A Letter to The Pulitzer Prize Committee: Don’t Give Award for New York Times Yeshiva Series
KnowUs, a new project of Agudath Israel of America, has erected three Manhattan billboards and launched a website, KnowUs.org, and a YouTube video aimed at pushing back against the New York Times’ negative coverage of Jewish schools.
“The misrepresentations peddled threaten our way of life. And, in the current climate, they threaten our bodily safety,” the website says. “A major newspaper launching a campaign against a minority group is always wrong. In this climate, it is deeply concerning.”
Agudath Israel, which represents both hasidic and non-hasidic Orthodox Jews, said the Times has an “obsession with spreading misinformation and demonizing Orthodox and Hasidic Jews.” It said the Times had published 13 articles in three and a half months on the topic, “using its enormous megaphone to spread hate.” Agudath Israel said the Times articles coincided with a surge in violent antisemitic attacks “targeting the visibly Jewish in New York City — the ones targeted by the New York Times.”
Two of the three billboards are near the New York Times headquarters building, while a third is at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel.
If KnowUs wants really to put the squeeze on the Times, it might consider buying a fourth billboard, near Columbia University, which gives the Pulitzer Prize. In the coming months, the Pulitzer Board will have the choice of either validating the Times yeshiva coverage with a prestigious journalism award or declining to do so.
A strategist involved in the effort to fight back against the Times told me the group wasn’t ruling out a letter to the Pulitzer Board as an element in its multipronged campaign. “Everything is on the table,” he said.
If the group does decide to go ahead with a letter to the Pulitzer Board, here are some points it might want to consider including. Here is a letter that might serve as an example:
Neil Brown and Tommie Shelby, co-chairs
The Pulitzer Prizes
Dear Mr. Brown and Professor Shelby:
This is a letter to caution you and your colleagues on the board against awarding a Pulitzer Prize to Eliza Shapiro and Brian Rosenthal of the New York Times for their coverage of Jewish schools in New York. The coverage was seriously flawed. Honoring it with a Pulitzer would be a terrible mistake.
Here are some of the ways in which the Times coverage fails to meet the highest standards of journalism.
Lack of transparency with readers about correcting errors: As originally published in print and online December 29, 2022, the Times article “Hasidic Schools Seize on Special Ed Windfall,” included the passage: “Unlike Orthodox Jews, who are strictly observant but integrate their lives into modern society and provide their children with more secular education, Hasidic Jews generally live in insular enclaves and devote themselves to preserving the religious traditions of their ancestors.” That’s an embarrassing, glaring, and telling mistake—the Times reporter and editors apparently didn’t realize, until being called out on the issue after publication, that Hasidic Jews are Orthodox Jews.
The confusion is a signal of the Times journalists’ failure to understand the community they were writing about. Rather than owning up to the mistake in an ethical and straightforward manner by publishing a correction, the Times covered up the error, choosing to “stealth-edit” the online version of the article. It was altered a day after publication so that the sentence now begins “Unlike other Orthodox Jews.” By choosing not to publish a formal correction, the Times left its print readers uninformed of the mistake.
Lack of staff diversity: The Times set out to conduct and publish a hostile investigative series about a minority community and its institutions with a team of reporters and editors that did not include a single member of that minority community. The exclusion of Hasidic Jews from the Times staff translated into a lack of access, lack of empathy, and lack of basic factual understanding, as indicated by the mistake about whether Hasidim are Orthodox. The photographer chosen for the series describes himself as “a New York City born and raised Jew, who loves all things pork.” Pork is proscribed by Jewish dietary law. No wonder many of the pictures in the series are taken from a distance or through fences.
Amplifying advocacy group claims without scrutinizing the advocacy group or adding original new reporting: Rather than generating new information or disclosures, the Times series is heavily derivative of and reliant on an advocacy group. The Times isn’t candid with readers about that, either. In a December 12 front-page article about the effects of divorce on students in Jewish schools, the character pictured on page one and described in the lead of the article turns out to be the new head of the advocacy group, a fact the Times only discloses towards the end of the story. The Times doesn’t apply any skepticism or reportorial curiosity to the advocacy group; instead, it serves as a megaphone and stenographer for it.
Contradictory claims: The Times articles claim both that Hasidic schools are failing to prepare students to participate in democracy and, simultaneously, that Hasidim are so politically effective and powerful that they intimidate politicians and regulators. The Times articles claim both that Hasidic schools are failing to teach students math or English or prepare them for profitable employment and, simultaneously, that members of the community are prospering and sophisticated at winning reimbursements in complex government programs. The article about divorce claimed both that divorces “are conferred by a rabbinical court known as a beth din” and also that “only husbands can confer religious divorces.”
Afflicting the afflicted: It’s often said that a newspaper’s job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The New York Times went the opposite route. Nonprofit New York news organization The City reported, “In the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, thousands of parents tap their personal funds to send children to private schools for students with disabilities and then sue the city Department of Education to reimburse them for tuition or other services. The schools these kids attend often charge well over $100,000 a year. Many offer the trappings of elite boarding schools, with bucolic settings and promises of advanced college prep. At some, students ride horses as part of their therapy.” The City report went on, “Last school year, more than half of settlement agreements involved students who live in just four of the richest and whitest districts, which include neighborhoods such as Manhattan’s Upper East Side and Park Slope in Brooklyn.” Instead of investigating that story, which might step on the toes of Times paying readers, the New York Times went after Hasidic Jews, who the Times claims are less prosperous, and who largely meet the needs of special needs students with less costly approaches than private horseback riding schools.
Targeting a population rather than a problem. Two of the Times articles touch on genuinely newsworthy subjects: the effects of divorce on children, and the costs and challenges of providing special education services. But rather than identifying populations where divorce is frequent or where special education is especially costly, the Times went after Hasidic Jews. To understand that, imagine a thought experiment in which, rather than serving special needs students with services, the Hasidic community were failing to serve them. Would the Times have written an article commending the Hasidim for saving taxpayers money on special education? No, the newspaper would have condemned them for leaving special needs students uneducated. This damned-if you-do, damned-if-you-don’t approach is the opposite of the journalistic fairness or follow-the-facts-where-they-lead empirical curiosity that characterizes Pulitzer-worthy projects.
Subjects of investigative journalism, and those who sympathize with the subjects, often do “attack the messenger” rather than accepting fault or blame. That’s not the situation here. It’s totally possible that there’s room for improvement in secular education in yeshivas, as there certainly is in many other areas of education in the US. Broad-brush news coverage inaccurately demonizing the community is likely to slow the pace of improvement, however.
Regulation of yeshivas does indeed raise intriguing legal, philosophical, and public policy questions, as illuminated, for example, in the 2020 book Religious Liberty and Education: A Case Study of Yeshivas vs New York. A Pulitzer-worthy look at this topic might have mentioned that book or interviewed the author of its concluding chapter. Unfortunately, the Times series leaves those concerns largely unexplored.
Some of New York’s yeshivas were themselves founded by, and serve descendants of, those fleeing violent Jew-hatred in Europe. It’d be a bitter irony indeed if Columbia University bestowed a prestigious journalism prize on a project that not only fails to meet the highest journalistic standards, but also fuels, and exemplifies, new expressions of an old hatred.
Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. His media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.