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October 19, 2003

Easterbrook, Hollywood and the Jews

Jeff Sharlet, founder of Killing the Buddha, knows it when he sees it. And he saw it in what Gregg Easterbrook wrote.

Guest commentator in PressThink this week: Jeff Sharlet, a journalist who has covered religion and thought a lot about it.

He’s co-founder of Killing the Bhudda, the only site I know to take faith and unbelief equally seriously, and then do journalism about it. Sharlet has covered religion in the academy for the Chronicle of Higher Education. He will soon be rolling out a new web journal, of which I am publisher. (Watch this space for details.) He and Peter Manseau have a book coming out, Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible, from Free Press. It’s based on their tour around America.

Like a lot of writers and journalists I know, Jeff consumed the press about Gregg Easterbook and the retraction of his weblog, in his weblog (Easterblogg), due to charges of anti-semitism. Easterbrook, writing as part of the New Republic site, agreed that he mangled what he intended to say, and apologized for crossing the line. He did this by asking: is it right for Jewish executives to worship money above everything, naming Michael Eisner and Harvey Weinstein as two who ought to know. The New York times covered the retraction. Easterbrook got fired from his job at ESPN. Major incident. Strengthens the hand of Everyone Needs an Editor.

I will turn it over to Jeff in a moment. But first an observation. It’s possible one of the factors that got Easterbrook into trouble was a piece of tradecraft among writers— in this case, conventions of fairness. It goes like this… In an article where I am making strong charges of crappy conduct, how do I convince you I am being fair to the ones charged— and don’t just have it in for the Jews?

One way is to say, yes, I’m aware that the behavior in question is commonly seen in other groups. Because if I am willing to say that, then in the journalist’s mind the story has been given another side— for what the trade calls balance. It’s like a marker, that statement. It means: Some other time, I may write about Christian money grubbing— which I just told you exists. Right now, I am singling out Jews, but not because their case is singular, got it? Okay here goes:

Yes, there are plenty of Christian and other Hollywood executives who worship money above all else, promoting for profit the adulation of violence. Does that make it right for Jewish executives to worship money above all else, by promoting for profit the adulation of violence?

To Easterbrook—and to journalism itself— this is a conventional effort at being even handed. Thus, the opposite of group prejudice. But anti-semitisim is not a conventional subject and “fairness” cannot be handled that way. Easterbrook, a smart and experienced pro, knows this. Thus, Jonathan Alter’s defense of his friend and colleague: Gregg’s one problem is that he writes too fast. Leon Wieseltier of the New Republic: “Gregg typed his way into a wildly offensive formulation, into classic anti-Semitic code.”

I think Easterbrook did traffic in anti-semetic thinking, or veered into that lane while rushing somewhere else. I don’t think he should have lost his job at ESPN. He made a mistake, apologized in the same place he made it. That’s accounts clear. As long as the posts remain up, anyone can come by and judge the matter, if they wish to do that, or just reflect on it.

Here’s Sharlet with another view.

Easterbrook Had to Have Known What He Was Doing

by Jeff Sharlet
PressThink Guest Critic

New Republic’s Gregg Easterbrook says he’s sorry for blaming Kill Bill on the Jews, or rather the executives who released the film. “Disney’s CEO, Michael Eisner, is Jewish,” Easterbrook wrote in his original post, further down the blog. “[T]he chief of Miramax, Harvey Weinstein, is Jewish.” Easterbrook goes on to wonder whether it’s “right for Jewish executives to worship money above all else, by promoting for profit the adulation of violence.” In his subsequent “apology,” Easterbrook explains that he came to his scoop about Weinstein’s and Eisner’s Jewishness by sheer chance. He was so disgusted with the new movie by Quentin Tarantino (nee Taranstein) that he “wondered” how good Christian-American execs could push such decadence on us.

Are we really to believe that Easterbrook had never heard of Eisner and Weinstein? That having unmasked these villains, he was shocked, absolutely shocked, to discover them to be Jews? In Hollywood, no less!

Easterbrook had to have known what he was doing. He knew who ran Disney, and he knew the man was a Jew. And he admits he knows what it means to say that Jews “worship money.” “Accuse a Jewish person of this and you invoke a thousand years of stereotypes,” he writes, adding that doing so is “wrong” – just like it is when those Jews go ahead and worship money anyway.

Easterbrook blames the mess on “poor wording,” as if there was a more eloquent way to wonder why Jewish executives worship money. Sure there is, Greg. Try “kike” next time. That’ll clear up the misunderstanding.

At no point does Easterbrook say that Eisner’s and Weinstein’s Jewishness has nothing to do with the quality of Kill Bill. What he does say is this: Nothing about Eisner or Weinstein causes any movie to be bad or awful; they’re just supervisors. In other words, Easterbrook has merely diluted his celluloid blood libel to the following: Eisner and Weinstein are off the hook for Kill Bill, but only because their supervisory roles mean that the question of whether or not they’re Jewish moneygrubbers (and nowhere does Easterbrook clearly retract that charge) is unrelated to the horrors of Tarantino’s gorestravaganza.

Easterbrook defends his arguments by suggesting that it’s appropriate to question the faith of executives who peddle violent movies. He’s right – but most good reporters would first ask what faith the executives practice. Eisner and Weinstein are Jewish, but that doesn’t mean they practice Judaism, anymore than as goyishe a name as Easterbrook proves its bearer worships Christ. As it happens, Easterbrook does (above money, even!), and at an unusual church which, he hopes, will provide him with cover: it’s also home to a Jewish congregation, with which Easterbrook’s fellow Presbyterians share finances.

Given how well Easterbrook knows the Jews (many, I suspect, are among his best friends), it comes as some surprise to scroll down his blog and come across this theologically peculiar defense of Mel Gibson’s Passion: “There stands no reason the Anti-Defamation League couldn’t make its own Jesus movie, in which, say, righteous Jews work behind the scenes attempting to save Christ from the cross.” Now there’s a positive view of Jews: We just want to help Christ! And we’re pissed off at Gibson because we really want our own Jesus movie!

Easterbrook writes that reporters have been calling all day asking him his faith. Not one reporter thought to ask first whether Easterbrook had any? Easterbrook offers good advice in arguing for faith’s relevance in reporting the news and in cultural commentary. I’d add that faith’s absence is every bit as meaningful, and not necessarily a sign of mammon, idol worship, and other naughty, unchristian behavior. I call that kind of thing bad faith, and Easterbrook’s slippery apology is a prime example.

Read the Easterbrook column that began the incident: “Is Quentin Tarantino the single greatest phony in the history of Hollywood?”

Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit shows why so many consult his weblog. He has strong views, many good links, plus updates.

Andrew Sullivan: Easterbrook is now being slimed.

Jeff Jarvis has a lot more.

Posted by Jay Rosen at October 19, 2003 10:44 PM