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Is Noah Feldman The N.Y. Times’ New Jayson Blair?

The Orthodox Union waded into the Noah Feldman debate with guns a-blazin’ today.

With a press release titled, “Noah Feldman as the ‘Jewish Jayson Blair’?” the O.U.’s Institute for Public Affairs charged that both Feldman and The New York Times Magazine, where the Harvard legal scholar’s much-discussed July 22 critique of Modern Orthodoxy appeared, “knew in advance of publication that the essay contained false statements.”

The O.U. called for an apology from the Times and further argued that Feldman should lose his position as a contributing editor to the paper’s Sunday magazine.

The crux of the issue, from the O.U.’s standpoint, is the anecdote with which Feldman opens his piece — that he did not appear in a newsletter photo of his Modern Orthodox high school’s 10-year reunion because he had been at the event with his non-Jewish girlfriend. The O.U., relying on an account that appears in this week’s issue of The Jewish Week, argues that the assertion that Feldman was “deliberately cropped out of a photograph of his day school reunion” is false.

But the issue is not quite so clear cut. Feldman never uses the words “cropped out,” “erased” or “airbrushed” in his article. What he says is the following: “We all crowded into a big group photo…. When the alumni newsletter came around a few months later, I happened to notice the photo. I looked, then looked again. My girlfriend and I were nowhere to be found.”

Technically speaking, nothing here is false. Feldman and his girlfriend were not in the picture. But, as the Jewish Week article makes clear, the reason for this is not that he was deliberately removed, but that the group assembled was too large for one shot and that, in order to capture the whole group, multiple photos were taken.

Here matters grow a little dicey for the Times. The paper knew there’d been no altered pictures. How? Looking for an image with which to illustrate Feldman’s piece, they’d paid the reunion photographer to find the negative. Once it became clear that nothing had been tampered with, his shots were no longer of use.

With no image to illustrate Feldman’s anecdote, the Times did the next best thing: They crafted one. The drawing accompanying the article shows a group of young men davening with one appearing only in silhouette.

Feldman may never have said that he was cropped out of his reunion picture, but it’s tough to come away from his piece thinking otherwise.

So, is the Times guilty of misleading its readers? Yes. Does this rise to the level of a Jayson Blair-style offense? Not by a long shot.

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