‘Jewish…Sexual Harassment’ New York Times Story Sparks Complaints
A front-page New York Times–ProPublica article headlined “A Leading Jewish Philanthropist Is Accused of Sexual Harassment,” is triggering complaints.
One objection is that that the Times was wrong to emphasize the religion of the philanthropist, Michael Steinhardt.
“Am I the only one who thinks ‘Jewish’ in the headline is superfluous information? What is that doing there? The NY Times would be unlikely to say an ‘African-American’ or ‘Baptist’ philanthropist was accused…” wrote one commenter on the Times website.
Another commenter wrote, “I am also deeply disturbed by the headline. Would the New York Times write a headline describing someone as a Christian philanthropist, or a white male? At a time of growing and frightening antisemitism, what is the purpose of this headline? Was its inflammatory nature considered? His alleged victims were Jewish women, but that’s not headlined. And the article makes it clear that he did not limit his donations to Jewish organizations. As a loyal reader of the Times, I am very disappointed.”
Another Times commenter wrote, “Isn’t the story about sexual harassment? Why is his religious affiliation part of the headline?”
Yet another wrote, “headline identification is an example of the persistent NYT insensitivity to its Jewish readers. Are we now headline-identifying alleged perpetrators by religion?”
And another wrote, “Why did the Times feel the need to identify Michael Steinhardt as ‘Jewish’ in the headline? Would you have used Protestant, Catholic Evangelical, or other religious identifier on another individual? Why not just say ‘A Leading Philanthropist’? …Your sticking the label Jewish on Mr. Steinhardt only exacerbates the rising anti-semitism that is occurring in this country.”
In a statement, the Steinhardt family and foundations criticized the Times article. “The innuendo and purposeful distortions are clearly designed to harm Michael and mislead readers,” the statement said.
“To characterize provocative remarks made in jest and in group settings as actual propositions intentionally distorts the context as well as Michael’s intent — in order to fabricate something that never happened,” the statement said, before going on to describe the article as “the result of a six-month campaign by The Times of trying to dig up dirt on Michael by contacting about a hundred individuals.”
“We have received many phone calls over the past six months from Jewish professionals who say the lead reporter on the story tried to pressure them to conjure up stories they did not believe ever occurred. They say the reporter became angry when she was told that things did not happen the way she was insisting they did,” the statement said.
“Michael is an equal-opportunity teaser — teasing men and women alike. The reporters apparently overlooked this fact because teasing men and women, alike, doesn’t make for a great story,” the statement says.
Steinhardt and I were both among the partners from 2001 to 2008 in the company that owned The New York Sun. He was, through another company, a part-owner of The Forward when I worked there from 1995 to 2000. His daughter Sara also worked on both of those papers, and I’m a huge admirer of hers. I never saw Michael Steinhardt sexually harass anyone. He was a wonderful partner. From my perspective, it’s strange to see the Times turn an individual’s inappropriate jokes into a front-page headline over a front-page article that then jumps to vast acreage inside the newspaper.
The whole drama is influenced by three powerful undercurrents.
The first undercurrent is a war on philanthropy itself, on the grounds that charitable giving is undemocratic or somehow represents an inherent injustice based on the inequality of wealth between the donor and the recipient. An author and Times favorite, Anand Giridharadas, tweeted about the Steinhardt story, “Philanthropy isn’t just a kind act…. It’s an exercise of unaccountable power.” In November, the Times published an op-ed that read in part, “Eliminating the tax deduction for charitable giving would not be politically viable. But we could limit it.” This is a sub-category of the larger war on rich people. Socialists would eventually like to eliminate rich people altogether. If the socialists can’t accomplish that immediately, though, at least they can go after philanthropy. And if you think all this is overstated or has nothing to do with Steinhardt and his inappropriate comments, ask yourself if the Times would have bothered with it if instead of being a rich philanthropist he were just a middle-income nonphilanthropist.
The second undercurrent is the struggle to combat the threat of a collapse in the American Jewish population resulting from assimilation and low birth rates. Steinhardt was deeply engaged in that struggle. He believed, probably with good reason, that part of the answer to the American Jewish population crisis involved Jews having more babies. The Times as an institution is mostly indifferent to the American Jewish population crisis and certainly doesn’t share Steinhardt’s passion about solving it. In fact one might argue that the family that publishes the Times personifies the American Jewish population crisis, having started out Jewish and having ended up, in some significant portion, not. And a faction of Jewish feminism resents, probably also with some good reason, being put on the spot about their own choices or non-chosen outcomes about whether and at what time to reproduce.
The third is the conflict over Israel. Steinhardt is a co-founder of Birthright Israel, a program that brings young Jews to Israel as a way of strengthening Jewish identity. Israel and its current government policies have fierce critics, and Steinhardt hasn’t been shy about expressing his feelings toward those critics.
Those three contexts don’t readily fit the Times “sexual harassment” interpretive headline framework. It’s certainly possible for sexual harassment to exist together with these other three dynamics, or independently of them. If the Times is going to choose to write about this case at such length, though, it might want to consider doing a better job with the background.
Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. More of his media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.