see all the wonderful work that journalists do. Inability to see what is done well hampers a critic’s ability to truly analyze what’s been done poorly.

AdWeek interviewed him about the piece and being let go. Here are a couple of the questions and answers from that exchange:

There was a piece about you in the American Journalism Review today, describing how you write for everyone, not just the guy in the next cubicle. Do you agree with that portrayal?

I got into the press criticism racket because as the editor of Washington City Paper in 1985, I couldn’t get anybody to write press criticism. As strange as this may seem, in 1985 everyone was worried that if they wrote negatively about The Washington Post and The New York Times and Time and Newsweek and the dominant publications of that time, that they’d screw themselves out of a job. I think what the writer of the AJR piece accurately described was that I started writing about the press and continued to write about the press as if I have no career—that I shouldn’t worry, and that no one should worry if they’re writing about the press. They should write about the press the same way they write about GE, or President Obama, or the New York Yankees. They shouldn’t be thinking about their next job.

The piece was very flattering. It was my ambition to write that way, but I leave it to the readers of the piece and you and others to decide whether I’ve accomplished that. You know, when you read a flattering piece about yourself. … I mean, have you ever read a flattering piece about yourself?

I got a good report card once.

I got a report card in first grade that said, “Jack excels in his studies and really enjoys math and English, but he starts fights on the playground that he brings back into the classroom.” I’ve tried to make that my operating premise: Let’s start some fights and see who wins.

I have no doubt that Shafer will continue to do great work. I hope that some of it will be media criticism. And I’m so appreciative of him speaking to a group of young journalists many years ago, giving us his tips for journalism and media criticism.

Image via Reason.TV

Jewspotting in China

The Wall Street Journal tackles problems with religious freedom in China on both is news and editorial pages this week. In the opinion piece, the editors argue that China may have succeeded in using breakdowns to deter resistance in the past, but shows how recent actions by Buddhists, Muslims and Catholics show the crackdowns are now creating more resistance.

By depriving religious and ethnic minorities the space to preserve their culture and practice their faith, Beijing is alienating the next generation who have rising expectations for personal freedom. A clash between the Party’s culture of control and the Chinese people’s growing consciousness about their rights looms.

Perhaps they should have added Jews.

In “Chinese Jews Face Existential Questions,” we learn that a tiny community is viewed with suspicion by both Communist Party leaders and Orthodox Jews. Now, I tend to agree with media critic Jack Shafer when he mocks the New York Times for its “Jewspotting.” That’s where the paper “expresses astonishment at members of the tribe living in out-of-the-way places.” Sometimes that’s a place like Montana. Other times it’s a place like Peru. It frequently chronicles the dwindling number of Jews in Iraq. Or Bahrain.

But other papers do it, too. And while this Wall Street Journal story has a bit of the “Jewspotting” feel to it, it’s also a very interesting story about what makes someone a Jew. It’s fluffy in style but has some nice content. Here’s a sample:

For much of the past millennium, Jews in Kaifeng— descendants of merchants who arrived here from Persia, probably around the 11th century—have been struggling with an existential question: What does it mean to be Jewish?

The handful of Kaifengers who go to Israel are sometimes floored to discover they need to go through a rabbi-certified conversion to be accepted as Jews, while the ones staying home squabble over which of them are really Jewish.

The question has surprising consequences in this dusty walled city in central China. According to the Chinese government, there are no Kaifeng Jews because there are no Chinese Jews. Judaism isn’t one of China’s five official religions and Jews aren’t designated as one of the country’s 55 official minorities. Orthodox Jews have a similar view, though for different reasons. Kaifeng Jews trace their heritage through their father, as Chinese traditionally do, while orthodox Jews define Judaism as passing through the mother.

“They may stem from Jewish ancestry, but they aren’t Jewish,” says Rabbi Shimon Freundlich, who runs the orthodox Chabad House in Beijing. “There hasn’t been a Jewish community in Kaifeng in 400 years.”

Except there is one, though it’s divided and diminished. Somewhere between 500 and 1,000 people in the city say they are descendants of Kaifeng Jews and cling to at least some Jewish traditions. A canvas poster at No. 21 Teaching the Torah Lane announces the street as the site of a synagogue that was destroyed in an 1860 flood and never rebuilt. Inside a tiny courtyard house, “Esther” Guo Yan works as a tour guide and sells knick-knacks decorated with Jewish stars.

The article discusses how the Kaifeng community learns about Jewish traditions from the tourists who stop by. She has yet to fast a full day for Yom Kippur and she says that Orthodox Judaism has an unfair standard, “We read the Torah with Eastern thoughts; deal with it.” Interesting quotes.

We learn about the Jewish merchants who arrived a thousand years ago and how they blended in ethnically and became somewhat forgotten. A Jesuit missionary spread the news in the early 17th century. By the early 1900s, we’re told, none of the population could read Hebrew and they were called “the Muslims with the blue caps,” when they wore yarmulkes. This quote gives a good look at what it was like to be a Kaifeng Jew:

“In our family, we didn’t eat pork, that’s for sure,” says Nina Wang, a 24-year-old Kaifeng native who now lives in Israel and underwent orthodox Jewish conversion. The family had menorahs and Sabbath cups, she said, “but we didn’t know what to do with those things.”

There’s much more history about Jews escaping from the Holocaust and the Communist takeover in 1949. There’s even a Jew for Jesus subplot to the piece.

Here’s an interesting anecdote about the lack of religious freedom:

Today, Kaifeng Jews tread with caution given China’s ban on unauthorized religious activity. The Jewish descendants say they rarely meet in groups of 10—the number required by Jewish law for a religious service—for fear the government might consider that a political gathering. They make DVDs of themselves wearing traditional Chinese garb while they light Sabbath candles, to portray the act as a folk custom.

A concern with the piece is how it begins and the photo accompanying it. It’s a great photo of Zhang Xinwang, who calls himself “Moishe.” I was curious about this story and did some looking around. Turns out that the story of the “Kaifeng Jews” was extensively reported in the West in the 1700s and that they’ve been Jewspotted intermittently since then. Reading around (such as this story in Covenant), I wonder if Xinwang is more a government-appointed Jew than a member of the community. He’s not revealed in the Journal piece as a member of the Communist Party. Has the Party gotten involved in the leadership decisions for this community? It would be more noteworthy, knowing what we know of China, if they hadn’t.

The NYT’s Jewspotting


I wish Brad Greenberg would rise from the depths of law school finals because I would love to read his take on a recent New York Times piece “Yes, Miky, There Are Rabbis in Montana.”

The author tells a story about how a Hasidic rabbi is helping the Montana cop speak Hebrew to his dog. How cute, right? People love animal stories, I guess, and what better way to combine it than with religion?

Here’s some background on the Jewish population in Montana.

Though there are few Jews in Montana today, there once were many. In the late 19th century, there were thriving Jewish populations in the mining towns, where Jews emigrated to work as butchers, clothiers, jewelers, tailors and the like.

The city of Butte had kosher markets, a Jewish mayor, a B’nai B’rith lodge and three synagogues. Helena, the capital city, had Temple Emanu-El, built in 1891 with a seating capacity of 500. The elegant original facade still stands, but the building was sold and converted to offices in the 1930s, when the congregation had dwindled to almost nothing, the Jewish population having mostly assimilated or moved on to bigger cities.

… Hanukkah has a special significance in Montana these days. In Billings in 1993, vandals broke windows in homes that were displaying menorahs. In a response organized by local church leaders, more than 10,000 of the city’s residents and shopkeepers put make-shift menorahs in their own windows, to protect the city’s three dozen or so Jewish families. The vandalism stopped.

The writer says that in a minor revival, Montana now has three rabbis. That seems like an itty bitty revival to me, so I’m a little bit confused why this is newsworthy.

Without Greenberg, I turn to Slate‘s Jack Shafer, who takes it on in his piece “Jewspotting: In which the New York Times expresses astonishment at members of the tribe living in out-of-the-way places.” Shafer gives links to several previous Times articles that suggest this is a larger trend for the newspaper. “Pseudo-exotic Jewspotting has become so common in the Times that the paper might as well turn the genre into a standing feature,” he writes.

Jewspotting stories appear to be about something when they’re really about nothing. Then why such enthusiasm for them at the Times? Because journalists love to write about holdouts–the guy who refuses to sell his home, the Papua New Guinea tribe that won’t become “civilized,” the last blacksmith in town, the last survivor of World War I, even the last Oldsmobile. Rarity stories are easy to write, and their sappiness makes them even easier to read.

In a blog post for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Ben Harris replies, “Why We Love Jewspotting.”

Every time I’d tell someone I was going to write about Jews in Arkansas, I got the same response: There are Jews in Arkansas?!?

Yes, I’d tell them, but only a handful. Clearly, this was news and I was reporting it.

We might ask, of course, why that seems so surprising. Jews are a pretty well dispersed people (although considerably less so as time goes on). And ultimately my standard for news is different than the Times’. I write for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, so what’s happening with the Jews of Arkansas, or Montana, or wherever, is intrinsically newsworthy to us.

But if Shafer is really in need of a news flash, he might try this one: The New York Times really likes writing about Jew-y stuff.

The rest of the Times article is devoted to the dog story.

So all is well in the Jewish community here because the Hasidic rabbi is helping the Montana cop speak Hebrew to his dog. It is good news all around. The officer keeps the Capitol safe, and the Hebrew pooch is feeling more at home hearing his native tongue.

But the big winner is the rabbi, a recent arrival from Brooklyn who is working hard (against tough odds) to bring his Lubavitch movement to Montana. He has been scouring the state for anyone who can speak Hebrew, and is elated to have found a German shepherd he can talk to.

I’m not heartless. I love dogs. I love that apparently, all is well in the Jewish community in Montana. But I’m with Shafer on this one: the story seems lacking. I’d be much more interested in hearing from the Rabbis on what it means to be in a community in Montana rather than in New York City or another place where there are more Jews. What are the challenges? Are there any benefits? This is where I’d love Greenberg’s take because I don’t want to dismiss the story entirely. But is there a way to give the story more umph? Weigh in, my friends.