Friday, August 12, 2011

Revisionist Journalism--20 Years Too Late

Ari Goldman's Mea Culpa for Times'--and His--Crown Heights Riot Coverage

During the time he spent as a religion reporter at The New York Times, I rarely found fault with the work of Ari Goldman. He knew his beat, especially on Jewish matters, and made the most of the space he was given, usually in the Saturday editions.
In the latest Jewish Week, Goldman recounts what it was like covering the Crown Heights riots 20 years ago, precipitated by a black youth fatally struck by a car, which led to an Australian yeshiva student being stabbed to death.
It was an ugly episode in New York City, which spilled over into how it was covered by the local papers. Goldman writes about how he was among those who covered the riots, but was dismayed to find his dispatches ignored or rewritten. Goldman said much of the violence was driven by anti-Semitism. Yet, he says, the Times' initial coverage portrayed it as a full-on race riot.

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.”

Yet, he held his tongue. Apparently, he was a good company soldier who liked his job a little too much. But he had a change of heart:

“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.

So, the Times eventually straightened out the narrative, at least to Goldman's satisfaction. But many Jewish Week readers were left wondering why Goldman waited 20 years to tell his story? He's been a former Times employee for well over a decade, and yet only now we're first hearing about this--a potentially important teaching moment for journalists now and in the future.
As one commenter noted:

Mr. Goldman should have the necessary courage to name the pusillanimous editors he is castigating with his recollection. There is no corrective measure better than public shaming. Blaming an institution in this generalized way is a weak tea for a story that is 20 years old.

Goldman harshly questioned the motives of his editors. Now, it behooves him to provide answers for his silence two decades later.

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