Media Bias Gone Mad

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In case you haven’t noticed, I am not a journalist. This is a blog, and I write opinion columns (on a good day). I wear my biases on my sleeve. But I still think that if I were to fill the first two paragraphs of an article with terms like “hateful rhetoric,” “shrillest opposition,” “outright bigotry” and “gross misrepresentation of fact,” even those who generally agree with me would consider my language choices “over the top,” unless the target of my criticism were the KKK or Islamic Jihad.

So when you see these paragraphs under the “world news” header in a Jewish magazine, you know something has gone very, very wrong. And when the byline belongs to a seasoned, professional journalist, you wonder when the last pretense of objective reporting was lost.

The paper is the Baltimore Jewish Times; the article — “Cry for Freedom or Racism?” by James Besser — is in the printed issue but not on their web site. It may similarly be in the paper (but not web) version of the NY Jewish Week, since he is often listed as the Washington Correspondent for both. The topic is the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2007, or, more particularly, the opposition of groups like the Traditional Values Coalition and Alliance Defense Fund to a law affording special protections to homosexuals and those with “gender identity” issues.

Mr. Besser did a nice write-up about Project Genesis over a decade ago, and had the basic facts right when most people barely knew what a “web browser” was. He has unquestionably shown his biases before, but has usually done so by choosing whom to quote and which quotes to use. Not this time, and more’s the pity.

As is typical in such instances, rhetorical excess is used as cover for a paucity of facts. Besser writes that critics claim “the measure would essentially outlaw criticism of homosexuality. Pastors who preach that homosexual behavior is a sin, they say, could be hauled off to jail…” While it is true that the bill does no such thing, it is untrue that the opponents say otherwise. The Traditional Values Coalition argues that it “will be used to establish a legal framework to investigate, persecute and prosecute pastors, businessmen and others” for opposing homosexuality. Their point is not that the law will make these behaviors illegal, but start us down a slippery slope. That may be a little extreme, but we have already seen employers punish religious anti-homosexuality statements as “harassment” and schools permit T-shirts endorsing homosexuality while prohibiting those opposing it (the T-shirt in question read “Be Happy, Not Gay”). I would not be so hasty to insist that there is no slope down which American law might slide.

Mr. Besser argues that the groups “have shamelessly distorted the bill” (despite this being a supposed news story, “argues” is the appropriate verb). He ridicules the the Alliance Defense Fund for stating that the bill “criminalizes thoughts, feelings and beliefs,” saying that this is true “only if your religious liberty involves physically attacking someone because you hate their lifestyle.” That, of course, is exactly the point. The bill would make a defendant’s religious beliefs relevant to the prosecution of his crimes. A person who got into a bar fight with a homosexual could be targeted for special prosecution simply because his pastor delivered an anti-homosexuality sermon the previous Sunday.

Besser can say from today through tomorrow that “the bill has nothing to do with speech; it applies only to crimes of violence” — but the fact is that the pastor’s sermon would then be quoted extensively in court, with the word “hate” pre-pended in front of “speech”, to explain why the defendant deserves a harsher sentence. That the pastor would then be targeted for incitement to violence should be obvious. Although Yigal Amir proudly insisted that he ignored all rabbis and took the “law” into his own hands, any rabbi who had previously speculated whether Rabin’s pursuit of the Oslo “peace” agreement made him a “pursuer” of innocent lives was ridiculed and reviled after Amir murdered Rabin. This continued even as the correlation between armed Palestinians and murdered Jews became increasingly evident — not to mention that a “pursuer” must be stopped, not killed, and it was well-known beforehand that killing Rabin would not stop the disaster his government had set in motion. Indeed, it accelerated it.

Instead of arguing the bill on its merits, James Besser resorts to expressions like “even more hateful,” “Orwellian reasoning,” and “no slur, stereotype or exaggeration is too much” to attack the messenger instead of the message. It has often been remarked that the ad hominem is the last recourse of one with nothing intelligent to say. And when Besser concludes that “letting the hate crimes bill die once more will be a clear victory for groups that are battling it with outrageous distortions and ugly slurs,” he both needlessly denigrates those groups — and is wrong on the facts.

Jeff Jacoby, opinion columnist for the Boston Globe, lays out those facts in the column he entitled “And Justice for Some.” While Besser is writing “news” and Jacoby is writing “opinion,” it is Jacoby who comes across as the dispassionate observer.

Two days after the House vote, as if to drive home the brutal reality of hate crimes, the Associated Press reported on a recent surge in violent, sometimes lethal, attacks by young thugs against members of an exposed and vulnerable minority group. Among the incidents described were the fatal bludgeoning of August Felix by three teenagers in Orlando last year; the bloody assault by punks with baseball bats on 58-year-old Jacques Pierre in Fort Lauderdale; the murder in Spokane of a one-legged man who was burned to death in his wheelchair; and the drowning of a woman in Nashville by two men who shoved her off a boat ramp into the Cumberland River.

The sickening attacks recounted by the AP undoubtedly have the capacity to “terrorize entire segments of our population,” as Hoyer puts it. The victims in these cases, to use Kennedy and Smith’s formulation, were “assaulted or even murdered solely because of who they [were].”

Yet the hate-crime bill making its way through Congress wouldn’t have done a thing about these attacks. In the four cases above, as in scores like them around the country every year, the victims were homeless people — and not even the most horrific assaults on the homeless are covered by federal hate-crime legislation.

Jacoby seems entirely sober and reasonable as he asks, “why should ‘hate crimes’ motivated by racial, religious, or sexual bigotry be punished more severely than equally hateful crimes motivated by contempt for the homeless? If a bunch of hoodlums murder a man by setting him on fire in his wheelchair, what moral difference does it make whether they despised him for being disabled (covered by the new bill) or for being a street person (not covered)?” It is only then that he turns to opinion, and he does so without attacking the proponents of the bill as “bigoted”, “hateful”, or even “shrill.” He explains clearly that defeating the bill will not be a victory for “outrageous distortions and ugly slurs,” but for common sense.

It is indecent for the government to declare that a murder or mugging or rape is somehow more terrible when the murderer or mugger or rapist is motivated by bigotry against certain favored groups. The inescapable implication is that murders, muggings, and rapes committed against other groups are less terrible. In a society dedicated to the ideal of “equal justice under law” — the words are chiseled above the entrance to the Supreme Court — it is immoral and grotesque to enact legal rules that make some victims of hatred are more equal than others.

In fact, the law has no business intensifying the punishment for violent crimes motivated by bigotry at all. Murderers should be prosecuted and punished with equal vehemence no matter why they murder — whether out of hatred or sadistic thrill-seeking or revenge or the promise of money. It is not the criminal’s evil thoughts that society has a right to punish, but his evil deeds.

That last statement requires clarification. The distinction between premeditated homicide vs. one provoked by sudden rage is well-established in both the Western and Halachic legal systems. We distinguish between those who planned their crimes and those who suddenly grabbed a weapon. But Jacoby is right that society should not react to crimes against homosexuals more severely than it does to crimes against the homeless — or, to put it more correctly, society should not react to crimes against the homeless less severely than it does to crimes against homosexuals. This is what he means when he writes that punishment should come “no matter why they murder.” Criminals should be punished for the evil of premeditated violent crime, regardless of the reasons behind the premeditation.

And if the “mainstream” Jewish media will keep its biases off the news pages, we in the Orthodox community will surely have less to gripe about.

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15 Responses

  1. Sammy Finkelman says:

    Hillel – you are arguing too strenuously and now saying something that isn’t so. Sodom was not destroyed because it officially tolerated homosexuality. In fact,m our Rabbis said, no place had ever done that
    (not that nor officially tolerated cannabalism either and one other thing)

    It was not even destroyed because it unofficvially tolerated homosexuality. Thatisa non-Jewish interpretation. It was destroyed because it did everything against the stranger – it had bad laws and strictly adhered to them.

    It is true that homosexuality carries the death penalty, but so do many other sexual offenses and we don’t have courts now that can or should enforce them. There is one meaning that we should derive from the death openalty. It is imposisble toepent and impossible to remedy . the Torah prohibits this ONE TIME, not more than 10 times or 50 times. It is one time that creates the inclination. It is the Bar Mitzvah who must know this and it is the Bar Mitzvah boy whom this injunction is aimed at. It is aimed at people who never did this, even once. If they do, they create permanent changes in their brain. I do not believe this is or can be inherited. As for hate crimes, you could add many other categories too – anything where someone was targeted because of some fact about them but was not otherwise known to the attacker. These seem to be more laws aimed at specific motives, and that’s not really right. What about differences in political opinion? Type of work? Where someone lives? The kind of clothing someone wears?

  2. HILLEL says:

    MY DEAR S.M.:

    You are certainly a good debater, and you may even win, on points.

    Unfortunately, G-D is not on your side. The Torah states quite clearly that homosexuality is an abomination. So we cannot be so tolerant as we might like to be. We are not the owners of this world, and we don’t make the rules. Sodom was destroyed, because it officially tolerated homosexuality.

    As for your point about hypocricy, “Hypocrisy is the compliment that vice pays to virtue.”–We may not always be perfectly consistent to our ideals, but that doesn’t mean that we should abandom them.

  3. SM says:

    Hillel,

    I am aware of it. For years homosexuals have been unjustly persecuted. It is one thing to disaprove of behaviour and quite another to criminalise and discriminate on the basis of that behaviour.

    As a test I offer this: all charities should refuse to take money from homosexuals and those not shomer shabbat. If you aren’t prepared to front up your feelings in that way, then you shouldn’t be publicly campaigning against either homosexuality or shabbat breaking either. And if you campaign against the one, you should campaign against both – otherwise you are allowing you prejudices to decide what is and isn’t ok, as opposed to letting the Torah decide.

    Now homosexuals are aggressively campaigning to have their choices regarded as equivalent to heterosexual choices. In some ways – rampant promiscuity, casual relationships without commitment, walking away every time the going gets tough – homosexual and heterosexual relationships ARE equivalent. And, equally, some homosexual relationships are committed and faithful.

    The pendulum swings around before it reaches equilibrium. At present it is in favour of ‘in your face’ homosexuality – as a direct reaction to those years of persecution. Those who were not against the persecution and discrimination are hardly in a position to condemn the reaction.

    In due course the pendulum will swing back and sexuality will become, once again, a private issue. At that stage I, personally, will not be second guessing what two men do in the privacy of their own home. I don’t speculate in that way about my friends, my relatives or my Rabbi either – and nor should anyone else.

    So, I suggest that the courteous, humane and decent reaction to all this is ‘who cares?’. That way it isn’t an issue and those who are homosexual in orientation can get with living their lives in as mitzvah observant a way as possible – just like you and me. I won’t set their (speculative) sex life off against my ocassional lapses and they won’t do the same for me. Sounds like a good deal.

  4. Dovid Eliezrie says:

    I encountered first hand the ADL thought police a few years ago. When Dr. Laura was in the midst of her frum period she questioned Homosexual behavior based on her understanding of Halacha. The ADL sent her letter condemning her, and distributed it through its regional offices. Upon her request I challenged them, threatening to the take the ADL to Din Torah. Asking I them it they would now attack a Rav making statements in the name of Halacha in a Shul. They where quite astonished with my approach. And suddenly the top staff started contacting me, and they cooled their campaign against her. The point is that there is no question that they will use this in the upcoming culture wars. Its time for the Orthodox advocacy groups such as Aguda and the OU to step up the plate and aggressively campaign against this.

  5. HILLEL says:

    Dear SM:

    I appreciate your reluctance to accept “conspiracy theories,” but this conspiracy is real.

    The homosexual advocay groups exist, and they are well funded. They are very single-minded in their determination to make their perversion an accepted–and even preferred–lifestyle.

    They have succeeded in forcing the public schools to preach the value of “diversity,” and they have forced Government agencies and large corporations to establish “diversity day” seminars to force acceptance of “alternative lifestyles.”

    The threat is real, and it is spreading all over the world through international groups, such as “EuroPride” and “Worldpride.” In fact, Jerusalem went through a very difficult few weeks when the religious community there protested vehemently the plan by local and international homosexual groups to desecrate the Holy City with a 10-day “Worldpride” extravaganza.

    The fact that you are not aware of these events and that you do not understand the underlying strategy does not justify your attitide, which may be summarized as “What, me worry?”

  6. Ori Pomerantz says:

    I agree with Bob Miller. The problem is that “let’s enforce existing laws” doesn’t give politicians headlines. Politicians are in the getting elected business.

    BTW, I also agree with SM that Imam Alek should not be persecuted. If you make “saying something that could cause somebody to commit a crime” a crime, no speech is safe.

  7. Bob Miller says:

    Tough, fair enforcement of the laws now on the books is all that’s needed here.

  8. SM says:

    Ori: no he shouldn;t be prosecuted for incitement to murder, because he didn’t do it. Murder is a crime involving the desire to do at least really serious harm. Reading out edited extracts from the Koran doesn’t begin to demonstrate such a desire.

    Whether the Imam should be prosecuted for any public order offence or incitement to racial hatred depends on whether he has broken any law against those things.

    And that is really the debate. To what extent are we prepared to limit freedom of speech to protect the vulnerable? Most countries agree that some limitation is required. Most also agree that it should be the minimum limitation compatible with protection ov the vulnerable – hence no law implicating a provocative sermon in someone else’s decision to kill.

  9. Ori Pomerantz says:

    May I suggest a thought experiment?

    Last Friday Imam Alek said in his sermon that Jews are sinners because we reject the prophet (Muhammed). He cited a number of Kuranic verses that put Jews in a bad light, and that say that Allah detests sinners. Being sophisticated, Imam Alek did not call for anybody to kill Jews (and he has a recording of his sermon to prove it). Shabbat morning, Maj Nun, one of his followers, murdered a Jewish girl on her way to the synagogue.

    Maj Nun is obviously a murderer. In most states in the US, he’d get life in prison. Where I live (Texas), said life will probably end in by lethal injection. We already have laws to punish murderes, regardless of hate crime legistlation.

    What about Imam Alek? He did not incite to violence. He merely stated the beliefs of his religion, and read from his holy book. Should he be punished? What if Imam Alek said that homosexuals are sinners, and then Maj Nun murdered a homosexual?

  10. Charles B. Hall, PhD says:

    Here is the test of the New York Hate Crimes Act:

    http://criminaljustice.state.ny.us/legalservices/ch107_hate_crimes_2000.html

    Note the signatures at the bottom: Sheldon Silver, Speaker of the Assembly, is an Orthodox Jew.

    Hours after the act took effect, a synagogue that is about six blocks from where I live was vandalized. The two perpetrators were convicted and their sentences were lengthened as a result of the act — and of their stupidity in not attacking the building one day before.

    Here is the text of the proposed federal law as passed by the House:

    http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?c110:4:./temp/~c110HkMbCW::

    The bill is clearly limited to violent felonies, so the arguments that it might apply to pastors who don’t engage violent actions doesn’t hold water. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the only Orthodox Jew in the US Congress, has been a sponsor of the proposed federal law, which has been approved by both houses of Congress in the past only to be stopped by the Republican leadership. It is supported by a huge array of law enforcement and civil rights organizations. It criminalizes no belief. I provides additional legal tools to prosecute people who do things like the firebomb synagogues. I can’t see why any reasonable person could oppose this.

  11. SM says:

    Hillel: I am always dubious about conspiracy theories – not least because those who espouse them always seem to end up looking at us…

    But even if these groups have such power in the US (and can carry Black groups and others with them) that simply isn’t so in the UK, where the same legislation was enacted a couple of years ago.

    You sound very angry – but quite apart from anger not being terribly productive it really seems to be aimed in the wrong direction in this instance. There is a move to prevent dislike being expressed by violence – as Tal B says. Not such a problem really.

  12. HILLEL says:

    “Hate Crimes” legislation is an integral part of a carefully-planned strategy by radical homosexual advocacy groups to legitimize homosexuality in society, while simultaneously criminalizing those who oppose legitimiztion.

    The Jewish Week, Mr. Besser, the ADL, and other secular-liberal Jewish groups are among the leaders in the pro-homosexual movement.

  13. Tal Benschar says:

    It is indecent for the government to declare that a murder or mugging or rape is somehow more terrible when the murderer or mugger or rapist is motivated by bigotry against certain favored groups.

    This is not an accurate portrayal of what these laws do. They enhance punishment for crimes (generally violent crimes) based on certain motivations — picking the victim based on race, religion, gender, etc.

    The victim need not be a member of a “favored group.” The Supreme Court case which upheld hate crimes laws in fact dealt with a case where a group of African-Americans assaulted someone who was white. So one can have bigoted motivations regardless of whether one is in the minority group or not.

    In theory, there is no reason why, for example, a group of homosexuals could not be prosecuted for a hate crime against a heterosexual.

    The real issue, of course, is why is it worse to assault or kill someone because of their race (or sexual orientation, or religion) than to do so, for example, because you are in a personal dispute with the person (such as intrafamily fights) or for monetary gain (i.e. a mugger or robber). The Supreme Court’s answer is that the former is more destructive to social peace and cohesion than the latter. That observation is probably true — a racially motivated beating creates much more social tension than a liquor store robbery gone bad. Whether that justification is moral can be debated.

  14. SM says:

    The UK already has crimes of ‘aggravated’ violence – the aggravation being the presence of a racial motive. And, having experienced the new regime, I only partially agree with you.

    It is certainly true that the police are a little too trigger happy when using the new offences. I think that is because they feel defensive, but a lot of what is charged as ‘racially aggravated’ is actually simple insult aimed at the easiest target. So people are abused as black or Jewish or Muslim because that is what they obviously are.

    However, some crimes are committed with a victim selected specifically because of what they are and they cannot change. Leaving aside that particular debate about homosexuality (and homelessness for that matter), it is surely right that pre-selection of a victim on such a basis merits greater punishment. That is not because the actual criminal at is worse, but because the thought behind the act (an element in all sophisticated criminal justice systems) is worse.

    In the UK the guidance to Judges is to almost double the sentence. If it helps to make society more civilised I am all for it. Problems with homosexuality should be debated – violence against homosexuals (or Jew, or blacks or Muslims) should be prevented. If it is ocassioned by the simple fact of orientation/religion/colour then the act AND the hate should be punished.

    Good and thoughtful article – thank you.

  15. Bob Miller says:

    Gone from Besser to worse?