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September 16, 2016 5:36 pm

New York Times TV Critic Apologizes After Likening Drug Dealer to Rabbi

avatar by Ira Stoll

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New York Times critic James Poniewozik. Photo: Wikipedia.

New York Times critic James Poniewozik. Photo: Wikipedia.

A television critic at the New York Times is apologizing after writing an article that likened a drug-dealer character on an HBO comedy to a rabbi.

“Like a good service professional,” the drug dealer “puts his clients first,” the Times staffer, James Poniewozik, wrote in his Times review of the new HBO series, “High Maintenance.” “He’s a temporary friend-shrink-rabbi, a kind of laid-back Uber-age bartender, representing the curious, empathetic, no-judgment perspective of the series itself.”

After I asked why the television marijuana dealer reminded Mr. Poniewozik of a rabbi rather than a priest, an imam, or some generic clergyman, the Times critic responded to me on Twitter.

“I just picked one,” he explained. “Does it seem derogatory? I certainly don’t mean it that way!”

He acknowledged that there was nothing specifically rabbinic about the drug dealer. “I didn’t sit & assess all world religions & figure, yes, that’s the specific one that works,” he wrote on Twitter.

“Sorry if the reference came across glib or insulting,” he wrote. “Given the character is portrayed positively I didn’t think it was but of course it’s legit to criticize someone for what they didn’t think of as much as what they did.”

I found the original “rabbi” reference jarring in connection with a drug dealer, even one “portrayed positively,” especially since the television program apparently makes no reference to the character’s religion.

But I do think Mr. Poniewozik’s response was a model of best practices for a Times staff member questioned by a reader. He responded quickly, was open and transparent about what led to the language, and apologized in a public and non-defensive manner. The result made me feel better about the whole thing, even though I was troubled by it.

Often, the result one sees from Times reporters, editors, or spokespeople is something else entirely — a defensive crouch, or a refusal to acknowledge that anything is wrong. Mr. Poniewozik’s handling of my question in this case, in contrast, was exemplary. It ought to be studied in the rest of the Times newsroom as a case study of how to handle a question from a reader in a non-defensive way.

More of Ira Stoll’s media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.

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