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Selective Labeling

The furor over the New York Post’s outrageous coverage of the murder of Menachem Stark, including its repeated and irrelevant references to Mr. Stark’s being a chassidic Jew, focused the community’s attention on that particular story. But similar things regularly slip under the radar.

While the facts underlying those stories don’t approach the gruesomeness of the Stark murder, they all share the element of gross stereotyping. This becomes clear when similarly negative stories about non-Jews routinely omit any ethnic or religious labeling.

Several days after the Post’s Jan. 5 Stark front-pager that elicited so much public criticism, the tabloid ran a story with the headline “Four Orthodox Jewish men arrested for court pix of sex accuser.” Not to be outdone, the New York Daily News headlined its version of the story “Brooklyn Hasid claims fraudster tweeted pic of sex abuse victim.”

What, exactly, did the religious persuasion of the subjects have to do with the events being reported on? Indeed, nothing in the stories provided a clue. And as we noted in a Jan. 10 editorial (“The New York Post and the Stark Murder,”), the Post’s Jan. 5 Stark story began with the introduction of Mr. Stark as a “millionaire Hasidic slumlord.” We also drew attention to an August 2012 Post story headlined “Drug-Cash Rap vs. Hasid Trio.”

Tellingly, a quick Google search reveals a wholly different approach when non-Jews are the subjects. Last October, the Daily News ran a story about someone described as “One of the worst landlords in the Bronx [who] is facing jail time after failing to make hundreds of repairs to an apartment building that has fallen into ‘deplorable’ disrepair.” But there was nothing about the landlord’s religion or ethnicity. Nor was the headline that accompanied the story any help. It read, merely, “Judge orders filthy Bronx landlord to jail.” To be sure there was a picture that accompanied the article, but it was of one of the building in question.

And last week the News ran a story headlined “Brooklyn slumlord, who blocks boiler from being repaired, slapped with jail, $382G in fines.” There was a picture of the “slumlord,” who appeared to be a person of color. But there was no mention of ethnicity or religion in the story which, online, ran to five pages.

There was also a story in the News last April about events on an American Airlines flight from Miami to New York that was headlined “Man charged with molesting sleeping female….” No mention of the ethnicity or religion of the alleged perpetrator, nor was there any in the story itself. (We were, however, provided with the man’s name, which suggested Indian or Pakistani descent, and a picture of an American Airlines plane.)

One would have hoped that the pushback that ensued after the Post’s Stark coverage would have had an effect, and apparently there was some – but only to a point. Last Friday, the Post ran a story about how police now believe Mr. Stark was killed over a $20,000 debt to a contractor. The piece was headlined “Police eye contractor owed $20K in slumlord’s murder.” Gone was the deplorable “Hasidic” reference. Yet the Post seems bent on not letting go of the image of Mr. Stark as some evil tormentor of tenants. Hence the buzzword “slumlord” even in a story inconsistent with the original theory that the murderers may have been disgruntled tenants.

(And it was after the Stark episode that the News ran with its regrettable reference, mentioned above, to the “Brooklyn Hasid” and his claim about the fraudulent tweeting of some pictures.)

However, in sharp contrast to the Post, this is how the News headlined its story on the latest developments in the Stark case: “Despite owing millions to creditors, Brooklyn landlord, Menachem Stark, killed over single $20,000 debt: Police.” Plainly “landlord” is an equally efficient and certainly less pejorative identifying device than “slumlord.”

It’s time we insist that Orthodox Jews be treated with fairness. While some in our community do not always do us proud, their activities are personal and not reflective of some institutional or communal proclivity. And they should be portrayed as such. We have had enough experience with group libels and their fallout.

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