Chalk it up to being a journalist myself, but it’s usually easy for me to discern the moment in a story when a reporter knows he or she has hit pay dirt — when they can already visualize their byline on the front page. For Benjamin Weiser, a New York Times reporter investigating allegations of anti-Semitism in an upstate New York school district, it came — I’m sure of it — when the school’s superintendent, a Jew himself, described the lawsuit by a group of parents against the school as a “money grab.”
A Jew using an anti-Semitic trope to describe another set of Jews? That’s when the bell goes off. Sure the reported swastikas everywhere are a good detail and the town is only a 90 minute drive from New York City — all of which elevates this local story to national news — but what made it pop was that element that makes any good piece of newspaper journalism resonate: conflict.
This is not to discount the horrible atmosphere it appears has taken over the Pine Bush Central School District (chronicled in the Times article that did indeed make the front page on November 7). Kids suffering daily slurs and pennies thrown at them, crude jokes about the Holocaust, and those swastikas, etched and drawn everywhere.
But what are the implications when a newspaper, for its own reasons, focuses on a story that is not representative of any bigger trend, but can be construed as pointing to one? Amplifying the unusual, the outlier, the counterintuitive conflict is in the DNA of journalism (that man bites dog thing). This seems to be a case study in what happens when that predilection combined with a carelessly framed story can make an audience draw unwarranted conclusions.
And draw conclusions people did, including that this town’s troubles proved anti-Semitism was alive and well in America. There was this Tweet from Daniel Gordis, the prominent American born-Israeli writer, referring to the recent Pew survey that found American Jews rapidly assimilating: “Just as Pew suggests Jews feel totally welcome: Pine Bush, N.Y., School District defends Anti-Semitism.” Much more followed in this vein. One commenter on the Times website took the longest view: “Clearly this is the result of almost 2000 years of church sponsored and encouraged hatred and violence toward Jews.”
Two questions jumped to mind while reading this article: First, how generalizable is the experience of Pine Bush? And, second, if what is happening in this town is indeed unique and peculiar and the reason why the Times felt it merited a 3,000-word story and placement on the front page, has the reporter made it absolutely clear why anti-Semitism has flourished there specifically?