Monday, March 11, 2002

Jews and Journalists

A number of New York City tax assessors were recently arrested in what may be the most serious public scandal to hit us in a long while. They are accused of taking bribes in exchange for substantially reducing the assessments on major buildings, resulting it is said in the loss of tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue. According to prosecutors, the chief conspirator is a former assessor now in private practice, a respected Jew who contributed to and raised money for communal causes, including the Israel Symphony Orchestra and the New Israel Fund.

The story was front page in the New York Times and there were long investigative follow-up stories for several days. So far as I can tell, there hasn’t been a word in the Anglo-Jewish press, although there are key Jewish angles, including the possible involvement of prominent landlords who benefited handsomely from the scheme.

Are our newspapers right to ignore the story?

Not if we use the standard that is employed regularly when the perpetrators are Orthodox. Then there is a feeding frenzy as reporters seek to uncover every connection that puts the religious community in a bad light. We learn about shuls and schools, charities contributed to and the organizations in which the accused persons are involved. Wouldn’t it be right to read in our newspapers that a top macher for the New Israel Fund - an agency that is as self-righteous as it is anti-religious – has been accused of being a class A corrupter?

The answer is no because as they say – or used to say – two wrongs do not make a right. Orthodoxy-bashing does not provide a license to bash someone else. Jewish media should report on wrongdoing by Jews only when there is a clear communal angle, as when an institution is accused of criminal activity or has been the victim of such activity or when a Jew who has a significant organizational or institutional position has been charged. Otherwise, the story should be left to the general media to cover.

This is, in fact, the usual practice. Our publications do not pay attention to run of the mill crime stories, except I believe when the fellows at the mill are Orthodox. There may be a credible explanation for this differentiation; mine is media bias against the Orthodox.

Even when there is a significant Jewish angle which merits coverage in our newspapers, there are ample reasons for restraint. Screaming headlines and overheated stories should be avoided, if only because there is still more than residual validity to the once popular notion that people are innocent until they are proven guilty.

Restraint should be the rule also because of the frequency of prosecutorial inflation, the tendency to make accusations that go beyond the known facts or to use inflammatory language when announcing arrests. This practice – which, of course, some prosecutors avoid – arises in part because there often isn’t a complete picture at the early stages of a proceeding. It is convenient to ignore elements that may raise questions about guilt and it is comfortable for prosecutors to exaggerate because the stratagem attracts media attention – and few members of this fraternity are publicity-shy – and it provides leverage for the plea bargaining that usually occurs down the road. The legal and ethical basis for this approach to prosecutorial discretion has never been disclosed, presumably because there isn’t any.

There certainly aren’t any good reasons for journalists to buy into a practice that is suspect. Yet, prosecutorial overkill plays into the hands of crime reporters who lap up every heated charge and spicy detail as if they are the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Reporters invariably operate under deadlines and other conditions which result in an extraordinary amount of carelessness.

If we utilize the standard that I have suggested, Jewish newspapers are right to ignore the tax assessor indictments. This is not a Jewish story. By the same standard, because Temple Emanuel is a major congregation and its head cantor has an important role in its services, it is appropriate for our publications to treat the cantor’s arrest on serious pedophilia charges as newsworthy from a Jewish standpoint. Even so, there is good reason for a restrained approach, including the sad display of prosecutorial abuse that accompanied this man’s arrest. He was picked up early in the morning or actually during the night and the operation included a small media army whose interest was perked up by the salaciousness of the story.

For the general media, every criminal case is inherently worthy of attention, although of course, they all do not receive equal attention. There is, I think, a connection between the responsibility of Jewish media and the responsibility of publications and news sources that serve the general society. Unless the fact is fully integral to the story, the general media have no business reporting on the race, religion or ethnicity of persons accused of criminal acts. This should be obvious in view of the opprobrium attached to bigotry or any form of stereotyping. It is a standard that should be easier to meet than the equally valid goal of Jewish newspapers not providing coverage to criminal charges brought against Jews unless, as noted, there is a clear communal aspect.

It remains, though, that the general media regularly offend by dwelling on and even highlighting story lines that emphasize religion, race or ethnic background. Of course, they are selective in their discrimination, essentially giving attention to members of distinctive groups, such as Blacks and Orthodox Jews. With respect to the latter, the New York Times and Daily News are repeat offenders, often including situations where there is no apparent reason to explore that which should be off-limits. Strange or not, the Daily News has gotten worse since Mort Zuckerman, chairman of the Presidents Conference of Major Jewish Organizations, took control of the newspaper.