The Hard Truth About the Crown Heights Riots

Ari Goldman has filed an amazing piece for The New York Jewish Week (h/t John Podhoretz) 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 antisemitic on its face wasn't, in fact, antisemitic:

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 payphones and dictated our memos to a waiting band of stenographers in the home office...Yet, 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:

"Hasidim and blacks clashed in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn through the day and into the night yesterday." 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 chasidic man brandishing an open umbrella before a police officer in riot gear. The caption read: "A police officer scuffling with a Hasidic man yesterday on President Street."

I was outraged but I held my tongue. I was a loyal Times employee and deferred to my editors....But then I reached my breaking point. On Aug. 21, as I stood in a group of chasidic men in front of the Lubavitch headquarters, a group of demonstrators were coming down Eastern Parkway. "Heil Hitler," they chanted. "Death to the Jews." Police in riot gear stood nearby but did nothing.

Finally, Goldman informed Manhattan in very certain terms what was happening on the streets of Crown Heights:

"You don't know what's happening here!" I yelled. "I am on the streets getting attacked. Someone next to me just got hit. I am writing memos and what comes out in the paper? 'Hasidim and blacks clashed'? That's not what is happening here. Jews are being attacked! You've got this story all wrong. All wrong."

I didn't blame the "rewrite" reporter. I blamed the editors. It was clear that they had settled on a "frame" for the story. The way they saw it, there were two narratives here: the white narrative and the black narrative. And both had equal weight.

After my outburst things got a little better. The next day's report began like this: "Black youths hurling rocks and bottles scuffled with the police in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn last night, even as Mayor David N. Dinkins tried to personally calm the racially troubled neighborhood after two nights of violence."

But the Times still had trouble changing its frame. Perhaps most troubling was an article written in the midst of the rioting under this headline: "Amid Distrust in Brooklyn: Boy and Scholar Fall Victim." The article compared the life of Gavin Cato, the 7-year-old boy killed in the car accident that spurred the riots, and the life of Yankel Rosenbaum, 29, who was stabbed to death later that night. It recycled every newspaper cliché and was an insult to the memory of both victims, but, again, it fit the frame.

"They did not know each other," the article said. "They had no reason to know... They died unaware...." In the eyes of the Times, the deaths were morally equivalent and had equal weight.

Read the whole piece.

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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