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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Crown Heights and the NYT: The must-read article of the day

The Jewish Week published an incredible piece by Ari L. Goldman about how the New York Times refused to report the facts of the anti-semitic Crown Heights riots of 1991 and instead relied on its own, trusted memes:

...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.
There can be no better description of media coverage of Israel than reading about how the Times covered the 1991 pogrom.

Truth is not the objective in today's media - "even-handedness" is. Arab anti-semitism is downplayed or, more often, ignored. Daily, we see Arab leaders making it clear that the ultimate objective of a Palestinian Arab state is really the destruction of the Jewish state, but that does not get publicized. An entire population that cheers terror attacks gets swept under the rug.

Instead, we see absurd stories where people who would be considered extremists in any other context are now dubbed to be moderate - because there happen to be other people who are even more extreme.

And it all happens because the all-knowing editors at key newsrooms have decided that they have a "frame" and nothing that extends outside those boundaries can be reported.

Editors and publishers will not report stories as they really are, warts and all. Instead, they choose only the news that fits their frames. By doing that, they think they have proven their point, since most of the world will never see the pesky facts that don't fit the memes.

They are not reporting the news - they are twisting facts into how they believe the news should be.

The most charitable explanation is that this is a supreme form of laziness - to write stories that everyone has already seen before. But it is more than that. It is a reflection of the political and social beliefs of the editors and reporters and publishers, beliefs that they are proselytizing under the guise of "news."

Some things cannot and should not be reported in an even-handed way. Sometimes both sides of the story do not deserve equal weight. Sometimes there is a right and a wrong.

Goldman notes a grotesque equivalence in the Times between the tragically killed Gavin Cato and the victim of hate Yankel Rosenbaum.
Perhaps most troubling was an article written in the midst of the rioting under this headline: “Amid Distrust in Brooklyn: Boy and Scholar Fall Victim.” The article compared the life of Gavin Cato, the 7-year-old boy killed in the car accident that spurred the riots, and the life of Yankel Rosenbaum, 29, who was stabbed to death later that night. It recycled every newspaper cliché and was an insult to the memory of both victims, but, again, it fit the frame.
“They did not know each other,” the article said. “They had no reason to know… They died unaware….” In the eyes of the Times, the deaths were morally equivalent and had equal weight.

Yet ten years later the New York Times wrote something far more sickening, in its profile of a female suicide bomber and one of her victims:
The suicide bomber and her victim look strikingly similar.

Two high school seniors in jeans with flowing black hair, the teenage girls walked next to each other up to the entrance of a Jerusalem supermarket last Friday.

Ayat al-Akhras, 18, from the Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem, was carrying a bomb. Rachel Levy, 17, from a neighborhood nearby, was carrying her mother's shopping list for a Sabbath eve dinner.

The vastly different trajectories of their lives intersected for one deadly moment, mirroring the intimate conflict of their two peoples. At the door of the supermarket, Ms. Akhras detonated the explosives, killing Ms. Levy and a security guard, along with herself.

...The daughter of a refugee family originally from the Gaza Strip, Ms. Akhras grew up in Dheisheh, a grim warren of alleys and tightly packed dwellings that house 12,000 people on the southern edge of Bethlehem.

She was the 7th of 11 children, living in a bare third-story apartment down one of the camp's narrow streets.

Despite the violence and turmoil of the past 18 months, Ms. Akhras stuck to a steady routine, her relatives said. Every morning at 7 o'clock, she would leave home for the half-hour walk to school at the neighboring village of Artas. She would return home in the afternoon and devote herself to homework and housework: cooking, ironing, doing the laundry.

A top student with superior grades, she was preparing for graduation exams in a few months and planned to study journalism at a West Bank university, said her father, Muhammad Akhras, a construction foreman. ''She studied all the time,'' said a brother, Fathi Akhras.

On Sept. 1, 2000, she became engaged to Shadi Abu Laban, a tile layer from Dheisheh. They were to be married in August.

Ms. Levy was also preparing for graduation exams. Her specialty in school was photography, and she recently completed a final photo project whose theme was water: pictures of a waterfall, a street puddle, a pond.
See how human the terrorist is? She's just like her victim - high school student, dedicated daughter, studious, serious! She's just as human as her victim, who tragically happened to be where this wonderful bomber decided to blow herself up.

This is the end result of such disgusting dedication to false memes. And the New York Times is hardly the only newspaper that distorts news through the lens of its almighty memes.