Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Religious tabloids

(Cross-posted at DovBear's blog.)

I see that Krum has posted about Yated Ne'eman's biases. I don't know if I've ever heard a bigger understatement. Yated Ne'eman doesn't just slant. It lies.

This became abundantly clear to me a few years ago when the paper did an article on Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein. Rabbi Eckstein is controversial because of his attempts to build bridges between Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians. The Atlanta Jewish Times did a good profile of him in this article.

One day, Yated attacked Rabbi Eckstein. That in itself did not surprise me. It was the manner of the attack that caught my attention. According to Yated, Rabbi Eckstein had recently converted to Messianic Judaism:
In ads and books, [Eckstein's organization] has made numerous alarming remarks over the years, including Eckstein's declaration in one of his books that he had become a Jew for J. Eckstein has denied that he is a Jew for J.
Now, that's a pretty serious charge. But what was particularly confusing is that the two above sentences border on contradicting each other. One sentence says that R. Eckstein announced in a book that he'd become a Jew for Jesus, the next sentence claims that he has denied the charges. The conflation of the two sentences makes the paragraph come off rather like a Wikipedia article.

But this is one of the strange things I've noticed about Yated. It's not just that the paper lies. The paper lies, but unconvincingly. Even if I'd known nothing about R. Eckstein, I still would have been scratching my head after reading this article.

So, what is the truth of the matter? In 2001, R. Eckstein released a novel called The Journey Home. In that novel, a fictional version of R. Eckstein travels with a fictional version of a real-life Christian friend of his in the Holy Land. At one point, the rabbi says, "While I still don't believe in Jesus as the Christ as Jamie does, and view him instead as a Jew who brought salvation to the gentiles, in some respects, that is exactly what I have become--a Jew for Jesus."

Now, I can understand why some Orthodox Jews were alarmed by this statement. But that doesn't give anyone the right to lie about R. Eckstein. If Yated had clarified that this was a fictional story, and that even the fictional version of Eckstein was not embracing Messianic Judaism, the attack on Eckstein would have been more credible.

Of course, the article does quote someone defending R. Eckstein by pointing out that the claim against him was based on "words taken out of context from a story that was totally fictitious." But the article never explains what this remark means. It leaves readers with the impression that the rabbi really did become a Messianic Jew. Who cares if he claims that his comment was taken out of context? That's what they all say!

A couple of months ago, Rabbi Harry Maryles wrote on his blog about an article in Yated written by Dr. David Berger against Lubavitch. I objected to Harry's source, both because Dr. Berger is a known anti-Chabad zealot and because Yated is not a reliable source. Harry agreed with me, admitting that Yated was biased and even dishonest. But he insisted that they lie not overtly but "by omission." I remembered that Harry had on another occasion mentioned being friends with Rabbi Eckstein. Knowing this, I showed him the Yated article on Eckstein. This was Harry's response:
OK. I admit this stretches the outer reaches of truth, but although they are obviously wrong, I do not think they think they were deliberately lying. They were presenting the views of their misinformed Gedolim as fact. This is not the same as a deliberate lie.
I find the above statement disturbing to the max. So it's supposed to be better if Gedolim came up with the false information rather than the paper itself? And where did the Gedolim get the false information? At some point, somebody had to be lying--either that, or they were so careless they literally didn't care whether what they were writing was true or not. The article didn't just print a false rumor. It printed the rumor, but also printed the fact that R. Eckstein disputed the charges, and it vaguely hinted as to why the charges were disputed. But it still stated the false claim as fact.

Harry asked Dr. Berger, who is Modern Orthodox, why he had chosen to print his article in Yated. Dr. Berger contributed a lengthy explanation. He said that he was actually impressed by Yated's standards, because the editor censored a few sentences from his article. In Dr. Berger's words,
I argued that this additional information is critically important, but the editor felt that it was not important enough to overcome the larger editorial policy. I did not draw a line in the sand and allowed the deletion. While I think the editor's decision was mistaken, I admire the commitment to avoiding what he sees as unseemly content, a commitment that overrode any desire to add additional unfavorable information about Lubavitch. I ask myself if I can think of any other forum that would be so fastidious, and I come up empty.
Sarcastically, I replied, "Yeah, they think it's unseemly to mention Jesus by name, but they don't have a problem with falsely accusing someone of worshipping him."

Anyone familiar with Yated knows that distortions of this magnitude are hardly uncommon. The article on R. Eckstein appeared at least a year before the Slifkin controversy erupted, with all the lies and false rumors that went along with that account. Yated is essentially a mouthpiece for the forces responsible for the Slifkin fiasco.

Not too long ago, an article in the Baltimore Jewish News (the Orthodox spinoff of the Baltimore Jewish Times) talked about how Orthodox families in Baltimore handled exposure to secular media. A couple of the families interviewed were uncomfortable getting newspapers like The Baltimore Sun and The New York Times because of their perceived liberal and/or anti-Israel slant. One family preferred The Wall Street Journal, while another preferred, er, Yated Ne'eman.

There's nothing wrong with getting your news from the WSJ, because that publication, like The New York Times, is a legitimate newspaper, ideological slant or no. Sure, they may have occasional lapses from their fairly high standards, but at least they have standards. To prefer Yated, on the other hand, is laughable. Yated isn't a real newspaper; it's a frum tabloid rag. It's amazing to me that the same people who accuse others of being brainwashed are the most eager to brainwash themselves.

2 comments:

lawrence kaplan said...

As one who has known Dr. Berger and his writngs for many years, I believe that to describe him as an anti-Chabad Zealot is a gross misrepresentation.

Kylopod said...

Fine. I could be wrong about Dr. Berger, and if I am, then I apologize, but it's just the impression I've gotten from reading his articles.

I also didn't mean to imply that R' Harry agrees with my characterization of Dr. Berger, though he does differ with Dr. Berger in the intensity of his opposition.