Monday, November 11, 2002

Yenta Journalism

Months before her eye-opening articles on Wall Street analysts, Gretchen Morgenson – the outstanding financial columnist of the New York Times – wrote an inconsequential piece that appeared on the front page of the business section detailing the sharp decline in stock price and the problems of an internet company and the entrepreneur who ran it. There was no suggestion of wrongdoing, although Ms. Morgenson managed to dig up the fellow’s Hebrew name, Orthodox affiliation and charitable activities. These bits of information had nothing to do with the story.

Last year, this newspaper published an article on a prominent businessman who was engaged in a business dispute that involved Israel. Presumably, this was newsworthy material for a Jewish publication. More problematically, we were treated to every bit of nastiness that the writer could extract from the files about this Modern Orthodox Jew.

These are two examples among many of a puzzling and disturbing phenomenon. When an Orthodox Jew is the subject of a business or crime story, attention is given to the subject’s religiosity, even when, as is nearly always the case, his or her religiosity has nothing to do with the story. As a rule, the information provided is no more than gossip presented in an unflattering way.

This tendency can be contrasted with how journalists have written about the current wave of corporate scandals. Inevitably, some Jews – not many – have been among those accused of misdeeds. I haven’t seen any references to their religious affiliation or activity. Ms. Morgenson has been silent about their Hebrew names, where they attend service, and the charities that they give to of the Jews implicated in Tyco, WorldCom, Enron and other businesses in the corporate hall of shame.

Why the disparity in coverage? Why the yentering in stories about the Orthodox?

There’s no easy answer, although I believe that discrimination – at least in a benign form – is part of the explanation. The hyper-attention to the religiosity of Orthodox Jews who may have committed misdeeds or are being portrayed unfavorably for other reasons is in an important sense the natural byproduct of their religiosity. Their religious identification stands out and that is how they are identified by the media.

Secular Jews, on the other hand, are essentially faces in the vast American crowd, Jews who are scarcely distinguishable from the much larger number of Americans who aren’t Jewish. Their Jewish activity – if there is any – is ordinarily one aspect of how they fit into society.

For Orthodox Jews, religion is the center of their world, a factor that is alive in their lives and dominant each day. Religious standards determine how they spend much of their time and other resources and often the kind of work that they do and where they live. In one way or another, their religiosity affects their dress and appearance. While there are exceptions, increasingly the Orthodox are identifiable by their distinctive dress. Their situation is akin to that of Blacks whose color sets them apart. Orthodox Jews and especially the charedim of the yeshiva world and chassidic sectors live in a world apart.

As journalistic restraint is appropriate in reporting on race, there should be a similar standard regarding news stories about Orthodox Jews. Their religion is not pertinent unless it is a key element in what is being reported. I am not suggesting that religion or, for that matter, race or other ethnic identities, should never be included in a story. Certainly, if the police are looking for a suspected perpetrator who can be identified via an ethnic or religious characteristic, that information is relevant. When a person’s misdeeds are connected with religious responsibilities, whether in a clerical or lay capacity, such information is pertinent, as it is when either a religious institution is implicated in wrongdoing or the victim of wrongdoing. Otherwise, such information is almost always gratuitous.

This is equally true of the general and Jewish media. The latter are not exempt from the obligation to show restraint. The fact that they report Jewish news does not give them a broader license to delve into matters that are not pertinent to the story. To the contrary, accusations of misdeeds by Jews in business or some other fashion are not newsworthy material for Jewish publications, else our newspapers would have space for nothing else. Such stories belong in the general press.

Unfortunately, the Orthodox get special treatment in the form of gratuitous nastiness. This is a form of discrimination and while it may be benign, it’s not excusable. We must not accept the yenta journalism that now characterizes far too much of what is included in our newspapers. Instead of covering our massive organizational infrastructure, the yentas who are also reporters forage for bits and pieces of information about individuals or minor disputes in shuls. A content analysis of our newspapers would show that though the Orthodox constitute about 10% of American Jews, their adventures and misadventures constitute a substantial proportion of stories about communal life that appear in Jewish weeklies.

Yenta journalists are generally not secular; they often have close ties to the Orthodox. As is always true of yentering, there are those who are willing to report rumors or half-truths and whatever else constitutes the meat and potatoes of the yenta profession. Gossip is reported as fact and the fact that too often what the yentas put into writing has been shown to be a distortion scarcely serves as an impediment for further yentering.

While yenta reporter are apparently gleeful about the gossip machine in which they play a central role, we must recognize that they do damage. They hurt people gratuitously. Half-truths are not half of the truth but untruths. Yenta reporters have written distorted stories about Yeshiva University and Modern Orthodox congregations. We need to understand that yentering is a social disease and the pathology is especially serious when it comes packaged as journalism.