The New York Times hadn’t yet been designated an “enemy of the American people” by the president of the United States when I spoke to Ari Goldman last week.
Mr. Goldman, a professor of journalism at the Columbia School of Journalism, is a former religion reporter for the New York Times. Next Sunday morning, March 5, he will speak at Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff about how the Times and other news organizations cover Judaism and Israel.
Complaining about the New York Times long has been a hobby for Jews and others. Donald Trump, however, broke new ground in taking his media criticism to the White House’s twitter bully pulpit (Richard Nixon’s attacks on the press were shared only with confidantes, the underlings who compiled his enemies lists, and his recording system) and in borrowing harrowing language from such successful foes of the press as Joseph Stalin and Joseph Goebbels.
In the wake of the president’s Friday Twitter attack against the New York Times and four television networks, Mr. Goldman emailed that “the New York Times is the best friend the country has. It is far from perfect, but it serves as an essential check on government abuse and corruption.”
With freedom of the press enshrined in the Constitution, he suggested that in a sense “the New York Times is a public trust. Only someone who doesn’t understand its role would call it the enemy.”
Mr. Goldman said his talk will not be political. But the political environment, he said, is proving good for his profession and for his journalism school.
“People are energized to follow the news more and to want to change the world and they believe they can do that through journalism,” he said. “That’s helping our enrollment numbers.”
Recent years have seen a decline in the number of journalism students, matching the steep drop in journalism jobs. “Tens of thousands of journalism jobs have been lost,” he said. “It’s certainly impacted our school.”
Mr. Goldman is a graduate of Yeshiva College and Columbia Journalism School. He started at the Times as a copy boy. For much of his two decades at the Times, he covered religion for the paper’s Metro section. Until very recently, editing at the paper was divided between foreign, national, and metro desks. Now, “the whole operation has changed radically,” he said. “They just got rid of their regional copy desks. Now, they organize by things like breaking news and features.
“The Times is a whole new entity from what it was even five years ago. The focus is no longer on the paper. The focus is on the web presence. Far more people read it on the web than in the paper.” he said.
But the changes don’t alter the core principle of the Times: “Now more than ever people have to understand the importance of getting facts,” he said. “The biggest responsibility of journalists is to tell the facts accurately. That’s the bread and butter. People have to know the difference between truth and lies.
“Ultimately, you can’t get away with lies forever,” Mr. Goldman said.
And what about the realm of religion, which relies on “the evidence of things not seen,” as Hebrews 11:1 puts it? How do you cover religion for a secular newspaper?
As it happens, Mr. Goldman teaches a class on just that topic.
“There’s a great term that I use: empathetic objectivity,” he said. “Journalists are supposed to be objective, to just tell the story down the middle, to tell both sides. When you write about religion you have to add a heavy dose of empathy. You have to understand the believer’s point of view even if it it’s not provable by facts, statistics, or data.
“If someone says this piece of bread becomes the body of Christ, I can’t say ‘You’re wrong, it’s not true.’ I have to be empathetic to their point of view.
“When someone says ‘Time changes for me when I light the Shabbat candles,’ I can sort of prove that it doesn’t actually change. It’s the same as it was before and after. But if you’re willing to add empathy and see the world from the point of view of the believer, you can tell their story better. Empathy is a value in all reporting, but I think it’s of greater importance when you write about religion.
“Religion isn’t always provable, and it’s not always backed up by facts. It’s a point of view, and you want to allow people to have their point of view. You can question it — but you have to see it from the point of view of the believer,” he said.
Are there limits to such empathy?
“Yes,” Mr. Goldman said. “I think if someone is doing harm, if a certain practice is harming people, you would still try to see it from the believer’s point of view, but you have to call out the abuse.”
Who: Ari Goldman
What: “All the religion that’s fit to print: How The New York Times and other news organizations cover Judaism and Israel.”
Where: Temple Beth Rishon, 585 Russell Ave., Wyckoff.
When: Sunday, March 5, 9:45 a.m.
How much: $15 members, $20
nonmembers. Includes breakfast buffet.
RSVP: (201) 891-4466.