Chicago Tribune entertainment reporter Mark Caro describes himself as one whose sensibility generally veers toward the ironic, but after reading a July 18 post on the New York-based gossip site Gawker.com, he found himself playing an unfamiliar role: scold.
The story begins — as most news accounts from last week did — with the release of the final installment of the Harry Potter series. Gawker’s post was a response to word of how some Orthodox Knesset members were up in arms over the fact that the much-awaited tome, because of its simultaneous worldwide launch, would be going on sale in Israel at 2:01 a.m. Saturday and that some booksellers were going to flout both state and religious law and open for business anyhow.
Decrying the Potter series’s “defective messages,” Avraham Ravitz of the ultra Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party was quoted by The Associated Press as saying, “We don’t have to be dragged like monkeys after the world with this subculture, and certainly not while violating our holy Sabbath.”
Gawker writer Alex Balk, a self-professed equal-opportunity offender, ribbed both the secular booksellers (“these are Jews, let’s remember, and a buck’s a buck”) and their Orthodox critics, whose own “subculture” Balk described as no less “weird” than the one that Ravitz saw himself being dragged behind.
For the Tribune’s Caro, this proved too much.
“I know Gawker is ‘edgy’ and all,” he wrote on his blog, Pop Machine, but its Harry Potter post “either a) shows the perils of being too hip for the room, or b) is stupefying in its casual offensiveness.”
Gawker’s Balk was far from cowed. In the days that followed, he offered three more posts on the subject, each one cheekier than the last. The finale: a mock-scientific chart explicating “exactly what is so funny about the Jews” — Comical Hats and Beards (4/10), Domineering Mothers (5/10) and topping the list with nine points out of 10, Constant Bitching About Anti-Semitism.
For regular Gawker readers, Balk’s posts were nothing out of the ordinary — studiously irreverent, rich with Jewish-themed cracks and sheathed in a layer of irony so thick that any and all criticism comes off sounding daft, regardless of how maladroit the offending quip. The pose is one that the site — founded in 2002 and a guilty pleasure for media professionals ever since — has perfected. With its arch takes on everything from behind the scenes maneuverings at The New York Times to Lindsay Lohan’s rap sheet, it at once mires itself in the day’s muck and hovers loftily above it all. For the Jewish observer, the site presents a special sort of enigma, as it is thoroughly preoccupied with Jewish rites and personalities and yet largely oblivious to the rhythms and texture of Jewish life. It is knowing and ignorant; clued in and without a clue.
Just what is it about Gawker and Jews?
Asked to explain the Gawker ethos and its seeming obsession with things Jewish, the site’s managing editor, Choire Sicha, thought the explanation simple. “We live in New York,” he said. “Doesn’t that give us a right to talk about the Jews?”
But does living in New York — or, for that matter, being Jewish (as the bulk of the Gawker staff is) — necessarily qualify one to speak with any authority on Jewish matters?
“I tend to think of us as amateurs and know-nothings about everything,” Sicha said. “We prove that true every day.”
And if the end result isn’t funny?
“That’s fine,” he said. “Not everything is funny. I don’t think we should be funny for the sake of being funny.”
For Caro, however, funniness is a key issue. “A lot is forgiven if you’re actually funny,” he said. “But there’s a difference between genuine wit and easy, cynical ridicule.”
Jesse Oxfeld, who wrote for Gawker for a time and is now senior online editor for New York magazine, offered his own take on his onetime professional home.
“The Gawker voice is that of the average New York media professional,” he said, “which, in a lot of ways, tends to mean Jewish — or at least Jewish-ish. There’s probably a willingness to make ‘We’re all friends here’ kinds of jokes. Part of the whole shtick is to explode and undermine stereotypes by employing them.”
But are Gawker’s Jewish preoccupations emblematic of some larger truth — uneasiness, say, with the writers’ own Jewishness? Or could it be the opposite — unselfconscious Jewish assertiveness?
“It would be wrong to ascribe any kind of sociological, theoretical or philosophical significance to it,” Oxfeld said. “Gawker is largely about entertaining people and running with things that help to make a writer’s post counts for the day.”
Indeed, amassing posts is no small matter for writers under contract to produce 12 daily items.
“Getting into a feud is great,” Oxfeld said. “It delivers posts without having to think too hard about what they’re going to be.”