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April 6, 2016 11:06 am

New York Times Smears Orthodox Jews, Violates Own Policies

avatar by Ira Stoll

Orthodox Jewish men in New York. Photo: WikiCommons.

Orthodox Jewish men in New York. Photo: WikiCommons.

“F.B.I. Questions Police Leaders Amid Inquiry Into Businessmen Linked to de Blasio” is the headline of a New York Times dispatch.

It takes the Times only two paragraphs before injecting the religion of the businessmen into the article — about what the paper describes, based on anonymous sources, as a federal corruption investigation involving the New York police. Here’s how the Times puts it:

Some of the questions centered on allegations of free meals and trips given to police officials by members of Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn. But the agents were more focused on two Orthodox businessmen with ties to Mayor Bill de Blasio, according to the three people, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the investigation.

If these businessmen — Jona Rechnitz and Jeremy Reichberg — were, say, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, atheists or lapsed Catholics, do you think the Times would mention it in the third paragraph of the news item about the investigation? Of course not. It’s hard to see how the information is relevant here. The Times story doesn’t mention the religion of the police officials, or of the FBI agents, or of Mayor de Blasio, or of the federal prosecutor doing the investigating. Only the Orthodox Jews have their religion dragged into it.

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Likewise, does the Times mention in its science or business pages the religion of the scientist or businessman every time that a successful discovery or profitable deal is made by an Orthodox Jew? No. But when there is a whiff of corruption or a grand jury investigation, you can be sure the newspaper will find a way to mention Orthodox Judaism prominently in a negative context.

Here is the entry on religion from my 1999 copy of the New York Times stylebook: “The religion of a person in the news should be mentioned only when it is pertinent and its pertinence is clear to the reader.”

As recently as 1986, the Times issued an editor’s note clarifying that “The race, religion or ethnic background of a person in the news, under The Times‘s policies, may be specified only if it is pertinent to the news. And in such a case, the relevance must be demonstrated in the article.” In that 1986 case, the paper said, the religious reference “did not meet this test and should not have been cited.”

It will be interesting to see if the Times of today will adhere to the standard it set in 1986 and issue a public retraction, editor’s note or correction to this article about Messrs. Rechnitz and Reichberg, which so egregiously brings their religion into play where its relevance is not clear to readers. One hopes so, but rather doubts it. If the Times has changed its policy and is now going to be identifying Orthodox Jews as such even when it isn’t clearly pertinent, will it announce this new policy publicly? And will this new policy apply to all religions, or just to Orthodox Jews?

The New York Post managed to write an article about the same story without using the words “Orthodox” or “Jewish.” Maybe the Times editors and reporters can ask the Post for some pointers on avoiding bias against religious Jews.

The dispatch in question carries no fewer than four bylines — William Rashbaum, Al Baker, Michael Schwirtz and Michael Winerip — without identifying their religion. But it does make one wonder how many reporters it would take for the Times to follow its own stated policies. If a fifth reporter were added to the Times team of four on the story, would that have been enough to get it right?

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