Telling It Like It Wasn’t

Former Times reporter looks back on coverage of the event, and what went wrong.

08/09/11
Special To The Jewish Week
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Twenty years ago next week, on the night of Aug. 19, 1991 — the night that Gavin Cato and Yankel Rosenbaum were killed — my editor called me at home to tell me that riots had broken out on the streets of Crown Heights. “We’re covered for tonight but I want you to start your day there tomorrow,” he said.

Over the next three days, working 12 hours shifts and only going home to sleep, I saw and heard many terrible things. I saw police cars set on fire, stores being looted and people bloodied by Billy clubs, rocks and bottles. One woman told me that she barricaded herself into her apartment and put the mattresses on the windows so her children would not be hurt by flying glass.

Over those three days I also saw journalism go terribly wrong. The city’s newspapers, so dedicated to telling both sides of the story in the name of objectivity and balance, often missed what was really going on. Journalists initially framed the story as a “racial” conflict and failed to see the anti-Semitism inherent in the riots. As the 20th anniversary of the riots approaches, I find myself re-examining my own role in the coverage and trying to extract some lessons for myself and my profession.

At the time, I was a religion writer at The New York Times and was well connected in the Lubavitch community, the predominant Jewish group in Crown Heights. I was one of probably a dozen Times reporters and photographers on the streets over the course of the riots. We were a diverse group, representing many religions and racial backgrounds.

My job was to file memos to the main “rewrite” reporters back in the Times office in Manhattan about what I saw and heard. We had no laptops or cellphones in those days so the other reporters and I went to payphones and dictated our memos to a waiting band of stenographers in the home office. The photographers handed their film off to couriers on motorcycles who took the film to the Times.

Yet, when I picked up the paper, the article I read was not the story I had reported. I saw headlines that described the riots in terms solely of race. “Two Deaths Ignite Racial Clash in Tense Brooklyn Neighborhood,” the Times headline said. And, worse, I read an opening paragraph, what journalists call a “lead,” that was simply untrue:

“Hasidim and blacks clashed in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn through the day and into the night yesterday.”

In all my reporting during the riots I never saw — or heard of — any violence by Jews against blacks. But the Times was dedicated to this version of events: blacks and Jews clashing amid racial tensions. To show Jewish culpability in the riots, the paper even ran a picture — laughable even at the time — of a chasidic man brandishing an open umbrella before a police officer in riot gear. The caption read: “A police officer scuffling with a Hasidic man yesterday on President Street.”

I was outraged but I held my tongue. I was a loyal Times employee and deferred to my editors. I figured that other reporters on the streets were witnessing parts of the story I was not seeing.

But then I reached my breaking point. On Aug. 21, as I stood in a group of chasidic men in front of the Lubavitch headquarters, a group of demonstrators were coming down Eastern Parkway. “Heil Hitler,” they chanted. “Death to the Jews.”

Police in riot gear stood nearby but did nothing.

Suddenly rocks and bottles started to fly toward us and a chasidic man just a few feet away from me was hit in the throat and fell to the ground. Some ran to help the injured man but most of us ran for cover. I ran for a payphone and, my hands shaking with rage, dialed my editor. I spoke in a way that I never had before or since when talking to a boss.

“You don’t know what’s happening here!” I yelled. “I am on the streets getting attacked. Someone next to me just got hit. I am writing memos and what comes out in the paper? ‘Hasidim and blacks clashed’? That’s not what is happening here. Jews are being attacked! You’ve got this story all wrong. All wrong.”

I didn’t blame the “rewrite” reporter. I blamed the editors. It was clear that they had settled on a “frame” for the story. The way they saw it, there were two narratives here: the white narrative and the black narrative. And both had equal weight.

After my outburst things got a little better. The next day’s report began like this: “Black youths hurling rocks and bottles scuffled with the police in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn last night, even as Mayor David N. Dinkins tried to personally calm the racially troubled neighborhood after two nights of violence.”

But the Times still had trouble changing its frame. Perhaps most troubling was an article written in the midst of the rioting under this headline: “Amid Distrust in Brooklyn: Boy and Scholar Fall Victim.” The article compared the life of Gavin Cato, the 7-year-old boy killed in the car accident that spurred the riots, and the life of Yankel Rosenbaum, 29, who was stabbed to death later that night. It recycled every newspaper cliché and was an insult to the memory of both victims, but, again, it fit the frame.

“They did not know each other,” the article said. “They had no reason to know… They died unaware….” In the eyes of the Times, the deaths were morally equivalent and had equal weight.

The Times editorial page followed suit. “The violence following an auto accident in Crown Heights reminds all New Yorkers that the city’s race relations remains dangerously strained,” the editorial said. It concluded by praising Mayor Dinkins, giving him credit “for a hard night’s work” and doing “the job that New Yorkers elected him to do.”

The one who first broke the frame and spoke the truth was the fearless poet of the New York newspaper business in those days, Jimmy Breslin, then a columnist for Newsday. He was one of numerous reporters, photographers and television journalists who were beaten or otherwise injured during the riots. In Breslin’s case, he was dragged from a taxi by a group of rampaging young men, pummeled and stripped of his clothes. That night, he vowed to tell the truth of his humiliation, although he anticipated the resistance. “And someone up in the higher echelons of journalism, some moron starts talking about balanced coverage,” he said.

The other person who spoke the truth was the brilliant former executive editor of the Times, A.M. Rosenthal, who by 1991 had become a columnist for the paper. Rosenthal was one of the first journalists at the Times to call the riots what they were. “Pogrom in Brooklyn,” was the headline of his column on Sept. 3, 1991, just two weeks after the riots ended.

“The press,” Rosenthal wrote, “treats it all as some kind of cultural clash between a poverty-ridden people fed up with life and a powerful, prosperous and unfortunately peculiar bunch of stuck-up neighbors — very sad of course, but certainly understandable. No — it is an anti-Semitic pogrom and the words should not be left unsaid.”

It pains me to recall that not many people at the Times took Rosenthal seriously at the time. He had gone from being the editor of a great “liberal” newspaper to being a “conservative” columnist who seemed to return to the same issues over and over again: the security of Israel, anti-Semitism, the persecution of Christians in China and the war on drugs.

But Rosenthal was right about Crown Heights. In 1993, two years after the Crown Heights riots, an exhaustive state investigation sharply criticized Mayor Dinkins for not understanding the severity of the crisis. It also faulted his police commissioner, Lee Brown, for mismanaging the police during the riots.

The critical state report was widely covered in the press. “For the Mayor,” the Times headline said, “A Harsh Light.”

But another report, this one on how the press covered Crown Heights, got little publicity. It was written in 1999 by Carol B. Conaway, then an assistant professor at the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., and published in an academic journal called Polity. Her article is called “Crown Heights: Politics and Press Coverage of the Race War That Wasn’t.”

“Journalists and their audience alike rely on ‘frames’ when writing about and understanding newsworthy events because they provide cues for understanding others’ experiences,” Conaway wrote. But, she added, sometimes the frames are wrong.

She continued: “The New York Post, a tabloid, shifted away from the race frame to focus on black anti-Semitism within a few days of the initial rampages, while the New York Times persisted with the racial frame for at least two years.

“Yet,” she added, “one cannot understand the events [that unfolded in Crown Heights] without getting beyond the binaries of black versus white encouraged by the use of the race frame, and understanding the more complex dynamics of the conflict.”

As someone who saw the conflict unfold I can attest to this first-hand. I am telling my story in print for the first time because it is important that we journalists examine our mistakes and learn from them. Fitting stories into frames — whether about blacks and Jews, liberals or conservatives, Arabs and Israelis, Catholics and Protestants or Muslims and Jews — is wrong and even dangerous. Life is more complicated than that. And so is journalism.

Last Update:

11/09/2012 - 15:08

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Yet another example of truth being a victim of "balanced" reporting.

It would also be fair to add that HonestReporting - an organization dedicated to truthful news coverage of Israel - was started after a photograph with the intentionally misleading caption was published in the NY Times in 2001.

Why did it take so long for Ari Goldman to write this piece. Iam very disheartened.

Ari Goldman's discovery of NY Times recreation of the news to suit its policies is nothing new. In the early '70's I witnessed daily news coverage of demonstrations against building the Forest Hills housing project across the street from my home. Hundreds of neighborhood residents peacefully gathered to oppose Mayor Lindsay's proposed social engineering project intruding on the middle class sensitivities of former residents who fled declined neighborhoods in the Bronx and Brooklyn. Mounted police drove the crowd into a fully armed riot squad, causing injury and arrest. The NY Times, along with Newsweek, NBC, etc, reported that demonstrators of equal number gathered to support or reject the project. Those in favor consisted of a small group of kids bused in from the Bronx by 'Youth Against War and Fascism'. Especially since this was in full view in NYC, I conclude that if half the news we read is true we'd be lucky.

It is never about religion it is always about RACE..In America jews are white except for the non-white jews..This truth is the denial white jewish people don't want to confront...During Jim/JAne Crow white jews enjoyed the privledge of being WHITE not much has changed..

RACE TRUMPS everything in America even being JEWISH..

The same thing is going on today.
http://violentflashmobs.com/

The NYT has a history of covering up great crimes like the forced famine in the Ukraine during the 1930's under Stalin. 7-10 million murdered in 1 year, and the NYT said it didn't happen.

This blog brought me to tears remembering the dreadful riots of Crown Heights and the NY Times articles at the time equalizing the blacks and the Jews and their actions. This continues to this day with the Times making equal the Arabs and their attacks and their victims, the Israelis.
The beat goes on. The Times and its left wing supporters are still in thrall to the so called dispossed, the blacks and the Arabs.
This lesson has to be learned by the UK with their current riots.

Good timing! Now that blacks have been staging pogroms against whites in various cities, let Goldman come out and call them what they are: black anti-white pogroms. Now is the time for truth; not 20 years from now!

You are disturbed about the fact that you were both made to look bad? When racial issues erupt between white gentiles and blacks there is no attempt at balance. Blacks are portrayed either as the most innocent of angels or just an oppressed people who are righteously angry while white gentiles are evil incarnate. And the media is highly dispropinately jewish. Jewish folks like Ben Stein have even admitted as much so don't even start with the anti semitism card.

Not only is it blatantly false to claim that media is disproportionately Jewish, but it is also anti-Semitic given how anti-Semites have been repeating that same canard for centuries.

American Jews are disproportionately liberal elitists and liberal elitists are anti-Semitic irrespective of race, color, or religion.

They are known as "self-loathing Jews" and they are all, to a man, liberals.

>it is important that we journalists examine our mistakes and learn from them

Calling the pattern "mistakes" is awfully charitable. There's something far deeper at work here. It's a mentality impervious to facts and reason. Look at how The Timer and the other lamestream media cover the phenomenon of black mobs attacking whites this summer. They go through the most bizarre verbal contortions to avoid honestly describing it.
Media Stifling Racial Violence Coverage
http://www.americanthinker.com/2011/08/media_stifling_racial_violence_coverage.html

Honest discussion of race in public in America today is taboo; it's akin to talking publicly about sex in Victorian England.

Some of you are over reacting to this interesting and useful article. This is an opportunity to reflect but not react stupidly. For many of you here the frame is "jews as victim" --a sort of exceptionalism. This colors the vehemence of the response. I am not saying mob violence is the same as mob mentality but we all should steer away from such things. That said, how we understand the past affects how we interact with our neighbors in the here and now.

Another cowardly punk journalist. After 20 years and the rise of a wright-farrakan-ayers product who is being exposed, the cowardly journalist trys to cash in. Shove it. The real heroes take out the vermin - and don't talk.

I suspect that there was anti-Semitism among Blacks in Crown Heights, maybe even deep anti-Semitism. But could there not have been anti-Black feelings and beliefs in the assumption that it was o.k. to speed through a Black neighborhood, regardless of the lack of safety concern that resulted in the death of a child? It seems to me that this was a kind of disdain, if not hatred, of "the Other."
--------------------------------------------------------------
Blacks do not speed? If a black man kills a white child in a car accident it was racist? Your statement is sickening. It's like saying Emit Till was an anti-white racist because he felt it was okay to disrespect a white woman. Would you hold black folks responsible for the white mobs who killed them?

And yet the Jewish community bows to the left--the very same left that would see them liquidated again to fulfill some leftist fantasy that the Jews are the root of all evil. Incredible. The left has chosen a side. When will Jews realize that it's not their side?

Why continue voting Democratic?

And yet, after all of this; after President Obama has left Israel hung out on a line ('67 "borders," anyone?); after tepid condemnation (if any at all) of the genocidal maniacs of Hamas, et al., while finding maximum fault with the IDF and the Israeli government - still, American Jews are, apparently, ready to vote overwhelmingly Democratic yet again. When can we get past the politics of the 1950's and '60's, and see where true interests lie?

It should be noted, if it hasn't already, is that NY Times ALWAYS gets race stories wrong--and not by accident. They are pushing an agenda--whether it be to flood the Western world with non-white peoples, or to undermine the traditional values (and I say this as a life-long atheist-agnostic) of the majority population that built this country.

Besides exposing some disturbing inaccuracies in the New York Times coverage of the Crown Heights disturbances of 20 years ago--and reminding us of a very sad chapter in New York City's history--the revelations contained in Mr. Goldman's piece seem symptomatic of a more generalized decline in the quality of journalism in the United States in the past 25 or 30 years. Undoubtedly there are many reasons for this regrettable trend, from the economics of the news business to the advent of the 24 hour news cycle on cable television. Nonetheless, one can only hope that recent press tendencies towards shallow coverage, politicization of news reporting, and hasty and uniformed "framing" of important stories will be reversed, so that the "fourth estate" can once again assume its proper place as a trusted guardian of American democracy.

I remember the riots quite well. I was a public high school teacher in
Brooklyn at the time. I suspect that Mr. Goldman didn't speak up sooner in
order to protect his own job etc. Not uncommon. While he certainly doesn't
deserve any recognition as a hero for speaking up two decades late, he still
deserves some credit for telling it like it REALLY was even at this late date.
Most would have said nothing.

The bigger problem, as I see it, was ignored by most of those posting about
this piece. That problem is that the NY Times and other media still misuse
the frames mentioned in the piece. These frames are used to form public
opinion and all reports are made to fit the frame no matter how wrong that
frame happens to be. The NY Times hasn't changed and other media outlets
have simply copied their poor example and established frames that are often
completely false and, worse yet, are intentionally untrue.

The security of the United States, Jews in general and Israel in particularly
suffer as a result of this. There is the false frame of those Arabs referred to
as Palestinians being constantly abused by Israel through no fault of their
own. There is the false frame of Islam as a religion of peace regardless of
how many thousand terrorist acts are carried out in the name of that religion.
There is the false Islamophobia frame, an invention of CAIR, to
stigmatize/silence anyone who makes any negative comment regarding
Islam. There is the Anders Breivik as a Christian fundamentalist frame and
many more. Each of these as false as the Crown Heights frame described in the piece.

What Mr. Goldman wrote simply teaches us that, to paraphrase an old
expression, history teaches us that history hasn't taught the NY Times (or
other media outlets). Pretty sad for America, Israel and the Jewish
People!!!!

Name names. What PEOPLE did this?

Welcome to our world, jews. Remember Mr. Goldman's piece the next time you want to go apesh*t over a bs story like "The Jena Six."

Sincerely,

The Flyover goyim.

I don't know how Mr. Goldman can look at himself in the mirror. Staying silent for twenty years while Al (never apologize for being an anti-semite) Sharpton)cozys himself up to the liberal intelligensia and becomes a TV host.

Mr. Goldman, thanks a lot. For nothing!!

To this day the media refuse to call it as it was. Dinkins refused to stop the pogrom against the Jews in Crown Heights just as he refused to order the police to enforce a court order for the Korean grocer.

The first night as I arrived in Crown Heights, in the middle of the riots, I observed many police standing in groups on street corners. I recognized one or two of them and they told me to get out of there; there were roaming mobs attacking Jews. They made it clear that they had absolute orders not to become involved. How would you feel hearing rants of “kill the Jew bastards” coming from somewhere and knowing that then police were on orders not to protect you.

As I recall, shortly after I arrived in Crown Heights a high muckety muck in the Police Department stated in an interview that the orders from City Hall were “that the PD was not to engage”. After the first time, I never heard that quote reported and when I questioned the high mukety muck he admitted to me, strictly off the record, that he had said it but that he had orders to get it retracted.
The media had no interest in the true story of the facts which gave rise to the riots; the fictional version the media reported was more incendiary and made for better reading. It also promoted a distorted image of Dinkins the Discriminator in chief [as against the Jews in Crown Heights and the Koreans with their Flatbush grocery] .

Mr. Goldman and the New York Times lied. The riot should have triggered an citywide and nationwide outrage by all decent people. It didn't because the media lied and portrayed a rampaging anti-semitic mob brought in from all sections of the city as a "rumble". Rumbles have different sides of the story, one needs to be careful jumping to conclusions. Decent people don't take "sides" when a Lieby Kletsky is murdered or when a Church is burnt down or when a pogrom takes place in our city. What Mr. Goldman and his colleagues did was lie giving cover for demagogues and cowardly politicians and community leaders who were able to say that they did not know what was going on. Those of us who tried to get the truth out were at a distinct disadvantage, The people who told the unvarnished truth were seen as partisans amplifying isolated information out of proportion. It did not help that those who expressed outrage were consistently New York City more politically conservative voices in a very liberal city. Outspoken and "fearless" leaders hid in silence. Politicians such as our current senior Senator and former Governor did nothing during the riot. The ADL did nothing, the AJC did nothing, the Rabbinic and synagogue groups did nothing, the Civil Rights organizations did nothing, the business leaders did nothing. The big lie perpetuated by the Times and their colleagues in the news media gave cover to this silence.

So Ari, Are you asking for mechila? Why did you not speak up? to save your own tush and keep your job? You remind me of the "good German citizens in 1930's and 1940's".
Do you feel better by baring your soul? Or is this just another article?

When we've cried victim so many times, for so many years, it becomes hard for others to hear. And sadly, we are victims. But sometimes more than others. When we stop over using the word, we will be heard.

@8/11/11 - 14:04

Your resentment of black americans is palpable and remarkably undeserved. No wonder there is such acrimony and mistrust between the two communities, i can only hope that your sentiments are not emblematic of most jewish americans. But i'm 1/2 way through this comment thread and it doesn't look promising.

What surprises me most is that organizations like the ADL and many others that spend millions of charity dollars a year (mostly on their own salaries) where no where to be found. Abe Foxman makes over half a millions dollars a year but only came onto the scene after it was all over in order to promote himself.
We Jews need to realize we're paying a hefty price for Abe Foxman and Co. Our money can be well spend elsewhere.

From this essay and the comments, I have one thought and bit of advice for my fellow Jews in particular and righteous Americans in general. The Second Amendment. Use it.

The Sulzbergers(NYT owners)converted to Christianity a long time ago.My letters have been published in the NYT. They printed several stories about racing pigeons.All were filled with half truth and lies.I sent a rebuttal in & they refused to print it.I contacted Sulzberger Jr & said print a correction, print my letter--do something, but tell the truth.He refused and wrote me several personal letters.I cancelled my subscription.The NYT,the Sulzbergers,etc have trouble with the truth.I've always thought they were rather ant-semitic & here it is brought out by a brave & honest reporter. I hope they remember that Hitler would have put them in the ovens also. There's no giving up your Jewishness. At least not with the Jew haters.

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