Category Archives: Journalism

Bad Times, Good Times

The third one, at least for me, did the trick. The third New York Times apology, that is.

The venerated publication, as most readers know by now, not long ago published an overtly anti-Semitic cartoon in its International Edition.

It depicted a guide dog with a face resembling Benjamin Netanyahu leading a blind, grotesquely overweight Donald Trump wearing dark glasses and a black yarmulke. A magen Dovid dangled from the dog’s collar.

When the cartoon was shared online, it was met with broad outrage. With its Jewish symbols and theme of an Israeli Prime Minister leading an unsighted American president, its Der Stürmer-keit was unmistakable. The Times issued a quick but brief apology – #1 – and then, after a wide and loud public outcry, a more comprehensive one – #2.

Then, last week, came #3, in the form of an unusual “Editorial Board” lead editorial.

When it appeared, Agudath Israel of America had been poised to issue a strongly worded statement about the cartoon, and a subsequent one depicting Mr. Netanyahu descending a mountain carrying a tablet featuring the Israeli flag, taking a picture of himself with a “selfie-stick.”

The ready-to-release statement pointedly suggested that The Times take a selfie of its own, and examine it closely and critically. Since the paper essentially did that, the statement was quashed.

The April 30 Editorial Board offering, titled “A Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism” and representing the view of the highest echelon of the paper, admitted, inter alia, that the first cartoon was “appalling” and that “an obviously bigoted cartoon in a mainstream publication is evidence of a profound danger – not only of anti-Semitism but of numbness to its creep, to the insidious way this ancient, enduring prejudice is once again working itself into public view and common conversation.” [Emphasis mine.] Indeed.

The editorial went on to list recent acts of violent anti-Semitism, to acknowledge that “anti-Zionism can clearly serve as a cover for anti-Semitism,” and to bemoan the fact that “In the 1930s and the 1940s, The Times was largely silent as anti-Semitism rose up and bathed the world in blood. That failure still haunts this newspaper.”

The editorial board statement also admitted that “apologies are important but the deeper obligation of The Times is to focus on leading through unblinking journalism and the clear editorial expression of its values.” And that, while “society in recent years has shown healthy signs of increased sensitivity to other forms of bigotry… somehow anti-Semitism can often still be dismissed as a disease gnawing only at the fringes of society. That is a dangerous mistake. As recent events have shown, it is a very mainstream problem.”

It is a problem that The Times, unfortunately, has helped feed, with its reportage, editorials and op-eds over more recent years, from misrepresentation of the 1991 Crown Heights riots to harsh criticism of Israeli actions of self-defense to repeated, unwarranted criticism of the Orthodox Jewish community.

Late last year, a group of representatives from Agudath Israel and the Orthodox Union met with The Times’ editorial page editor with the express purpose of trying to call attention to the dearth of Orthodox views on the paper’s op-ed page – a wrong compounded by the frequent criticism of the community that appears there.

The editor, who had at first tried to rebuff the charge, did some research and admitted the problem. And he pledged to be more open to Orthodox views.

So far, slim pickings. Although an opinion piece I submitted about Chanukah was published by The Times online, it was a “thought piece,” not a presentation of a position on a contemporary issue. And while ideas for examples of the latter, on topics like yeshivah education and the measles outbreak, to be written by qualified, credentialed members of our community were put forth, they were not accepted.

Does The Times recognize that part of the “creep” of subtle anti-Semitism involves negative coverage of the most recognizably Jewish of Jews, and the vacuum of Orthodox views on its op-ed page? Or has “numbness” set in there too?

It’s easy, even for an inveterate optimist like me, to be pessimistic. After all, there hasn’t been much positive movement to date, at least not visibly so.

But the willingness of the Old Grey Lady to publicly and prominently confess to sins both distant and present, and her pledge to be alert to the “insidious way this ancient, enduring prejudice” of Jew-hatred “creeps” into societal (and journalistic) discourse, and to the danger of “numbness” to that creep, leaves some hope in my heart.

Time, as the truism has it, will tell.

© 2019 Hamodia

Vanishing Truth

Whiplash was a distinct risk for anyone trying to follow the story – or, perhaps, non-story – of the faceoff the week before last between Kentuckian high schooler Nick Sandmann and a 64-year old Native American, Nathan Phillips, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Each was in town for a rally, Mr. Sandmann, a “Pro-Life” gathering; Mr. Phillips, an “Indigenous Peoples March.”

A short video of the younger man silently smiling at the older one as the Native American chanted and banged on a drum was offered to the public, with the smile characterized, and harshly criticized, as a disrespectful smirk.

Then a longer video emerged, indicating that the smile was benign, and that the two principals were not in conflict.

Or that they were even principals at all, as it became evident that both of the men were reacting to, and at least one of them being crudely insulted by, a group of “Hebrew Israelites.”

Those are black racists dressed in colorful caps and robes adorned with Jewish symbols who try to achieve a sense of self-worth by pretending that they are the “real Jews,” and white people “Edom.” They often appear with display boards inscribed with the English renditions of the names of the shevatim; they imagine that each of various African or Caribbean populations stem from a particular shevet.

Native Americans are assigned the designation of “Dan” by the befuddled members of the racist group, and members of the group, the later video showed, were rudely berating the high school boys, perhaps because some were wearing “Make American Great Again” caps. The “Hebrew Israelites” also tried to enlist Mr. Phillips, a member in their fantasy of the “tribe of Dan,” in their verbal attack on the boys and, at one point, berated him too.

Even after longer depictions of the interaction were available, the debate among partisan players continued, with some trying to sully the boys’ and their religious school’s reputations, and others gleefully attacking the many media that fell hard for the first, incomplete, narrative.

What emerges from the fracas is something that has been increasingly evident in recent years: truth is elusive.

The kernel of the problem is that facts are mediated by people, and people are subject to biases.

Reports tinged (or, at times, saturated) with writers’ prejudices have been colorfully labeled “fake news” by the president; for their part, fact-checkers have catalogued literally thousands of his own contentions that aren’t true over the past two years. It’s hard to know what can be believed and what cannot.

That’s always been the case, of course, but it’s getting worse. Much worse. Incomplete videos are one thing. Deepfakes, quite another.

If you don’t recognize that word, you’re not alone. It’s been around for a while but only entered the larger populace’s lexicon in the past year or two. Deepfakes are videos made with the use of special software that makes it seem that an identifiable person is saying or doing something he has not said or done. Sort of Photoshop for video on steroids.

The software, which is readily available and being constantly refined, superimposes existing recordings and images onto others, creating a realistic, but entirely unreal, action, speech or expression. The technology can be used to alter the words or gestures of a politician or other public figure, yielding the very fakest of fake news.

Last year, a doctored image circulated by gun rights activists and Russian discord-sowers purported to show a Parkland high school shooting survivor and gun control advocate ripping up a copy of the Constitution. What she had actually torn up was a bulls-eye poster from a gun range.

And Myanmar’s military is believed to have used deepfakes to ignite a wave of killings in that country.

Legislators have taken note. Senator Marco Rubio, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, warned that “America’s enemies are already using fake images to sow discontent and divide us. Now imagine the power of a video that appears to show stolen ballots, salacious comments from a political leader, or innocent civilians killed in conflict abroad.”

Technology expert Peter Singer predicted that deepfakes will “definitely be weaponized” whether it is for “poisoning domestic politics” or by hostile nation-state actors to gain an edge on the battlefield.

The 24-hour news cycle and expansion of social media platforms only compound the problem. “A lie,” as the saying goes, “can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.”

Chazal teach that, when the “footsteps” of Moshiach are close, ha’emes tehei ne’ederes, “truth will go missing” (Sotah 49b).

Seems there’s cause for optimism.

© 2019 Hamodia

No, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Did Not Sin Against The Memory Of The Holocaust

We do no favors to the memory of the Holocaust when, for political  purposes, we unfairly accuse people of dishonoring it.

Whatever one may think of incoming Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, she did not compare the victims of the Holocaust with the migrants at the southern border.  A piece I wrote on the issue is at the Forward, here.

Impartial is Impossible

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, back when Donald Trump was a mere businessman building casinos, not an embattled president haranguing the press, I was already dealing with what has since come to be called, at his suggestion, “fake news.”

The media bias with which I was confronted as Agudath Israel’s public affairs director largely concerned Orthodox Jews, not political matters, but my frustration then was similar to the president’s current pique.

At the time, of course, computers were fairly new, social media nonexistent and tweeting, blessedly, was limited to birds.

All the same, though, I tried to raise a hue and cry, fantasizing that I might change the world, or at least the media world. Needless to say, I didn’t.

So many media, so much misinformation. Like demonstrably false assertions in news stories across the nation about Orthodox Jews, like the New York Times’ description of a large Tehillim rally in Manhattan as “40,000 Orthodox Jews vent[ing] anger…”

Or its story on the twelfth Daf Yomi Siyum Hashas focusing not on the incredible turnout and enthusiasm of those present but on the fact that Orthodox women don’t traditionally study Talmud. Or its characterization of the 1991 Crown Heights riots, years later, as “[violence] between blacks and Jews,” when the violence was entirely one-sided.

There were many other errors of fact over the years, not to mention a dearth of Orthodox voices in stories that cried out for them. Agudath Israel made countless efforts to correct the record in calls to reporters, letters to editors and other interventions.

But clear, demonstrable mistakes were one thing. More slippery fish were the subtle misleadings: the emphasis on one aspect of a story at the expense of a larger picture, the omission of important pertinent information, the clever but deceptive opening or closing lines, the headlines that misrepresented what the articles beneath them actually said, the choice of photos that impugned Orthodox Jews. Those sorts of things were what really rankled, because effectively countering them was like nailing ptcha to a wall.

What I came to learn over time, though, was that the shortcomings of news organizations didn’t have to lead to frustration, nor to seeing media as “the enemy of the people,” as the president not long ago asserted, to much criticism. Nor even, for that matter, to the conclusion that the media are “fake.” They are simply… well, media – from the Latin word medius, by way of the English word medium, in its sense of “an intermediary” or “channel.”

News media are not final arbiters of truth or facts; they are, rather, lenses through which information is channeled to us. And every lens has its particular shade, warps and flaws; every reporter, no matter how cautious, his or her inherent biases. Trying to deny or resist that undeniable truth, imagining that media can in fact be totally dispassionate, is what leads to frustration. But being angry about a news organization’s reportage’s lack of balance is like being angry at your refrigerator for not washing the dishes.

News, at least at its core, is views. All media are, to one or another degree, biased. A medium like Hamodia is entirely open about its prejudices. The paper you are holding makes no bones about the fact that it is proudly partial – in favor of Torah and Yiddishkeit, against all that is diametrical to those ideals. Media that purport to be impartial, by contrast, are neither that nor truthful.

In a perfect world, perhaps, artificial intelligence would provide us the news, in the form of simple, cold facts. There would be no human bias tweaking it this way or that. But, minus the human element, foibles and all, such reportage would be utterly boring. The price we pay for interesting is acceptance of the human, and thus imperfect, factor.

We must of course continue to call the media out for their demonstrable errors of fact. But, when it comes to their subtle biases, all we can do is adjust for them. And the most a news organization aspiring to reportorial objectivity can do is to assign reporters to stories in which they are as disinterested (“without personal interest or advantage”) as possible.

So if a Jewish newspaper wants to claim to offer impartial reportage, it should have only non-Jewish reporters on staff. Every Jew, after all, has a personal backstory, and his or her reportage will, willy-nilly, be informed by that history. Don’t hold your breath.

In the end, we are stuck with the Jewish, and general, media we have. Not enemies, not fake.

Just, like all their reporters, and for that matter most people, a bit biased.

© 2018 Hamodia

First Amendment and Ninth Commandment

Most of us born and raised in this great country, an outpost of galus that offered our immigrant forebears unprecedented freedoms and protections, deeply appreciate not only those gifts but the Constitutional principles on which these United States stand. Among them, the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech.

The issue of that guarantee’s limits is currently a thing, thanks to one Alex Jones.

Mr. Jones is an extremely popular radio program host and the proprietor of a number of websites, most notably one called Infowars. He traffics in unfounded “reports” of conspiracies and nefarious actions by government and “globalist” agents.

He famously averred that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax, an assertion that resulted in threats against bereaved parents of some of murdered children. He has also propagated the notion that Democratic lawmakers run a global child-trafficking ring, and that the U.S. government was involved in both the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the September 11 attacks. He has also claimed that the moon landing footage was fake, and that NASA is hiding secret technology and the deaths of thousands of astronauts.

Mr. Jones is in the news these days because of pending lawsuits by Sandy Hook victims’ parents and others against him, complaints by former staffers of his alleged racist or anti-Semitic behavior and, most recently, because of the removal of his posts and videos from top technology companies’ media platforms.

Enter the First Amendment.

Characterizing the tech companies’ decision to not host his misinformation as “censorship,” he says the move “just vindicates everything we’ve been saying.”

“Now,” he proclaimed in a tweet, “who will stand against Tyranny [sic] and who will stand for free speech? We’re all Alex Jones now.”

No we’re not.

To be sure, distasteful opinions are legally protected in our country. In 1969, the Supreme Court held that even inflammatory rhetoric is protected unless it “is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.” Revolting as some of Alex Jones’ rants have been, they likely fall on the mutar side of that legal psak. But the rabble-rouser’s lament that, with the curbing of his exposure, the citizenry has been deprived of their last defense against tyranny (upper-cased, no less) is as hollow as the heads of his fans who act on his wild speculations.

In the end, though, no one is preventing Mr. Jones from promoting his untruths (or his products – the diet supplements and survivalist gear he profitably hawks between diatribes) from other rooftops, literal or electronic. The First Amendment limits only the actions of government, not private companies.

Jones, though, is also using the right to free speech as a defense against the lawsuits he’s facing.

One concerns Brennan Gilmore, a former State Department official who attended last summer’s violent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Mr. Gilmore was present when a man drove his car into a crowd of protesters, killing a woman.

After Mr. Gilmore posted a video of the episode and spoke about it, Mr. Jones accused him of being a C.IA. plant employed by the billionaire George Soros, and as having possibly been involved in the attack on the woman to bring about what he described as “the downfall of Trump.”

In March, Mr. Gilmore sued Mr. Jones for defamation, arguing that he had suffered threats and harassment as a result of the unfounded claim.

Do such public speculations and conspiracy theories merit First Amendment protection, even when they cause harm to others?

In a recent court filing, four law professors specializing in free-speech issues said no.

“False speech does not serve the public interest the way that true speech does,” the scholars wrote. “And indeed, there is no constitutional value in false statements of fact.”

For what it’s worth, Donald Trump Jr. feels differently. He reacted to criticism of Mr. Jones by asserting that “Big Tech’s censorship campaign is really about purging all conservative media. How long before Big Tech and their Democrat friends move to censor and purge… other conservatives [sic] voices from their platforms?”

Judges will decide, at least with regard to American law. As believing Jews, though, we know that there really is no hallowed ideal of “free speech.” The unique ability with which the Creator endowed us, the ability to communicate ideas, is not an “inalienable right” but a formidable responsibility. “From a word of falsehood stay distant” (Shemos 23:7) and “Do not give false testimony against your neighbor” (ibid 20:13) comprise our duty.

Would that American jurisprudence, even as it protects unpopular opinion, recognize the import of that charge.

© 2018 Hamodia

Erratum

A reader has informed me that, contrary to what I had written in an earlier posting, NRA chief Wayne LaPierre did indeed mention the names of a number of non-Jews in his speech to CPAC.  He is correct, and I have amended the piece accordingly.  The new version is here.

My apologies to all my readers for my inadvertent error.