Why Did the New York Times Run Alice Walker’s Unfiltered Antisemitism?

 The furious backlash against the Alice Walker column apparently caught the Times off guard. Their response, a full four days after the initial piece, came in the form of a carefully worded interview with Book Review editor Pamela Paul. Paul’s answers to the questions posed to her—not actual questions by a reporter, but, the Times wrote, de facto “composite” questions, “drawn on reader feedback”—read as evasive and downright insulting to readers. For example, asked whether, in retrospect, she would have done anything differently with Walker’s column, Paul said: “No. Readers have certainly learned something about the author and her tastes and opinions. I think it’s worthwhile information for them to know.” To date, that Q&A constitutes the sum total of the Times response to this fiasco. Since then, every day, more media outlets add their voices to the condemnation of that Walker interview. On December 19, filmmaker and activist Rebecca Pierce, who is black and Jewish, wrote about it in the Forward; it was also the subject of Richard Cohen’s column in the Washington Post and Lilith contributor Nylah Burton wrote a poignant essay at NY Magazine. All of these pieces offer subtle and interesting takes on prejudice, art and idols. 

Personally, however, I believe that the New York Times is the story, in fact, and not Alice Walker. For years Walker has openly expressed anti-Semitism, which fact she always coyly denies by invoking that manipulative pretext for Jew-hating so beloved by anti-Semites: the Palestinian cause. For proof that her bias goes beyond this issue, check out Walker’s 2017 poem on her website: “It is Our (Frightful) Duty to Study the Talmud.”

So what happened at the Times? Why didn’t the Book Review editor contextualize Walker’s reference to Icke? Did his name simply slip through the cracks? I find it hard to accept that such journalistic incompetence exists at this widely respected section of the paper, which is prepared well in advance of its publication date. So are we, instead, to assume that the editors there understood the awful subtext of Alice Walker’s praise for Icke and all that it implied, and just let the piece stand anyway? If this is indeed what happened, we have the right to ask, where on earth was their sense of judgment, particularly at a time when the newspaper itself has been reporting on the upsurge of hate crimes against Jews in the United States and around the world? Why didn’t they at least give the readers some context for Walker’s statement? Or, better yet, just kill the piece? I emailed Pamela Paul—and asked her directly: “Did you not realize how inflammatory Walker’s comment was?” She ignored the question; instead, she directed me back to the link for that empty Q&A with her. (“Alice, You can find a full explanation of how the editors handle the column here,” she wrote in her e-mail to me.)  I wondered if Paul was herself was Jewish; she describes herself in a recent interview as being “of Jewish ancestry. ” Once more, I emailed her, asking her to clarify. I received no response. 

Three weeks have now passed since the story broke, so by now it’s old news. Moreover it’s now a new year, and everybody is fixated on whether the new Congress is going to impeach Trump. So the paper’s staff doubtless assumes that they have safely weathered this storm.  We’ll probably never know the story of how the paper screwed this one up. But the particulars of that don’t matter so much. The lessons for all journalists—whether they cover culture, politics, or even sports—in 2019 should be clear: don’t just be a passive vehicle for bigotry in the name of “objectivity.” When sources reveal themselves to be adhering to pernicious views connected to a wave violence, journalists have to consider how to push back, ethically.

Furthermore, it is not too late for the Times to take to heart the anger of their readers, tell us honestly and openly what happened, and—yes!—apologize. The alternative—continued silence—shows the Times to be unworthy of our trust, which is the only commodity worth anything to a news organization. Even worse, the Times’ silence indirectly validates the hate talk of Icke and his cohort at a time when, alarmingly, the virus of anti-Semitism is spreading, and fast.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.

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