Crimes of Communication

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“Funny, she doesn’t look Jewish” was the intriguing opening sentence of a recent story in the New York Post about presidential candidate Rep. Michelle Bachmann. The report asserted that former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, another candidate, was having trouble raising money from some Jewish donors who mistakenly believe Ms. Bachmann, an evangelical Lutheran, is a member of the tribe.

“It’s a real problem,” one unnamed Romney fund-raiser was quoted as lamenting. And “some in Romney’s camp,” the article continued, “have been wondering whether Bachmann and her allies are pushing the ‘Jewish’ rumor” in order to help their fundraising.”

To be sure, Ms. Bachmann is popular among some Jewish voters—she embraces conservative values, is a strong supporter of Israel, and has often spoken about her stay on a kibbutz as a teenager during the summer of 1974. But the story of addled Jewish donors considering the Minnesota congresswoman a landsman, so to speak, likely sprang largely from the reporter’s own imagination.

Like other candidates, Ms. Bachmann has met with Jewish groups, including one such meeting the very day the article appeared. Indeed, information about that powwow may well have been what got the reporter’s creative juices running; he made sure to be there to interview participants and, the following day, wrote a follow-up article using the unremarkable meeting as a hook to reprise the insight of his original piece. “Michele Bachmann leaves a meeting with Jewish leaders yesterday,” read a caption, “after The Post reported she’s been mistaken for being Jewish.”

Neither an investigation by a member of Mr. Romney’s finance team nor inquiries by a New York Magazine reporter turned up even a single Jewish donor to the Bachmann campaign who had ever thought the candidate was anything other than a Christian, an identity she embraces publicly and proudly.

Of course, the fact that no clueless Jewish Bachmann campaign donors could be found doesn’t prove that none exist. But when a news story seems sensational or strange and is based only on unnamed sources, more often than not it’s a sign of—how shall we put it?—creative license. There is a reason savvy citizens are skeptical of “information” provided by the media. (If only less savvy ones could be taught to entertain doubts of their own.)

Sometimes, such journalistic shenanigans are relatively harmless, as in the case of Ms. Bachmann’s alleged half-witted heimishe donors. Who, after all, cares in the end whether some Jews evidence lack of the reputed Jewish intelligence gene?

But in other cases, when a reporter or editor decides that something, well, should be a fact and then endeavors to create “evidence” for it one way or another, the harm can be more malignant and lasting.

Take the New York Times’s coverage, 20 years ago, of the Crown Heights riots, whose two-decade anniversary brought the revelation—provided by Professor Ari Goldman, a Times reporter at the time—that the blatantly anti-Semitic nature of the riots had been squelched. Editors at the paper apparently felt that they didn’t want the pogrom… to be one. And so they reported a “racial disturbance,” something more to their liking.

Anyone who has followed more recent reportage in the Jewish media—like the Forward’s coverage of the Agriprocessors “scandal” or the New York Jewish Week’s even fresher (though rancid all the same) “exposé” of the Borough Park Shomrim—is keenly aware that the fabrication of alternate realities is not limited to non-Jewish publications.

Most of us as individuals are guilty in one way or another of, if not fabricating facts, at least bending them on occasion to better fit our views or desires. Perhaps it is the cumulative effect of all those little fudgings that, in the cosmic calculus, allows more gross media distortions to be perpetrated.

It’s certainly worth dwelling on the fact that in the viduyim (confessional prayers) we will be reciting as part of Selichos and the Yom Kippur services soon enough, there is an inordinate emphasis on what might be called crimes of communication.

And so, giving in to the temptation to embellish, dissemble, or fabricate is not only a journalistic sin; it’s a Jewish one.

Don’t believe me? You can ask Rebbetzin Bachmann.

© 2011 AMI MAGAZINE

[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine]

The above essay may be reproduced or republished, with the above copyright appended.

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