By Larry Gordon
Despite the criticism, I cannot bring myself to jump on the bandwagon or pile on while adding nothing constructive to stories like those in The Jewish Week, the Forward, and numerous blogs that serve one objective, and that is to vilify and denigrate Orthodox Jews and our way of life.
There is great talent and journalistic acumen at both newspapers, but their disposition to run odd or aberrant stories about frum Jews, and less frequently about Jews in general, is repugnant. So why do they indulge in that type of journalism? And why do people read that stuff? They do so for the worst reason—essentially because they’ve always read them and for some reason are drawn to stories like that.
To be more specific, the latest edition of The Jewish Week has as its lead article a story that surfaced last week about a New York bakery with national distribution that has had Health Department problems with signs of mice and roaches and so on. Certainly not very tantalizing or appetite-inducing news, but The Jewish Week seems to want the reader to think that the bakery production plant has been taken over by the vermin to the point where they are about to declare a coup d’état.
And this is the problem with the coverage. The objective is to create the impression that the tiny proportion of Health Department infractions is in fact a pervasive problem and that the bakery owners, who are chassidic Orthodox Jews, don’t give a darn as long as they are making significant sums of money. This is patently false. I know people in the baking business and have spoken with several this week. Baking on a large scale with large supplies of flour and other ingredients in a warehouse setting presents management with a constant battle to fend off the infiltration of bugs that are naturally drawn to that type of environment. The best illustration of this fact is that despite the struggle, the Health Department in New York never saw fit to close down the plant at any point. It is a reality that we as consumers are not aware of or comfortable with, and in this case the press takes liberties and exploits those facts.
An additional obscured fact is that the plant’s last issue with bugs took place more than two years ago, and since then the plant has passed every inspection. This is not highlighted because it does not assist the otherwise craven tabloid objective of the paper.
So The Jewish Week’s objective here is not about healthy eating but rather about toying with the good reputation of well-meaning and successful people in the community and deconstructing that reputation to scandalous proportions if at all possible. Conventional wisdom here says that these types of man-bites-dog stories sell newspapers. Well, it certainly does pique the interest of people who possess a proclivity for gossip, but more than anything else it distorts reality and just as quickly turns people off.
Then there is the matter of the problems plaguing Yeshiva University from as much as four decades ago. Let’s be clear—no one can condone that type of behavior or be tolerant of those actions, even if they occurred almost a half century ago. But there are two matters at play here. One is the actual harm done to people who were unfortunately victimized by a few; then there is the matter of the sensationalism associated with the accusations.
Some of the Jewish media mentioned above have focused more on the sensationalism than any other aspect. Granted, from a 2013 perspective the entire episode was terribly mishandled. The unfortunate reality is that you could not have the benefit of that 2013 perspective in 1975. Those of us who were of age back then will have to reflect upon what it was like and how strange and unusual it was to even think about the possibility of any type of abusive behavior being directed at students by staff, especially staff who were respected rabbinical figures in the school.
To his credit, Jewish Week editor Gary Rosenblatt wrote about the matter last week in a sensitive manner that portrays his disturbance at having his alma mater connected to such scurrilous charges. He rightfully calls for the school to settle the claims with former students who have commenced legal action against it. This would of course be the quickest way to put these matters behind us. The entire discussion does persistent harm to the overall community, and the quicker it is dealt with, the faster we can acknowledge that we have learned important lessons and then move on.
One of the additional issues here is the press’s insistence on keeping the story buoyant, as it plays effectively to the prurient interests of readers. The problem here as it particularly affects Orthodox institutions is that the objective is to demonstrate a pattern of hypocrisy that teaches one standard while practicing at a much lower level.
That is the impression some of the press tries to create—that all, or at least most, Orthodox Jews are somewhat hypocritical, and that the general claim of adhering to a higher authority on numerous lifestyle choices is bogus. These are both unbalanced and unfair assertions. The facts bear out that these episodes of aberrant and even illegal behavior are extremely uncommon. It misleads readers—Jews and non-Jews—into forming impressions about Orthodox Jews that are not accurate or anything resembling reality.
One thing is certain, and that is that people are human and subject to craven and even damaging weaknesses. The intent here is to focus on press coverage within our community on these matters, but some comment needs to be added about the conduct of attorneys here as well. Somewhere down the line there just may be a multimillion-dollar payday that in some cases attorneys have been looking for or waiting for throughout their entire careers.
Once again it becomes a matter of personal interest taking precedence over communal good. There is little question that these are often difficult choices to make. Yes, the people have a right to know, and those who have been harmed have a right to seek justice. But like so many other things in life, there is a thin, even microscopic, line that distinguishes between the two. Often there are other ways one can pursue when dealing with a matter.
Particularly in the case of The Forward, which offers some very thought-provoking reading along with a frequently far-left editorial position, it seems that the goal of the stories that are selected—especially for the front page—is to titillate, shock, and where possible disturb the readers. In New York, the Post and the Daily News consistently work in a similar fashion.
A quick glance at last week’s Forward front page yields stories, along with the one about the sexual-abuse lawsuit, about the inroads of transgender rabbis in the U.S.; how a Jewish woman in Philadelphia is leading the struggle against recognizing same-sex marriage in her state; about the continued internal matter of the theft of $57 million over a decade at the Claims Conference; and so on.
I am not suggesting hiding or covering up stories, but rather that within the domain of a free press is the right as well as a need to govern oneself so as not to inflame needlessly and cause more problems than get solved. The general press can learn some important lessons from this approach as well. Just as in one’s personal life, it is not always necessary to articulate every thought that crosses your mind. Those who don’t engage in such self-control very often find themselves trying to undo greater damage than they started with before their words flew out of them. v
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.