Twenty years ago this week, a car in a motorcade for the Lubavitcher rebbe struck and killed a seven-year-old boy in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. That night, a 29-year-old Orthodox man was stabbed and killed in a spasm of violence, looting, and arson that was to last three days and change the racial and political landscape of New York City for at least a decade.
The “Crown Heights Riots” quickly became a symbol of New York’s racial divide, and reports then and thereafter referred to the “ethnic clashes” that pitted the neighborhood’s large Orthodox Jewish population against its African-American and Caribbean immigrant residents. Meanwhile, eyewitnesses to the mayhem insisted it was largely one-sided — Jews were being attacked in what many have since called America’s largest pogrom.
Last week, in a startling article for the New York Jewish Week, former New York Times reporter Ari Goldman demonstrated how a true picture of the violence was distorted through the lens of his own newspaper. Goldman, reporting on the riots, says he was calling it as he saw it: “In all my reporting during the riots I never saw — or heard of — any violence by Jews against blacks.” And yet, having been massaged by his editors, the next day’s reports would read: “Hasidim and blacks clashed in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn through the day and into the night.” “You don’t know what’s happening here!” he remembers yelling at his editors. “‘Hasidim and blacks clashed’? That’s not what is happening here. Jews are being attacked! You’ve got this story all wrong. All wrong.”
Goldman describes how journalists fall into these kinds of narratives, or “frames.” “Framing” a story is not the same as bias, although one often leads to the other. Rather, “frames” are the story lines observers impose on an event, often assuming there are two sides to a story, both with equal weight. Too often we see “framing” at work in reporting on Israel, science vs. religion, or politics, obscuring the truth under the guise of evenhandedness.
In the years since the riots, the true picture of what happened has emerged. Goldman’s essay, however, remains essential reading for any reporter, editor, or reader stuck in, tempted by, or confronted with such “frames.”