Trump’s Big Achievement: Making the New York Times Care About Antisemitism
President Trump has been in office for barely a month, but he already deserves credit for at least one major accomplishment: He’s gotten the New York Times to discover a new interest in intensively covering antisemitism.
What am I talking about?
Consider the following brief recent history of vandalism of Jewish cemeteries and their coverage, or lack of it, in the New York Times.
January, 2008: In New Jersey, 499 gravestones are knocked over at a Jewish cemetery. The Times covered it with a news article that ran in New York-area copies of the paper and that made no connection to national or international politics. A follow-up article in the Times after four teenagers were arrested reported that “the vandalism did not appear to be a bias attack.”
February, 2008: Police in Cook County, Ill. arrest a man “in connection with the vandalism of nearly 60 tombstones in a Jewish cemetery in unincorporated Norwood Park Township,” the Chicago Tribune reports. “Police said they think the man…spray-painted anti-Semitic slogans and swastikas…and was trying to impress members of a neo-Nazi group.” The event doesn’t attract any coverage at all from the New York Times.
November, 2009: “Vandals tipped over more than 20 gravestones, cracking some and causing thousands of dollars of damage to the Worcester Hebrew Cemetery” in Central Massachusetts, the Worcester Telegram reports. The New York Times doesn’t print a word about the attack, even though the Worcester newspaper was at the time owned by the New York Times Company.
December, 2010: At Washington Cemetery in Brooklyn, 200 tombstones are overturned. The New York Post covered the story, but as Gary Weiss points out at National Review, there wasn’t a word of coverage in the New York Times.
November, 2012: Three Connecticut teens were arrested on charges of damaging 95 headstones at a Jewish cemetery in Hartford. NBC News, the Hartford Courant, the Daily Mail and the Associated Press all covered the story. Not a word of coverage appears in the New York Times.
July, 2014: Nineteen headstones were knocked over at the Worcester Hebrew Cemetery in Auburn, Mass., the Worcester Telegram reported. The news was also picked up by the Associated Press and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. No coverage in the New York Times.
February, 2015: Jewish graves are vandalized in France. The New York Times reports it, but emphasizes in the third paragraph: “it was not clear if the cemetery was targeted because it was Jewish, or rather because it was thought to be abandoned.”
January, 2016: A total of 35 stones were knocked over in two different areas of a Jewish cemetery in Hartford, Conn., The Algemeiner reported. The Hartford Courant also covered the story. No coverage in the New York Times.
February, 2016: More than 50 headstones were toppled at the Fort Wayne Jewish Cemetery in Indiana, The Algemeiner reported. An Indianapolis television station and the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel also covered the story. Not a word of coverage, however, in the New York Times.
October, 2016: Beth Shalom Cemetery in Warwick, NY is attacked with antisemitic graffiti days before Yom Kippur. The Times Herald-Record covered the story, as did local television news. No coverage by the New York Times.
To summarize: Ten Jewish cemetery desecrations, of which two — one of which was outside the US — were covered by the New York Times. Both times the Times bothered to cover the attacks, the newspaper did so in a way that minimized the potentially antisemitic aspect of the attack.
In November of 2016, Donald Trump was elected president.
In February 2017, there were two attacks on Jewish cemeteries. About 200 tombstones were affected at a graveyard near St. Louis, Mo., and about 100 at one in Philadelphia, Pa.
The Times responded in a markedly different way than it did to the earlier, pre-Trump attacks, which it had either ignored or minimized. One Times news article about the Missouri attacks carried the bylines of two Times reporters and was accompanied by two images shot by a Times-commissioned photographer. The article prominently noted that critics said the attacks “were an outgrowth of the vitriol of last year’s presidential campaign and Mr. Trump’s tone during it.” The Times reinforced this point with not just one, but two op-eds commenting on the attack, both of which were accompanied by additional photographs and carried headlines reaching speculative conclusions about the motive: “The New American Anti-Semitism” and “When Hate Haunts a Graveyard.” (Never mind that one of these op-ed pieces itself propagated the falsehood that Jews oppose organ donation.)
The Times produced a video report on the attacks. The Philadelphia attack also got its own Times news article, accompanied by a photograph. Donations by “Muslims and others” to repair the cemeteries were the topic of yet another Times news article, which concluded with this passage quoting a “Muslim activist,” Tarek El-Messidi:
Mr. El-Messidi, who lives in Philadelphia, walked through the vandalized Mount Carmel Jewish Cemetery on Sunday. He said he saw people huddled over the gravestones, weeping.
“We’re in a very different time in the U.S. when people cannot even rest in peace after they pass away,” he said, “where people have to be worried about their ancestors’ graves.”
Mr. El-Messidi may be correct indeed that “we’re in a very different time in the US.” But the difference is not that now Jewish cemeteries are subject to vandalism. As the timeline above demonstrates, that has long been the case. The difference is that now, rather than ignoring or minimizing the problem, the New York Times is highlighting and emphasizing it. (We’ll also have to see whether the attacks increase in scope or frequency, and, if culprits are found, what can be determined about their motivation.)
Of all the possible consequences of a Trump presidency that have been warned about or hoped for, a heightened attention by New York Times editors to antisemitism probably falls in the category of unexpectedly positive developments (though here, too, to the extent that it inaccurately depicts Jews primarily as victims, we may want to be careful what we wish for). It’ll be interesting to see whether the newspaper’s newfound interest in this story endures beyond the Trump presidency. Assessing that would be one way to measure whether the paper is genuinely concerned about antisemitism, or is just using the issue as a convenient political tool to attack Mr. Trump.
More of Ira Stoll’s media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.