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Dan Rather and the Jews
by Avi Shafran

Dan Rather's recent journalistic near-death experience was deeply revealing of a fact we like to think isn't one. The seasoned newsman's eager acceptance of questionable documents and his subsequent spirited defense of their veracity should serve to remind us that even when reporters think they are being objective, they sometimes are not.

In other words, journalists are human. Like all of us, they harbor preconceptions and biases, which can unconsciously come to inform their judgment - and even their reportage.

And it's no less so in the world of Jewish media, perhaps most evident in the treatment of haredi, or, as commonly rendered, "ultra- Orthodox," Jews.

The phrase itself is a good place to start. "Ultra" essentially means "excessively" - think "ultra-conservative" or "ultra-liberal." Now, a Jew is entitled, one supposes, to believe that haredim are "too" Orthodox, but we haredim don't see ourselves that way, and the press should certainly not be making such judgments. While some Jewish media have laudably moved away from the prejudicial term, the fact that it thrived for so long (and continues to in many media) is disturbing - and a good indication of what subconscious assumptions are more broadly at play.

Subtle anti-haredi sentiment is no less evident in news coverage. Not only do haredim appear in most Jewish newspapers for the most part only when they misbehave, but sometimes they are even accused of entirely imaginary sins.

Take the often-resurrected assertion that, several years ago, Orthodox Jews threw feces at a provocative mixed-sex prayer group at the Western Wall. It never happened. To be sure, there has been ugliness at such "showdowns." But even wrongdoing should be reported accurately, not enhanced for shock value. And for some reason, haredi religious leaders' warnings to their followers to ignore the provocateurs somehow remain unmentioned in most of the reportage. The omission may not be intentional, but it is surely detrimental to the cause of truth.

Remember the reported rash of marriages of minor girls in the Orthodox community? It, too, turned out to be imaginary. A reporter was all too readily willing to believe a shadowy, anonymous "source." Recall the women forced to sit in the back of Israeli buses? There was a smidgen of truth to that one, but the separation of the sexes was entirely voluntary, and on a Bnai Brak bus line used overwhelmingly by haredim.

More recently, an article in the New York Jewish Week reported fears that political extremists in Israel might resort to violence. The piece featured a photograph of the dome of the mosque on the Temple Mount, with, in the foreground, looming and ominous, the silhouette of a man's head and, atop it, a black hat. There, unconscious bias was compounded by ignorance. If there are any Jews who are pushed by Palestinian intransigence, hatemongering and terrorism to contemplate violence, they are a tiny breakaway from the mainstream nationalist camp, but most certainly not haredim - whose response to terrorism is repentance and prayer.

Sometimes, sadly, the unfairness seems intentional. A recent "expose" earlier this year in the national Jewish weekly Forward concerned a yeshiva alumnus' self-published scholarly work on Jewish thinkers' conceptions of the special nature of the Jew.

Among the accusations leveled at the book was that it suggested that Jews employ "deception" and "duplicity" in dealing with gentiles, a suggestion that is nowhere to be found in the book. The article, moreover, claimed that the author resorted to "racist sources," including "the works of Nazi figures" to "back up his arguments" - when in fact those works were referenced entirely and only as examples of anti-Semitic resentment of Jews.

The reporter who "broke" that "story" may just have been a careless reader. But his later admission that he considers the yeshiva world to be "the equivalent of the Taliban," hardly inspires confidence in his objectivity.

More disturbing still, the disingenuous "news" article was awarded a prize from the American Jewish Press Association.

What's also odd is how infrequently haredim are represented on Jewish papers' opinion pages. Although the Jewish media prides itself on providing a broad diversity of viewpoints, it is a fairly rare occurrence for haredi writers - and there are more than a few of us - to be featured in many Jewish papers (that you're reading this here speaks well of your own). Only the Jerusalem Post and two or three of the scores of American Jewish weeklies feature a regular column by a haredi writer.

Most Jewish papers, to be sure, do offer Orthodox representation, but, curiously, it is weighed almost entirely toward the far left end of the Orthodox spectrum, and often focused on criticizing the haredi world. Were the haredi world anemic and dwindling, the situation might be understandable. But the phenomenal successes of haredi educational institutions and outreach groups - not to mention efforts like the celebration of the completion of the Daf Yomi Talmud-study program, in which 100,000 Jews (yes, five zeros) are expected to participate this March - would seem to indicate that the haredi world is, to put it mildly, a vibrant part of the Jewish scene.

The favored status of "progressive," nominally Orthodox representatives in the Jewish media is evident, too, in skewed reportage. Small fringe "movements" are accorded major status, and (wishfully, one suspects) heralded as the wave of the Orthodox future - against all evidence and reasonable likelihood. Agenda-driven Jewish journalism is particularly evident when feminism or homosexuality are at issue.

Take an article in the New York Jewish Week, about two years ago, whose headline proclaimed "Orthodox Shul May Break Taboo." The piece all but predicted that women chanting the Torah portion during services was set to be the next big Orthodox thing. Not only does it not appear to be turning out that way, but the congregation in question wasn't even Orthodox (it was in fact named in memory of a late leader of the Conservative movement).

And how many times do we have to read breathless accounts of the "first gay Orthodox rabbi" before some reporter is responsible enough to observe that anyone who redefines established Jewish law (not to mention explicit Torah verses) is by definition something other than Orthodox?

There's nothing inherently wrong, of course, with a medium being parochial or partisan; the haredi press is unabashedly precisely that. The general Jewish media, however, doesn't perceive itself as rejecting haredim and their ideas; it holds high the banner of objective, nonjudgmental reportage.

And so, it needs, no less than CBS, to do some soul-searching.

Dan Rather can't allow whatever preconceptions he may harbor to cloud his judgment or bias his reportage. And Jewish media shouldn't permit its own even unconscious prejudices to skew how it views fellow Jews who are uncompromisingly committed to all Jews' religious tradition.


Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.



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