Goldman's searing return to Crown Heights

Several years ago, the great religion-beat writer and scholar Ari Goldman briefly signed on the work here at GetReligion, before deciding that the daily deluge of email, criticism and comments was a bit too much for him. But just because Goldman -- best known for his work at the New York Times -- didn't warm up to blogging does not mean that he isn't willing to take out a scalpel from time to time and doing some candid work on the state of mainstream news coverage on this beat. As you would imagine, he is brilliant at it.

Now Goldman has basically opened a vein and dipped his pen into some highly personal ink (to mix a metaphor), sharing his memories of one of the most controversial American religion stories of the late 20th century -- the Crown Heights riots of Aug. 19, 1991. This has forced Goldman -- a major figure in the history of Times coverage of religion -- to focus his criticism, in large part, on an institution that he holds in high respect, the newspaper that he served so brilliantly.

The basic thrust of this article from The Jewish Week is simple and painful. The Times editors insisted on seeing the riots through the lens of race -- only. The problem was that the editors failed to get the role that religion, and antisemitism in particular -- played in this event. The bottom line? Can you say "moral equivalence"?

Goldman talks openly about his role in the newsroom and in the world of Orthodox Judaism, before getting into the basic facts that he witnessed with his own eyes and that he reported back to his newsroom, only to see them vanish.

Brace yourself:

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.”

Goldman cracked after witnessing demonstrators march past the Lubavitch headquarters chanting, "Heil Hitler. Death to the Jews." Police watched as Jews started falling in a rain of bottles and rocks.

He ran to a pay telephone and called his news desk, his hands shaking. He screamed at his editors. Things changed a little bit in the Times coverage. A little bit.


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. ...

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. ...

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.

But all means read it all. It will not be easy, but read it all.

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