Among the various tightropes that the modern newspaper walks — between objectivity and subjectivity, patriotism and dissidence, commercial interest and public good — is the one between appealing to its readers’ better natures or basest instincts. The choice is not always so clear. Take gossip columns, for example. The voyeurism that drives them is not something that most readers would easily own up to, and yet newspapers understand that it’s okay to feed that particular yen.
But what about xenophobia?
Americans are fond of saying that ours is a nation of immigrants, but from the current debate over immigration to the backlash against Arab Americans in the wake of September 11, it is clear that the mostly irrational fear of the unknown, the other, the alien, is alive and well in these United States. The press has a choice: amplify these fears or find a way to place them in perspective, to parse the legitimate threats from those that flourish in our imaginations.
Scranton, Pennsylvania’s Times-Tribune gave us on Sunday an unfortunate example of the former. In a long article and two sidebars, the paper previewed the imminent arrival in the city of a thousand Orthodox Jewish families who are part of the Hasidic Nadvorno sect.
The article looks at the purely hypothetical possibility of “strife” and a “clash of cultures” once the new residents arrive. “Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox groups have migrated to communities across the country,” the paper tell us, “and the results have not always been pretty.” It then cites their “tendency to collectively pursue their own agenda can lead to friction, often with long-term economic and political ramifications.”
Journalists make hard choices about what voices to incorporate into an article. So why include, up high, the voice of Bill Hobday, a resident of Lakewood, New Jersey — a town nowhere near Scranton — that has a large Hasidic population: “If it’s a place they like, you’ll go from 100 to 1,000 families in a few years, and the way of life you’ve always known will be gone.” Or how about Rev. Gary Stiegler, also from Lakewood: “There is no piece of land, if they have their eye on, they aren’t going to get. There is very little if they wanted, they could not get. They have literally taken over the town.”
The tone used to describe the Jews is also bizarre and full of fear mongering. Writing about how they are coming to “set up shop” in the city, the article tells residents they will soon learn that “the Hasidim observe different customs and rules. Women do not drive. Men do not shake hands with women. They tend to have large families; eight or nine children are not uncommon.”
Despite the few voices that defend the move, the overwhelming impression from the article is one of foreboding. The Jews will quickly snatch up property, then refuse to pay taxes as they convert most of the buildings to synagogues and schools. They will be rude to the locals, wear funny clothes and have funny customs, and slowly take over political power until the town is in their greedy hands.
Reinforcing this point are two sidebars, one that looks at the situation in Lakewood and another at the bungalow communities in the Catskills where Hasidic Jews often migrate in the summer. Both offer scary warnings of what is in store for Scranton’s citizens. The article about Lakewood, where there are 45,000 Jews out of a population of 60,000 (in a democracy, isn’t this generally known as a majority?) is called, “Political takeover alleged in Lakewood, N.J.” and details the shocking situation in which Jews have voted themselves onto the city council and into the mayor’s office. The Catskills story helpfully reminds us that, “What some perceived as arrogance on the part of the ultra-Orthodox Hasidim was really just a reflection of their culture.”