LITHWICK: We Chronicle in Times of Mayhem


It is not news that the news media are dying. It’s not news that Jewish newspapers are also vanishing. Writing in The Forward this week about the future of Jewish media, Rob Eshman, national editor of The Forward and former publisher and editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, points out that “for years now, the forces that have wreaked havoc, forced change and inspired innovation in the general media have done exactly the same in the confines of Jewish media. Tens of thousands of journalists had already been laid off. Free digital news and social media feeds had already battled paywalls for eyeballs and attention spans. Print advertising and subscriptions had already tanked.” COVID-19 has exacerbated the problem, resulting in lost advertising, industry-wide furloughs, and a public unwilling to spend scarce dollars on something they would prefer to get for free.

There is, however, a cost to free media. As the adage goes, if you aren’t paying for the product, you’re likely the product. The media revolution of the past decade means not just that the sale of your private information has been the engine behind growth, but also that if you aren’t supporting journalism, you are captive to the interests of those who do pay. Mass consolidation of print and broadcast journalism has meant that the reporting you consume may not be the reporting you want or need. And the unfortunate endpoint of this experiment in drying up a free press, is a collective loss of trust in whatever remains. If we don’t zealously support the real news we crave, we invite “fake news” to fill the vacuum it leaves behind.

I was struck in reading last week’s parasha, Bamidbar, that even as the Children of Israel wandered through the wilderness for 40 years, they took painstaking care to account for the names, and lineage, and tribes of the community they had created. It would have been easy in the confusion of constant, rootless, travel and uncertainty, to simply give up on the arduous task of census-taking and record-keeping; after all, what did it matter who was in the mobile collective and who was not? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has suggested that this act of careful, meticulous counting, even in the wilderness, perhaps especially in the wilderness, reflects Judaism’s “principled insistence – like no other civilization before – on the dignity and integrity of the individual.” So that even as the Children of Israel appear to be a homeless, undifferentiated mass, the essential nature of the individual cannot be lost.

There are so many ways in which the story of COVID-19 is captured by the tension between individuals and collectives; whether it’s skirmishes over the wearing of masks, or the pain and isolation of sheltering alone. But I think another lesson from the period of wandering and uncertainty in Bamidbar, is that careful counting and accounting and chronicling and reporting are urgently needed in times of turmoil, more so than in times of tranquility.  It’s easy to dismiss the need for record-keeping in crisis as a luxury; something that takes time and resources better directed toward food, navigation and shelter. But this year I was struck by the lesson that we keep records even in times of panic and precariousness, not simply as a means of preserving the dignity of every individual, but also a way of signalling the values and priorities of the group, even when the group is inchoate and uncertain.

By that token, journalism isn’t just, as the cliché holds, a first draft of history. It is also a census, a record, a marker, of what was happening and who was present and where they went and what their names were.  I am reminded again this week that a core Jewish value is that we chronicle in times of mayhem, as well as in times of repose. That means that if you can afford to support quality journalism, it needs your support now more than ever, and if you can afford to support quality Jewish journalism, it, too, needs you desperately as well. Our ancestors endured, cohered, and even flourished in the wilderness. We know this because they took the time to record who they were and what they did. Like them, we will endure, cohere and maybe flourish through this pandemic. But news cannot thrive in the wilderness. We must fight for it, work for it and protect it, and in exchange, it will remind us of who we were.

Dahlia Lithwick covers the courts and the law for Slate and hosts its legal podcast, Amicus.