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Friday, August 12, 2011

Smoking gun: The New York Times' etrog

Twenty years ago next Friday night, Mrs. Carl and I and our four children, and my wife's niece who had spent the summer as our mother's helper, boarded an El Al flight from New York's Kennedy airport to Tel Aviv. For Mrs. Carl and me and our American-born children, this was our aliya flight. We immigrated to Israel that night. It was August 19, 1991, the 8th day of the Jewish month of Elul.

I don't recall seeing any fires out the window of the plane as we took off from New York that night, but I was probably too physically and emotionally exhausted to have noticed much anyway. It was only when we arrived in Israel the next afternoon that we heard that there had been riots in Crown Heights the night we left New York. The City in which I had lived - or for part of the time, in whose shadow I had lived - for 15 of the previous 17 years, was on fire.

A Jewish driver had accidentally run down and killed a black child, and the neighborhood erupted in riots. A rabbinic student from Australia was murdered that night. No accident.

This week, Ari Goldman, whom I remember well as a reporter for the New York Times, discusses the narrative of that event that the mainstream media adopted. It's shocking because it confirms what all of us have thought of the way the media distorts the news all along. It's a smoking gun.
Yet, when I picked up the paper, the article I read was not the story I had reported. I saw headlines that described the riots in terms solely of race. “Two Deaths Ignite Racial Clash in Tense Brooklyn Neighborhood,” the Times headline said. And, worse, I read an opening paragraph, what journalists call a “lead,” that was simply untrue:

“Hasidim and blacks clashed in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn through the day and into the night yesterday.”

In all my reporting during the riots I never saw — or heard of — any violence by Jews against blacks. But the Times was dedicated to this version of events: blacks and Jews clashing amid racial tensions. To show Jewish culpability in the riots, the paper even ran a picture — laughable even at the time — of a chasidic man brandishing an open umbrella before a police officer in riot gear. The caption read: “A police officer scuffling with a Hasidic man yesterday on President Street.”

I was outraged but I held my tongue. I was a loyal Times employee and deferred to my editors. I figured that other reporters on the streets were witnessing parts of the story I was not seeing.

But then I reached my breaking point. On Aug. 21, as I stood in a group of chasidic men in front of the Lubavitch headquarters, a group of demonstrators were coming down Eastern Parkway. “Heil Hitler,” they chanted. “Death to the Jews.”

Police in riot gear stood nearby but did nothing.

Suddenly rocks and bottles started to fly toward us and a chasidic man just a few feet away from me was hit in the throat and fell to the ground. Some ran to help the injured man but most of us ran for cover. I ran for a payphone and, my hands shaking with rage, dialed my editor. I spoke in a way that I never had before or since when talking to a boss.

“You don’t know what’s happening here!” I yelled. “I am on the streets getting attacked. Someone next to me just got hit. I am writing memos and what comes out in the paper? ‘Hasidim and blacks clashed’? That’s not what is happening here. Jews are being attacked! You’ve got this story all wrong. All wrong.”

I didn’t blame the “rewrite” reporter. I blamed the editors. It was clear that they had settled on a “frame” for the story. The way they saw it, there were two narratives here: the white narrative and the black narrative. And both had equal weight.


But another report, this one on how the press covered Crown Heights, got little publicity. It was written in 1999 by Carol B. Conaway, then an assistant professor at the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., and published in an academic journal called Polity. Her article is called “Crown Heights: Politics and Press Coverage of the Race War That Wasn’t.”

“Journalists and their audience alike rely on ‘frames’ when writing about and understanding newsworthy events because they provide cues for understanding others’ experiences,” Conaway wrote. But, she added, sometimes the frames are wrong.

She continued: “The New York Post, a tabloid, shifted away from the race frame to focus on black anti-Semitism within a few days of the initial rampages, while the New York Times persisted with the racial frame for at least two years.

“Yet,” she added, “one cannot understand the events [that unfolded in Crown Heights] without getting beyond the binaries of black versus white encouraged by the use of the race frame, and understanding the more complex dynamics of the conflict.”

As someone who saw the conflict unfold I can attest to this first-hand. I am telling my story in print for the first time because it is important that we journalists examine our mistakes and learn from them. Fitting stories into frames — whether about blacks and Jews, liberals or conservatives, Arabs and Israelis, Catholics and Protestants or Muslims and Jews — is wrong and even dangerous. Life is more complicated than that. And so is journalism.
Read the whole thing.

If you follow the link, you will find out that Goldman's article was not published by the Times, but by the New York Jewish Week, which has a much smaller circulation (or maybe not anymore). The Times would likely rather that Goldman's story had never seen the light of day.

John Podhoretz adds:
Goldman—telling his story for the first time on the 20th anniversary of the riots—reveals the absurd lengths to which the paper for which he worked attempted to make it seem as though the culpability for the riots rested equally between those attacking Hasidim and the Hasidim who were defending themselves against attack. All this happened while the New York Police Department stood by and deliberately failed to intervene, in one of the stunning moments of the mayoralty of David Dinkins​ that led to his defeat two years later at the hands of Rudy Giuliani​ and the complete overhaul of city policing strategy that led to the vertiginous crime drop, which proved to the be the salvation of New York City.
Dinkins was probably the worst mayor New York City ever had - certainly the worst one during my time in the area (1974-78 and 1980-91 - I lived in Manhattan from 1974-78 and 1980-83).

But the Times wanted to protect him. You know, like an etrog. (The Times and the rest of the American mainstream media have another etrog today. Can you guess who it is?)

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