How I lost my professional cool and succumbed to gossamer social media satisfaction

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GetReligion readers: Allow me to offer my own mea culpa. It’s not for something as juicy -- or as damaging to our  national conversation -- as anything said by Roseanne Barr or Samantha Bee. But given what I do here at GetReligion, it's worth noting.

Before you start reading all my past "Global Wire" posts -- go ahead; I dare you -- it’s not for anything I've posted on this website. Though I’m sure more than a few of you think I should be apologizing for just about everything I’ve posted here over the past three-plus years.

Rather, it's for a story on anti-Semitism in Western Europe produced by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency news service that I reposted on my personal Facebook page. It violated whatever advice I repeat here ad infinitum.

Some respected Facebook friends called me out on the post, and rightly so. Hence, my mea culpa. (More on this below.)

What advice do I refer to: Approach the journalism you consume from a place of media literacy.

Consider what’s missing from a story. Is it meant to play to your fears and biases? Was important context left out? How about alternative viewpoints? Do not let emotions overwhelm your intellect.

Above all, perhaps, don’t further circulate a story that fails the smell test by impulsively reposting it on social media, where the echo chamber is sure to run with it as if it was unquestionable gospel.

I’m a presumed expert on all this -- or so I've convinced my GR bosses. So if only for the sake of this post, please accept that I actually am one, despite this mea culpa.

So just what am I apologizing for?

I fell prey to the JTA post because, as a Jew, it pushed my buttons relating to growing anti-Semitism at a moment when I personally felt particularly vulnerable and worried over the state of the world and because one of my sons is seriously ill.

In short, I acted out of anger, frustration and a sense of helplessness to experience a hit of fleeting social media satisfaction. That powerful emotional combination prompts too many of us -- including members of the journalism professional class, such as myself -- to abandon critical thinking, even if only long enough to hit the repost key.

Now for the story, as it appeared in The Times of Israel:

AMSTERDAM -- Nearly a quarter of British respondents to a poll on attitudes to minorities in Western Europe said they would be unwilling to accept Jews as family members.
The Pew Research Center’s report titled “Being Christian in Western Europe” was published Wednesday and contains results from interviews with more than 24,000 randomly selected adults in 15 countries.
In the United Kingdom, 23 percent of 1,841 respondents interviewed said “no” when asked “Would you be willing to accept Jews as members of your family?” It was the second-highest highest proportion of naysayers, directly after Italy’s 25 percent. The poll has a margin of error of up to 3 percent.
The highest level of acceptance of Jews as family members was in the Netherlands, where 96 percent of 1,497 respondents said they would have no problem with a Jew joining their family.
In Germany, 19 percent of 2,211 respondents said they would not accept a Jewish relative. In Austria, non-acceptance was at 21 percent. The mostly Catholic nations of Spain, Portugal and Ireland also had high non-acceptance levels at 13, 18 and 18 percent, respectively.
The same question was asked about Muslims, and their acceptance was lower than that of Jews in all 15 countries surveyed, with a median difference of 10 percentage points.
In Italy, 12 percent of 1,804 respondents said they would unwilling to accept even a Jewish neighbor. That figure was 10 percent in Ireland and Portugal, 9 percent in the United Kingdom and 8 percent in Spain, Germany, Switzerland and Austria.
The statement that “Jews always pursue their own interests and not the interest of the country they live in” received the highest levels of agreement in Portugal and Spain, with 36 and 31 percent of 1,501 and 1,499 respondents in those two countries, respectively. Next were Italy, Belgium and Norway, with 31, 28 and 25 percent, respectively.

Mind you, the above quote wasn’t just the top of the story. That was the story in its entirety.

Pretty thin, I’d say on reflection. A meaningless extraction of decontextualized statistics cherry-picked from a complex Pew survey, that only in part addressed Western European attitudes toward Jews and other minorities.

Yet I reposted it. If only I had been on Ambien when I did it. Then I’d at least have an excuse equally inadequate as the offered by Roseanne.

I immediately heard from my friend Larry Derfner, a left-of-center American-Israeli author and journalist working at Haaretz, Israel’s leading liberal newspaper. He argued that the more important finding was that Muslims fared even worse than Jews in the survey (see paragraph six above.)

I responded, arguing that JTA, a Jewish news agency, was merely playing to its narrow slice of the journalism pie. It did nothing but what you’d expect any news provider serving a distinct religious or ethic community to do.

I think my response was sound. Larry still thought JTA had mislead its readers. Call it a tie.

Next up was a friend who asked to remain nameless because he's the interfaith director of a major American Jewish defense organization. He feared his comment might spark unwanted blowback. In response to the survey question asking Western European non-Jews whether they’d accept a Jew into their family, he replied:

... and ninety per cent of Israeli Jews do not want gentiles in their families !!!

A fair comment underscoring that bias is far from restricted to Western European Christians.

But the must complete and pertinent comment I received came from Marc Gopin, an American Jewish academic and conflict resolution practitioner who lives in the Washington, D.C., area:

Ira Rifkin: has it been going up or down? you cant telll from this. also it means 75% have no problem wth this. But for most Jews it is most do have a problem with intermarriage. it is not indicator of hate. it is an indicator of the desire to continue one's religion. not a big deal. now the other question on jews and devotion to country is a bigger and more interesting question. that too is pretty good. but we need information on this. is it referring to some jewish nature like old antisemitism or it is about israel. that matters.

Sorry for the hurried tone of Marc's response, but I think his point is still clear. I failed to consider a host of complex factors.

Bottom line. My skill set failed me because I reacted emotionally rather than mindfully. It’s a media trap that can nab any of us.

Meanwhile, here’s an example of much better mainstream coverage of the Pew survey. It's from the Associated Press via The Salt Lake Tribune.

I sure hope this confession allows me to hold on to my fabulously successful TV show. 

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