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Ombudsman: Is The Sun Anti-Semitic?


An innocently-chosen word, "Jewish," led to old charges of anti-Semitism against The Baltimore Sun by some Jewish readers when Ruth Bader Ginsburg was nominated to the Supreme Court.

Here's the story. The Sun announced in its early editions June 15 the appointment of Judge Ginsburg to the court. Below the obvious major headline came a smaller one, "President picks Jewish woman for high court." The first paragraph noted she would be the first Jewish justice in 24 years.

Late the previous night, an editor objected to the secondary headline as not being relevant enough. A supervisor agreed. The headline was changed for the last edition to "Nominee would be second woman for high court."

The morning of publication, I wrote in a daily internal report for all employees that I was glad the early headline had been changed because the religious angle wasn't so pertinent. If it had been documented that President Clinton decided on naming only a person who was Jewish, that would have been OK in a headline, but the story didn't say that.

I explained that my experience here has shown that many Jewish readers object to the word "Jew" or "Jewish" in a Sun headline unless quite relevant. Older readers especially say "it looks bad" or fear such naked highlighting wakens bigots who might ordinarily slumber.

Later during that day and the next, more than 20 readers (that's a lot), almost all of whom said they were Jewish, complained that the Jewish headline was irrelevant and worse. Only one objected to the two religious references in the story.

They were bitter to humorous. I liked the line of Zelda S. Seideman, of Pikesville: "I'm still waiting for The Sun's headline about the country electing a Baptist boy for president." The readers were proud of Judge Ginsburg. In fact, two other Jewish readers were annoyed that "Jewish" was not in their headlines. I explained our change and my views.

I also said Judge Ginsburg's religion and cultural background were interesting to many Jews and non-Jews. The interest was dramatized a week later when The Baltimore Jewish Times put the judge on its cover with "The Story of Ruth" and a smaller headline saying: "Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The First Jewish Woman Nominated to the Supreme Court."

The heat of some complaints suggested something more serious -- and familiar. Fully half the readers added the charge I've heard over and over for years: The Sun headline "proved once again" that The Baltimore Sun is anti-Semitic.

Jewish people, of course, are as diverse as any other group. I think this old view of The Sun does not represent the majority of Jewish citizens, but I know it persists among many here. I've heard it dozens and dozens of times, without much documentation.

Asked for specifics, the callers were certain they were right and that it remains an old problem at The Sun, but they didn't know the employees involved personally and didn't explain how the news judgment was "anti-Semitic."

I told them, as I have said for years, that I think the anti-Semitism charge against The Sun is a bum rap. Anti-Semitism is repugnant, and it surely exists but it can also be exaggerated.

Many older readers may be still feeling the days when the paper was fertile soil for anti-Semitism, as were many Baltimore companies and many American newspapers. There is no question that, like the population, The Sun's employees over the years have included and include some anti-Semites.

In the first half of the century, The Sun hired almost no Jews. One exceptions was Philip B. Perlman, city editor, who later became United States Solicitor General.

The Sun and The Evening Sun did not openly hire their first Jewish journalists until the 1950s. (The hiring of blacks began the next decade). Those were the days when many Baltimore neighborhoods had restrictive covenants that kept Jews and blacks out.

After I began here in 1963, some editors asked other staffers if I were Jewish. To some gentiles, Jews were still a curiosity then. I'm not Jewish, but I thought it was an odd question.

Journalistic mistakes, such as occasional insensitivity? Yes, we make them about various people and things, although we try to avoid them. But I have not heard Jewish editors, reporters and editorial writers here suggest our news coverage is, or in recent decades has been, "anti-Semitic" or "biased" against Jews.

An informal survey of some Jewish staffers bears that out. "I can't see anything, feel anything or hear anything like that," Andrew R. Ratner said. He is director of county/city editorials and one of a number of Jewish staffers in different news and editorial positions.

Another Jewish journalist, Michael A. Davis, was until recently a Sun editor and is now the editor of The Baltimore Jewish Times. He said, "I think my colleagues at The Sun make a special effort to be sensitive to the Jewish community in local and international coverage."

Some of the Jewish callers insist that The Sun's coverage of the Mid-east, if not anti-Semitic, is anti-Israel or too negative about Israel and has been that way for the past few Mid-East correspondents.

This different topic is too complex to weigh in detail here now. By the way, Maryland supporters of the Palestinians also get mad because they charge the paper "goes too easy" on Israel.

Although I think The Sun is not leaning against one side or toward another, I think at times there are problems or questions with the play, wording, headlines or missing balancing material in an individual story or with stories not done enough (for instance, Arabs killing other Arabs or day-to-day life in Israel aside from confrontations). These types of problems, which are also failings of journalism in general, should be avoided.

Ernest Imhoff is readers' representative for The Baltimore Sun.

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