Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Jewish Week Should Apologize

United States Supreme Court Justices and newspaper editors share the challenge of selecting which matters will receive attention. The same is true of other fields of human activity. Each term, the Supreme Court receives as many as five-thousand certiorari petitions or requests that it review the decisions of lower courts, with review nowadays being granted in fewer than one-hundred cases. How do the Justices decide what to decide? Each day, there are far more stories than can make it into a newspaper. How do editors decide what to publish?

Fifty years ago, when the Supreme Court received three-thousand certiorari petitions in a term, Joseph Tanenhaus, my beloved teacher, friend and dissertation supervisor, and I developed what we referred to as the cue theory, arguing and statistically demonstrating that the Justices use cues, such as a dissenting opinion in the court below or conflict among lower courts, to select which appeals it will hear. This research remains the principal study of this aspect of Supreme Court activity.

What about journalists? Nearly everything depends on the nature of the publication, its audience and mission, as well as what editors prefer. A daily newspaper serving a major metropolitan area is certain to have different coverage than a weekly and a newspaper with an ethnic orientation obviously will provide distinctive coverage. In each setting, choices must be made and doubtlessly there are cues governing these choices because editors are bombarded by those who seek to see their stories in print. Which cues determine Jewish Week coverage?

There are a number of cues, but none more powerful and likely to result in publication than “Orthodox abuse” or, better yet, “Orthodox sexual abuse.” A content analysis of what has appeared in this newspaper over the years will bear this out. This preference was on display in a poorly written article on Ohel Children’s Home that occupied nearly two full pages and apparently took weeks and significant resources to prepare. The article, which Ohel strongly challenges, primarily covers whether this highly-regarded agency complied with New York’s reporting requirements in a case involving a mentally ill mother who may have abused her son.

Ohel requires no defense from me. Nor am I in any way involved in its vital activity. The agency deals daily with heartbreaking situations, often when the facts are not fully known. It has to make judgment calls, at times guessing about the best course to take. It fulfills its responsibilities with humanity and dignity, struggling to do what is right. Its staff is professional, caring and often courageous. Any of us who have responsibilities in social services or education know how these responsibilities are enmeshed in uncertainties and options that have drawbacks.

A primary, if not the primary, source for the attack-Ohel story is Asher Lipner, a psychologist who once worked at Ohel and left, shall we say, under unfriendly circumstances and remains angry and determined to retaliate. In a McCarthyistic twist, the article refers to other unnamed sources who cannot be identified because of the prospect of retaliation. That is nonsense. As for Lipner, it is remarkable that his unhappy relationship with Ohel did not make it into the article or, a week later, into the follow-up defense of the article. Why?

Last June, the Jewish Week published an opinion column,“Jewish Community Still Behind on Confronting Abuse,” under Lipner’s byline. The Orthodox were the target, not the other 90% of American Jews. Lipner wrote, “Our community still shamefully lags behind even the Catholic Church in addressing our catastrophe, due to the unwillingness of our leaders to apologize and to reach out effectively to survivors of abuse. We are regularly bombarded in the media with rabbinic sex scandals, convictions of Orthodox child predators and law suits against yeshivas harboring molesters.”

Each of these statements was not true. They were written with a reckless disregard for the truth and they were published with a reckless disregard for the truth. The comparison with the situation in the Catholic Church is false and repugnant. We are not regularly bombarded in the media by stories of rabbinic sexual scandals, nor by the convictions of Orthodox child predators. The reference to lawsuits against yeshivas is another distortion.

Sexual abuse is a horrific sin and equally great is the sin of those who know of the abuse and remain silent. My questioning of the severe distortions by Lipner and this newspaper must not be distorted into a defense of those who engage in abuse.

The Ohel coverage needs to be seen in the context of the endless attacks on the Orthodox that is a hallmark of the Jewish Week. This isn’t just my opinion or perception. It is the view of a great number of Orthodox, mainly those who are modern in their orientation, who are perturbed by what they regard as an anti-Orthodox animus. In a March 2, 2011 post on his blog, Gary Rosenblatt wrote, “We have no animus” toward Ohel “or any other Jewish organization.” I am sure that he is convinced of this. I and other Orthodox are convinced otherwise.

About the time that the Ohel story was published, Jonathan Mark, an associate editor of the Jewish Week, posted a blog on this newspaper’s site sharply critical of the Reform movement. This evoked what I believe is an unprecedented response by Gary Rosenblatt who apologized for what Mark had written and removed the offending post from the newspaper’s site.

Gary wrote, “We do not allow the denigration of any religion or any Jewish religious streams.” Yet, the Jewish Week published Lipner’s offensive and false claims and has constantly published material hostile to the Orthodox. The Ohel article includes these words: “In the ultra-Orthodox community, most people do not report for fear of being an ‘informer,’ because rabbis have instructed them not to.” It’s time to stop the offensive against the Orthodox. The Jewish Week should apologize to Ohel.