Closings & delays

Menken: Bias has consequences

Rabbi Yaakov Menken is the Director of Project Genesis, a Jewish cyber-outreach organization based in Baltimore.

According to a new book from a professor at UCLA, the media's left-wing bias is so overwhelming and pervasive that the few balanced news outlets appear to have a conservative slant.

"It's like concluding that six-three is short just because it is short compared to professional basketball players," writes Professor Tim Groseclose. He asserts that by a neutral standard, Fox News and the Drudge Report are centrist, with perhaps even a minor left-wing tilt -- but due to the steep liberal bias of every other major outlet, "commentators mistake relative bias for absolute bias." From the article:

Groseclose opens his book quoting a well-known poll in which Washington correspondents declared that they vote Democratic 93 percent to 7 percent, while the nation is split about 50-50. As a result, he says, most reporters write with a liberal filter. "Using objective, social-scientific methods, the filtering prevents us from seeing the world as it actually is. Instead, we see only a distorted version of it. It is as if we see the world through a glass—a glass that magnifies the facts that liberals want us to see and shrinks the facts that conservatives want us to see."

If the liberal media tends to "shrink" conservative facts, this is true to a still more extreme degree with anything concerning religion. The Deseret News, the commercial paper of the Mormon Church, recently published a two-part series on news coverage of religion -- or the lack thereof. Journalists not only tend to be much more liberal, but much less religious, then the American population.

A 2002 survey (the most recent data available) of 1,149 randomly selected journalists conducted by the Indiana University found that 34 percent of journalists say they have no religious affiliation, compared with 13 percent among the general population who said the same in a 2002 Pew Research Center survey.

The journalists were also asked how important religion or religious beliefs were to them. Roughly a third (35 percent) said they were “very important.” By comparison, the figure among the general population, as measured that same year by Gallup, was nearly double at 61 percent.

It's not just stories about religion, but stories with a religious component, that are given short shrift if not ignored entirely. The religious angle of a news story is likely to be ignored, even when it is obvious:

“Journalists are afraid of religion not because they don’t understand it’s a big part of the story, but because it can be so contentious, especially when it’s a situation they haven’t been exposed to,” said Elizabeth Tenety, editor of The Washington Post’s On Faith forum. “It feels like a landmine, and when they have so much else to report on the story, it’s easy to say, ‘I’m on a deadline. This is relevant, but I don’t have time to get to it.’ ”

While I agree with the Deseret News about the ignorance, they do not give adequate coverage to the issue of bias, which is certainly as present with religion as it is with politics. Let me start with an example.

Recently, the Yediot Acharonot published a story that the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court (for financial matters) had sentenced a dog to stoning. It wandered into the court building, and one of the judges recalled that they had cursed a secular lawyer, one known to fight against the court over religious issues, that he be reincarnated as a dog. The judges concluded that this was in fact the very dog bearing the reincarnated spirit of the lawyer, and that local children should stone the dog to death.

The only true element of the story is that a dog did, in fact, walk into the Rabbinical Court building.

Every other line of the story, from beginning to end, was fiction -- and only a fool would call it an innocent mistake. There was no secular lawyer. He didn't exist, so, needless to say, he was not cursed to be reincarnated as a dog. The judges did not say that the dog should be stoned, and they certainly did not say that children should deliver the punishment. Ma'ariv quoted Chief Justice Yehoshua Levin in its retraction, translated by HonestReporting:

“There is no basis for the abuse of an animal, neither from the Halacha nor common sense.”

If ignorance was the only factor at work, then this was an ideal story to ignore. A trivial tale of antiquated rabbis demonstrating cruelty to animals is hardly worthy of being called "news" -- or is it? Apparently, not only other Israeli papers, but the AFP, BBC, Daily Telegraph, Time Magazine and others all thought this worthy of international news coverage. Drudge Report linked to it, and readers lapped it up [pardon the pun], making the BBC story the most shared item of the day. The BBC admitted, "We should never have written the article and apologise for any offence caused."

The underlying problem is not the simple publication of an obviously false story. It is that the reporters were so ignorant in matters religious, especially with regards to Orthodox Judaism, that they found the story even remotely believable. It is, further, that no one bothered to fact check with an Orthodox Rabbi. There are tens of thousands of Orthodox rabbis, not one of whom seems to be reachable when it comes time to fact check a story like this.

The people most injured by this sort of "news coverage," which trumpets the real and imagined misdeeds of any religious person or organization while ignoring or sidelining much more typical acts of selfless generosity and spiritual greatness, are those who know no better than the journalists who so poorly serve them.

The Mishpacha magazine of June 15 included a feature story on Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Kosel, the Western Wall. His father, Rav Chaim Yehuda Rabinowitz, is Chief Justice of the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court. He gave an example of the incredible damage done by negative coverage:

"Let me give you an example. An elderly couple came to Beis Din[Religious Court] asking for a divorce. It turns out they had been separated for seven years. After a long, drawn-out conflict in the secular courts, they decided to come to Beis Din. The husband, however, did not want a divorce. Yet after analyzing the case thoroughly, the dayanim finally ruled that he was required to grant one. Then I asked the wife why she had waited seven years to come to us. She replied, "Because of the public image of a Beis Din in the secular world!"

After the get was concluded, the couple admitted that their perception of Beis Din had changed. A case that had been drawn out in secular court for seven years was resolved in a single day! The woman was in shock. "Why didn't we know about you?" she asked. "This didn't cost us a single shekel, but the courts wiped us out. We spent all our resources on lawyers who squeezed the last cent out of us over seven years."

It should be noted that Rav Levin, speaking to a religious journalist for a religious magazine, was introspective, using this story to underscore the importance of being careful in word and deed because "the way the dayan [judge] behaves will determine how they perceive Orthodox Jews... if one person acts improperly, all of traditionally Orthodox Jewry is blamed for it, so the individual responsibility is great."

The same weekend this story appeared, so did the fictional account accusing the same Jerusalem Rabbinical Courts of gratuitous animal cruelty, and encouraging it on the part of children, as well. Sometimes, nothing but an individual's twisted imagination is required to further color the false picture delivered by the media.

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