Does the NYT Magazine have a Jewish problem?

The public editor of The New York Times, Clark Hoyt, recently gave a real spanking to the Sunday magazine and Deborah Solomon over her approach to the weekly "Questions For" feature. Next time he has the magazine on the brain, maybe he could get to a question that’s been bugging me for months: Does the NYT Magazine have a Jewish problem?

I wouldn’t normally put it that way, but the first troublesome item to catch my attention was the January 14 profile by James Traub titled "Does Abe Foxman Have an Anti-Anti-Semite Problem?"

Next was Ian Buruma’s February 4 "Tariq Ramadan Has an Identity Issue." And, finally, "Orthodox Paradox," Noah Feldman’s much-discussed July 22 lament about being cut like a foreskin from his high school alumni newsletter on account of his marriage to a non-Jew.

All three articles contained a Jews-should-get-over-it-already bias: Traub’s piece was a critique of Abe Foxman’s crying "gevalt" over anti-Semitism, with the underlying message that the Jewish community in general needs to stop stifling debate on Israel. Buruma basically told American Jewish organizations to stop picking on Tariq Ramadan, a controversial Muslim scholar whose chance to teach at Notre Dame fell through because the State Department would not give him a visa. Feldman portrayed any effort by Orthodox institutions to uphold a communal taboo against intermarriage as a primitive obstacle to "reconciling the vastly disparate values of tradition and modernity."

Of course, harping on bias in the NYT Magazine is like complaining about chocolate chips in a Toll House cookie. If you expect straight cookie, then stick to the newspaper – the magazine is a place for writers to open up, both in terms of space and voice.

Still, creative freedom doesn’t mean creative license. Each of these stories either danced up to or crossed the line on pertinent facts – in a way that served to bolster the writer’s agenda. In at least one case, the journalistic misdeed was serious enough for the public editor to urge one Jewish organization to write a letter to the editor – which the magazine then failed to print. Let’s start with Traub’s Foxman problem.

Traub did a masterful job in terms of capturing Foxman’s personality, of getting a sense of what it feels like to be in a room with the ADL leader when he gets rolling, and Traub’s not wrong to suggest that Foxman has become a polarizing figure. But the piece was plagued by several major mistakes or omissions. Perhaps the biggest doozy was this assertion: "Foxman upset many of his colleagues by extending a welcome to Christian conservatives, whose leaders tended to be strongly pro-Israel even as they spoke in disturbing of America’s ‘Christian’ identity. Foxman was willing to cut them some slack on issues of social justice, and even of church-state relations, in the name of solidarity toward Israel."

Prior to the recent controversy over Foxman’s initial refusal to classify the massacres of Armenians as genocide, his loudest critics in recent years have been those who complain that the ADL leader spends too much time bashing religious conservatives. Jewish and Christian right-wingers slammed him for his criticisms of Mel Gibson and "The Passion," and were livid in 2005 when he gave a major speech warning of a campaign to "Christianize America." Given the slant of Traub’s story, it was also unfair not to mention that Foxman was attacked by Jewish hawks for giving a prominent platform to NYT columnist Thomas Friedman, a frequent critic of Israel’s Likud governments. Readers probably also deserved to know that Foxman, during both the Oslo process and the lead up to the Gaza disengagement, spent serious political capital in pressing American Jewish groups to line up behind Jerusalem’s peace moves.

In Feldman’s story, the main topic of dispute has been the opening anecdote:

A number of years ago, I went to my 10th high-school reunion, in the backyard of the one classmate whose parents had a pool. Lots of my classmates were there. Almost all were married, and many already had kids. This was not as unusual as it might seem, since I went to a yeshiva day school, and nearly everyone remained Orthodox. I brought my girlfriend. At the end, we all crowded into a big group photo, shot by the school photographer, who had taken our pictures from first grade through graduation. When the alumni newsletter came around a few months later, I happened to notice the photo. I looked, then looked again. My girlfriend and I were nowhere to be found.

Combined with the graphic (see below), the clear implication was that the couple had somehow been removed from the photo.

But, as the New York Jewish Week reported, it turned out that Feldman and the magazine editors learned shortly before deadline that this is not what had happened. The real story was that the school had selected one of several photos – each containing only about half of the people at the reunion.

The magazine has insisted that it did nothing wrong. Here’s what Alex Star, senior editor at the magazine, had to say about it in an e-mail to the Orthodox Union:

In his essay, Mr. Feldman does not assert, as the Jewish Week claims, that he was "erased" from the photograph or that he and his wife were "stricken from the photo." Nowhere does he say, as you put it in your letter to us, that he was "deliberately cropped out" of the picture. The assertions that you and the Jewish Week attribute to the essay are assertions that are not made in the essay.

In researching the article, we obtained the original contact sheets for the pictures taken by Lenny Eisenberg. The record shows that Eisenberg took five wide-angle photos of the entire crowd at the class reunion. In addition, he took a photo of the crowd from the left side, which includes Mr. Feldman and his wife; and a photo of the crowd from the right side, which does not include Mr. Feldman and his wife. The Maimonides School newsletter chose to publish the photo of the crowd from the right side – the photo that does not include Mr. Feldman and his wife. These facts are entirely consistent with the essay we published, where the author writes that a "group photo" was taken and yet when the alumni newsletter appeared, he and his girlfriend were "nowhere to be found."

Go back, look at the graphic (which Star does not mention), and then read the opening paragraph again. Then decide if the magazine is being straight with readers, both in the original article and the subsequent letter.

At least an editor at the magazine addressed the issue.

Jack Rosen and the American Jewish Congress are still waiting for a response to their complaints about this passage in Buruma’s piece on Ramadan:

Ramadan himself says that it was because of his views on Israel and U.S. policy in Iraq that he was deprived of his visa to teach in the U.S. He told me: "I was asked to take part in a dialogue in Paris with representatives of American Jewish organizations, including Jack Rosen, head of the American Jewish Congress. It turned out to be less of a dialogue than an interview about my opinions on the Palestinian conflict. Rosen promised to talk to President Bush. But after this interview, I knew I would never get a visa."

That’s a serious charge, reminiscent of classical anti-Semitic canards about Jews pulling the strings of power behind the scenes. Buruma immediately acknowledges as much, writing that the remarks "might sound like just the kind of conspiracy theory anti-Semites tend to indulge in." He then proceeds to assure that reader that Ramadan is not an anti-Semite, without addressing the substance of the initial claim about Jews conspiring to block his visa.

Rosen and other officials at the AJCongress say that Buruma never called them for comment. Just days after publication, Rosen wrote a letter to the then-public editor Byron Calame, in which he said that the visa was never discussed during the meeting and denied that he or any other AJCongress official ever discussed the matter with the State Department. According to Rosen, the AJCongress sought out Ramadan as part of their effort to open a dialogue with moderate Muslims.

In a February 26, 2007 e-mail in response, Calame wrote :

It is my view that Mr. Buruma should have given Jack Rosen an opportunity, before publication, to respond to Tariq Ramadan’s description of the Paris gathering. Failing to do so, it seems to me, does not represent The New York Times at its best. I have no authority as public editor, however, to require the magazine or the newspaper to acknowledge and deal with such situations.

I would suggest that you consider sending a letter to the editor to the magazine for possible publication. It would give you an opportunity to present the American Jewish Congress perspective on the meeting. I can’t make any commitment on behalf of the magazine, but I would urge you to try this route.

AJCongress officials say they followed the public editor’s advice, and sent a nearly identical letter to the magazine, but never heard back. It was never published. (Click here for the full correspondence.)

Mistakes happen, and – despite what left-wing and right-wing bloggers might tell you – mistakes are often not the result of bias. But this pattern of mistakes – and the response or lack of response on the part of the editors – is enough to raise some legitimate questions.

Or maybe I just need to get over worrying about keeping things kosher.

UPDATE: Andrew Silow-Carroll responds to my post.

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