Friday, April 24, 2009

The Times and American Jewry

On the first day of Pesach, the New York Times published three articles about Jews, not counting Michael Kimmelman’s long piece on Poland searching “its own soul and its anti-Semitism.” Peter Applebome wrote about the burning of chametz in Monsey, by and large keeping under wraps his disdain for religious Jews. There was an article about major companies adapting their appliances to make life easier for the Orthodox on Shabbos, with potential halachic issues omitted from the story. A long article served as a paean for kosher for Passover dog food and what was stupidly and offensively described as a seder for dogs, accompanied by a photo of a canine with a yarmulke on its head.

There is a growing tendency in what still passes as journalism to focus on the bizarre, for contemporary reportage to borrow heavily from the approach of the old National Enquirer. The Forward featured an article on a seder for sexual bondage perverts – the greater perversion was the debasement of journalism – and perhaps worse of all, this newspaper several weeks ago had an article on a website for Orthodox Jewish adultery, with the sick claims of the site’s promoter reported as the whole truth.

In the days before Pesach, the Times carried two long articles on the Blessing for the Sun, the once in twenty-eight years ceremony that caused much excitement among the Orthodox, a long and empathetic Op-Ed piece by Nathan Englander, a noted novelist, on the Haggadah, Alex Wichtel’s approving article on the dairy seder of Nicholas Lemann and Judith Shulevitz and several Holocaust-related stories.

For all of the deserved criticism that comes its way, the Times is a serious newspaper that recognizes that what it publishes serves at least as footnotes to history and sociology. The newspaper has an enormous amount of ground to cover including religious and ethnic life. It’s my impression that far more attention is given to Jews than to other groups, with the exception of gays, although there are far fewer American Jews than there are, for example, Catholics or Hispanics. I may be wrong about this, yet the question merits study in journalism schools.

Why all of the Jewish coverage? Can it be that despite our relatively small and continuously shrinking numbers, we continue to constitute a large share of the newspaper’s readership and consequently the Times is making both an editorial and business decision to report developments that are of interest to those who buy the newspaper? Or is it that editors and reporters, themselves disproportionately Jewish, are likely to favor stories that have a distinct Jewish angle? The nature of Jewish life, notably our abundance of organizations and activities and the collateral desire of persons associated with them to get publicity may result in a heightened media focus, including at the Times, on Jewish stories.

There is, of course, the possibility that my impression is errant, that the attention I believe the Times gives to Jews is no more than a reflection of my intense interest in Jewish affairs, so that I pay close attention to Jewish stories and conclude that these stories get inordinate space.

If I have to come up with an explanation it is that journalism has changed, that increasingly it is personal in nature, with some reporters and certainly columnists having much leeway in what they file. At the Times, the Op-Ed pages used to be the special sanctuary of columnists, with the rest of the paper devoted to hard news. Nowadays, columnists are scattered throughout the newspaper, especially in the sections that cover American or local life. Many years ago and for a long time, just about every Jewish story reported in the Times was channeled through Irving (Pat) Spiegel, which itself is an interesting story. No longer as personal journalism has expanded and with it the prospect for Jewish coverage.

Several weeks ago, I ruefully remarked that we do not need either the Times’ caresses via schmaltzy human interest stories about American Jews or the nasty bite of its Middle East coverage. Unfortunately, many Jews regard the space we get in the Times as a plus, as a demonstration of our importance and a form of flattery. Our enemies also regard this as a sign of our importance. Journalism is two-edged and the hand that feeds us is also the hand that bites. Without meaning to do so, the Times promotes the harmful notion that Jews are powerful. If we are the Chosen People, let us be chosen in more exalted ways.

Whatever we think of the newspaper’s attention, what the Times publishes matters and this entails the responsibility to be careful. Just about every book about American Jewry is apt to contain citations from the newspaper. Erroneous or prejudicial statements have a long afterlife. As I have noted, the newspaper is a sourcebook for history and sociology. When it publishes something that is erroneous or thoughtfully challenged, it needs to provide a correction, especially as the Internet expands, else the original wrong is apt to be multiplied over the years.

As I have learned, the Times has a sense of responsibility when it comes to correcting errors. More than a year ago, in its Sunday City Section, there was a story about Borough Park that put the number of Orthodox Jews at 300,000, an astounding figure since the population of the entire neighborhood is barely above 100,000. I pointed out the mistake; at first, the newspaper defended its estimate, relying on evidence that made little sense. After I persisted, there was a tiny correction buried somewhere in the same section.

As I prepared this column, I checked the Times website and happily the correction is front and center in the article as now posted. Congratulations to the newspaper that we love to read and that we love to hate.