Bias Ne’eman

By now, with a couple of decades of monitoring media on behalf of Agudath Israel behind me, I really shouldn’t be surprised by examples of journalistic bias. But there are times when I can still be impressed.

As I was by a recent news item from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the service used by Jewish media across the country and around the world. Its opening paragraphs read as follows:

This is how you launch a Hasidic shtetl in 21st-century America.

Step 1. Find a place within reasonable distance of Brooklyn where the land is cheap and underdeveloped.

Step 2. Buy as much property as you can in your target area — if possible, without tipping off locals that you plan to turn it into a Hasidic enclave.

Ensuing “steps,” according to the article, include building “densely clustered homes” and a religious “infrastructure.” And, finally: “Market to the Hasidic community and turn on the lights.”

The writer was referring to a Jewish developer’s purchase of land and construction of homes in the Sullivan County town of Bloomingburg. The article goes on to itemize some of the purchases — a “house with blue shutters,” a “hardware store,” a “pizza shop,” apartments “originally built as a senior housing development,” as examples of real estate purchases — and notes that “meanwhile, in Brooklyn … Yiddish-language newspapers began to run advertisements touting” the new development.

The piece goes on to describe some local residents’ dismay at the notion of an influx of chassidic Jews; as well as accusations, lawsuits and counter-lawsuits.

There is a legitimate story here, and there are two sides to it. People who have lived for years in a rural, bucolic setting are understandably concerned about possible changes to their neighborhood. Then again, neighborhoods change (as we “wandering Jews” have all too often experienced). And upstate New York is a prime area for both business and residential development — which will yield the region economic benefits.

The JTA piece gives prominent voice to local residents who feel they had been “hoodwinked” by the Jewish developer, and seems to endorse that assertion (see “Step 2,” above). I have no idea whether the developer acted ethically. The article, however, ignores his denial of any wrongdoing.

And is marketing a development to a particular community somehow offensive? Would it be if the community at issue were blacks or Asians or Swedes?

What’s more, as if to ensure that readers not dare to think of harboring any good will toward the Chassidim seeking a better life upstate, the writer takes pains to note the “cautionary tale” of the Ramapo school board in Rockland County, which “had been taken over by a Hasidic majority that was stripping local public school budgets and selling off public school buildings to yeshivas at cut-rate prices.”

The implication, of course, that the Ramapo school board cynically plundered public schools is the gnarled (and somewhat anti-Semitism-tinged) narrative of some local residents.

The truth of the matter is rather less exciting: The state funding formula, and laws mandating the provision of textbooks, school transportation and special education services to all school children, simply left insufficient funds to maintain some extracurricular programming and teachers in the district’s public schools. As to “selling off public school buildings to yeshivas at cut-rate prices,” one (non-chareidi) real estate appraiser pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge involving the sale of a public school.

Were the JTA offering an opinion piece, its snark and disregard of objectivity would be, although distasteful, acceptable. Op-eds, after all, are expected to be partisan. But the piece is a news item. And Journalism 101 requires fairness and the presentation of both sides of an issue.

JTA is generally a responsible news organization and the writer of the Bloomsburg piece is someone I think highly of; I don’t believe he was motivated by conscious ill will. But, as a non-chareidi Jew, he may share some of the subliminal negative feelings all too many harbor toward those they regard as backward or extreme in their mode of living.

When I contacted him to express my chagrin at his piece, he responded that he simply described things as he saw them. Asked about his article’s cynical tone and lack of objectivity, he declined to defend it, writing only that “I know I’m right.”

Such things confirm my conviction that general Jewish media — and non-Jewish media — would be best served were their reporters on things Jewish to bear surnames like Johnson or O’Brian. Distance is what best serves objectivity.

As the writer William Saletan once wisely observed: “There’s a word for bias you can’t see: yours.”