On Media / Pop Culcha

Jewish World Review August 6, 1998 / 14 Menachem-Av, 5758

Rabbi Avi Shafran


MUCH INK and (at least figuratively speaking) blood has been spilled over the recent rash of journalistic outrages and bloopers. The former category includes the bizarre tale of an associate editor of The New Republic who was found to have meticulously fabricated parts or all of at least 27 stories in the magazine. And the discovery that an award-winning Boston Globe columnist had been routinely manufacturing pithy quotes and placing them in others' mouths.

The bloopers are perhaps best represented by the CNN-Time Magazine "scoop" about how U.S. forces used deadly sarin gas to kill defectors in Laos in 1970, a report subsequently repudiated by both news organizations.

While many observers were scandalized by the journalistic sloppiness and the revelation that elements of the fourth estate have occasionally played fast and loose with the Ninth Commandment, Orthodox Jews -- especially those of us whom the press likes to label "Ultra" -- are something less than flabbergasted.

We've long been rather jaded, actually, about the whole news business. We remember how, back in 1986, when a number of Jerusalem bus shelters were mysteriously torched, the press reported that the culprits were "Ultra-Orthodox" Jews venting their objections to ads posted on the shelters that featured scantily-clad women.

What was not widely reported, though -- even after retaliatory arson attacks on yeshivos and Orthodox synagogues -- was that only one arrest was ever made: a young non-religious man who confessed to setting a shelter afire to cast aspersion on the Orthodox.

More recently, an Orthodox rabbinical group was widely reported to have declared that the "Non-Orthodox" are "Not Jews," in the words of the headline over the original front-page Los Angeles Times story. The group, of course, had proclaimed no such thing, but the headline-writer's carelessness was reproduced nationwide -- with predictable results. The pain and anger that followed the misreportage are still keenly felt today -- and the distortion it trumpeted continues to be spread by both the press and some Jewish religious leaders.

Then there was a report about a policy of separating the sexes in buses servicing an Israeli Orthodox neighborhood, widely characterized as analogous to the treatment of blacks in the 1950s American South. It turned out to have been an entirely voluntary program, designed by a bus company to gain more religious customers.

And, of course, who can forget the widely circulated account about Orthodox youths hurling feces at a non-traditional prayer-gathering at the Western Wall? That story continues to be regularly invoked despite the fact that the New York Jewish Week sought but could not find any of the despicable deed's alleged victims. Subsequent reportage has all but ascertained that L'affair Feces -- in the words of Lisa Hostein, editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, speaking at the recent American Jewish Press Association annual conference -- "probably didn't happen."

Such jumping to conclusions and lack of professionalism is common, and disturbing, enough. More egregious crimes of the pen, though, have besmirched us Orthodox.

Like the 1994 report published in the Arizona State University School of Journalism's daily paper recounting the merciless stoning at the Western Wall of a paraplegic in a motorized wheelchair on the Jewish Sabbath. The stone-throwers, the report asserted, were Ultra-Orthodox boys who sought to punish the man for his violation of the Sabbath.

As it turned out, however, the incident simply never happened; the writer was subsequently reprimanded for concocting the tale from her own imagination.

In more recent months, a widely-reported story about an Israeli rape-victim divorced by her Orthodox husband turned out to be a reporter's hoax.

And so, some of us bearded and bewigged folk find it hard not to wax a wee bit cynical over all the sudden outrage in the wake of the larger world's confrontation with overactive imaginations, baseless accusations, concocted stories and simple carelessness.

It's not that we are smug at the spectacle of untrustworthy people twisting the truth.

Or nonchalant about the erosion of journalistic professionalism and integrity.

It's just that, well, we're used to it.

Rabbi Avi Shafran is Director of Public Affairs for Agudath Israel of America, the largest grass-roots Orthodox Jewish group in America.

7/01/98: Full disclosure

©1998, Rabbi Avi Shafran