'NY Times' slammed for coverage of Crown Heights riots

Twenty years later, former religion reporter says the newspaper ignored the anti-Semitic nature of events in Brooklyn.

'NY Post' coverage of Crown Heights riots 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
'NY Post' coverage of Crown Heights riots 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A former New York Times religion reporter has written a blistering attack on the newspaper’s failure to attribute a riot in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, 20 years ago to anti-Semitism. The violence resulted in the murder of Australian Yankel Rosenbaum, a Lubavitch hassid, on August 19, 1991.
Ari L. Goldman, who covered the story for the Times in 1991, wrote in the current issue of New York Jewish Week: “Over those three days I also saw journalism go terribly wrong. The city’s newspapers, so dedicated to telling both sides of the story in the name of objectivity and balance, often missed what was really going on. Journalists initially framed the story as a ‘racial’ conflict and failed to see the anti-Semitism inherent in the riots.”
RELATED:The Amish get a hamish welcome NY teens hurl rocks at Jewish bus
After the motorcade of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, then the Lubavitcher Rebbe, accidentally struck and killed Gavin Cato, seven, the son of Guyanese immigrants, a wave of violence erupted in Crown Heights. The neighborhood is the site of the Lubavitch headquarters and is populated largely by Caribbean- Americans, African-Americans and Orthodox Jews.
Lemrick Nelson, Jr., 16 in 1991, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2003 for stabbing Rosenbaum to death. Nelson and a group of other young black men had encircled Rosenbaum as shouts to “Kill the Jew” filled the air.
Goldman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University and a former Fulbright Professor in Jerusalem, wrote, “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 pay phones and dictated our memos to a waiting band of stenographers in the home office.”
He took his former employer to task because “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.”
Goldman, who worked for the Times for 20 years, continued, “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 hassidic man brandishing an open umbrella before a police officer in riot gear. The caption read: ‘A police officer scuffling with a hassidic man yesterday on President Street.’”
Goldman’s 1,649-word article has garnered sympathy from prominent Jewish American commentators. Writing on the website of The Atlantic magazine, national correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg said, “Ari Goldman has filed an amazing piece for The New York Jewish Week... about the manner in which his former newspaper, The New York Times, covered the Crown Heights riots of 1991. It is astonishing, the lengths the Times went to prove that a riot that was anti- Semitic on its face wasn’t, in fact, anti-Semitic.”
The editor-in-chief of Commentary magazine, John Podhoretz, wrote on the magazine’s website, “In an astonishing piece today in the Jewish Week, Ari L. Goldman recounts his experiences as a reporter for the New York Times during the riots... Goldman — telling his story for the first time on the 20th anniversary of the riots — reveals the absurd lengths to which the paper for which he worked attempted to make it seem as though the culpability for the riots rested equally between those attacking hassidim and the hassidim who were defending themselves against attack.“
Commenting on the failure to use robust police tactics, Podhoretz wrote, “All this happened while the New York Police Department stood by and deliberately failed to intervene, in one of the stunning moments of the mayoralty of David Dinkins that led to his defeat two years later at the hands of Rudy Giuliani and the complete overhaul of city policing strategy that led to the vertiginous crime drop, which proved to the be the salvation of New York City.”
The Anti-Defamation League accused African-American leader the Reverend Al Sharpton of fanning the flames of anti-Semitism during the post-riot period.
While commenting on Cato’s death, Sharpton said, “The world will tell us he was killed by accident. Yes, it was a social accident... It's an accident to allow an apartheid ambulance service in the middle of Crown Heights... Talk about how Oppenheimer in South Africa sends diamonds straight to Tel Aviv and deals with the diamond merchants right here in Crown Heights. The issue is not anti-Semitism; the issue is apartheid...”
Sharpton denied he was stoking anti-Semitism.
Goldman cited two New York columnists who debunked the narrative about the riots not being steeped in anti-Semitism and about the alleged nonslanted reporting. In a commentary written two weeks after the riots for the Times, the paper’s former executive editor, A.M. Rosenthal, called the unrest a “Pogrom in Brooklyn.”
After a group of young men severely beat then-Newsday columnist Jimmy Breslin, he said, “And someone up in the higher echelons of journalism, some moron starts talking about balanced coverage.”