On Media / Pop Culcha

Jewish World Review May 6, 1999/ 20 Iyar, 5759

Robert Leiter

New York (Times) Jews

"THE 'TIMES' AND THE JEWS" screams the headline on the white advertising border that partially blocks the front cover of a recent issue of New Yorker magazine.

Econophone Immediately, the wheels start to spin.

Has the magazine disclosed some terrible scandal in the corridors of journalistic power? Or have New York Jews banded together to protest the paper of record's treatment of "Jewish" news, Israel included?

The smaller subhead on the cover gives a bit more information: "Susan E. Tifft & Alex S. Jones report on how the newspaper became the Sulzbergers' religion."

Well, that narrows it a bit, making it seem that the piece will be more of the latter - sans the New York Jewish protest - rather than the former. But it still leaves a lot to the imagination.

Anyone with even a passing interest in the history of journalism knows that The New York Times has been a Jewish-owned paper - so to speak - but one that throughout its 100-plus years has never wanted to seem Jewishly-identified in any way.

As far as Jewish issues were concerned, it was a company policy, begun by original owner Adolph Ochs, that the paper would strive to be even more objective than is professionally necessary - just to prove their lack of bias.

It turns out that Tifft and Jones have just completed a biography of the Ochs and Sulzberger families. Their piece in The New Yorker narrows the focus to the family's curious relationship to Judaism and how that has "shaped the dynasty that runs the Times." Even those who know the story well might be shocked by some of the details.

The authors note that during the paper's centennial celebration in 1996 there was an exhibition at the New York Public Library about how the Times covered some of the great events of the century and at one point in the display there came "a rare confession of failure."

In the section on the Holocaust, a caption read: "The New York Times has been criticized for grossly underplaying coverage of the Holocaust. Although some reports were given prominence, this display shows that the criticism was valid." Since the publication of Holocaust scholar Deborah E. Lipstadt's book Beyond Belief in 1986, on American press coverage of the Shoah, this does not come as a revelation.

But the authors do show how this rare admission goes "directly to the heart of the [paper's] ethos, its history, and, above all, its anxieties." The authors contend that even though the Times has been a public company since 1969, it's still under the control of a family "whose experiences as Jews - rejection, fear, confusion, accommodation, and triumph - continue to shape the paper we read today."

Ari Goldman, a former religion reporter for the paper, may have told the Jewish Week that "reading the Times has become part of being Jewish in America," but Tifft and Jones tell us that such a suggestion "would undoubtedly" make the Sulzbergers recoil.

"Like so many assimilationist German Jews," Tifft and Jones write, "they have struggled to be viewed as Americans of Jewish faith, nothing more, and to have their newspaper judged as an objective arbiter of information - the paper of record. But, as the Times' muted coverage of the Holocaust demonstrates, it was never that simple."

It all began with Adolph Ochs, and the authors show how his fear of criticism led him to manage the paper with extreme caution. They tell us that "he forbade the paper to mount crusades of any kind - with one exception." That was the case of Leo Frank in 1914.

Frank, raised in Brooklyn, was the Jewish manager of the National Pencil Company in Atlanta who was found guilty of murdering and raping a 13-year-old worker in his factory, Mary Phagan. Ochs was convinced by others of Frank's innocence and sent a reporter to Atlanta.

Frank was eventually lynched by a mob, and hate mail began to pour into the Times office, much of it addressed to Ochs, who had a guard posted outside his office. He also fell into the first of several deep depressions.

The authors write: "Never again did Ochs allow the Times to crusade for a cause, and any issue involving Jews was handled with a wariness that bordered on paranoia."

The precarious state of Adolph's health and the Sulzbergers' eventual record on Zionism can still give one pause and make a reader even more keenly anticipate the publication of Tifft and Jones's complete manuscript.

Robert Leiter is Literary Editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.

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©1999 Robert Leiter