Sunday, August 14, 2011

It Takes Two to Tango...or Does It?

Alright, alright...

Seems that everybody and their uncle has been posting about HOBB's bold article in the recent NY Jewish Week which critiques the NY Times's coverage of the 1991 Crown Heights riots, detailing how the paper falsely framed the resulting anti-Jewish violence as an even-handed racial conflict.

So I guess it is time for me to opine about the piece as well, which I did tweet about and post to my Facebook wall on Thursday.

But in order to do so, I must forgo writing about the drama at Straub's Fitness on Friday morning when one woman decided to hog the elliptical machine in the Cardio Theatre for the entire duration of The King's Speech, nearly touching off a rumble with another woman, the mother of 5-year-old triplets who was almost in tears because her workout had been hijacked.

Which brings me to my mother, who was fond of aphorisms.

"When in Rome, do as the Romans!" she liked to say as part of her ongoing effort to force me to conform with her ideal of how I ought to act, speak, dress and think.

"It takes two to tango!" she would proclaim when one of us came to her complaining that the other provoked a fight.

Though it was a few years before I learned that the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and therefore, should never invoked as role models by Jews, I knew at a young age that this "two to tango" business was complete BS.

Any kid who has ever been bullied could tell you that.

Yet, in covering violent clashes, many newspapers persist in sustaining the "two to tango" trope, possibly because they don't want to give the appearance of bias or in pursuit of that impossible ideal -- fairness -- or commendably, owing to their commitment to objectivity.

As HOBB reports, the Times bungled the story behind the Crown Heights riots big time, spinning it as a conflict between blacks and Jews...when it fact it was open season on the local Jewish community by local blacks enraged by the tragic yet accidental death of a young black boy. That terrible and regrettable death led, in turn, to the vengeance murder of a rabbinical student visiting from Australia.

Wow. Writing that paragraph felt really uncomfortable because I had to keep inserting the word "black" as a modifier. I thought to use "African American" to mix things up but that would not be accurate as many of the residents of Crown Heights during that time were West Indian and Caribbean; indeed the parents of Gavin Cato, the 7-year-old who was killed were Guyanese immigrants.

Referring to Jews, however, I was able to vary my vocabulary by using both "Jew," "Jewish," and even "rabbinical."

Still, in its coverage of the Crown Heights riot, the Times adopted my mom's mantra: "It takes two to tango."

Twenty years ago, telling the truth about what was going on in Crown Heights would have entailed employing two highly uncomfortable stereotypes -- angry black people and victimized Jews.

Though it appears that the Times's error in framing the story as a "he said/she said" spat was motivated by editorial queasiness over portraying blacks as angry and violent, perhaps it was the nature of the second stereotype that really shaped the story.

As uncomfortable as it was to report on out-of-control black people, maybe the notion of Jews becoming the targets of racial hatred on the streets of New York City during the regime of its first black mayor was just too frightening for some Jewish editors at the Times, too creepily close to a trope that has a habit of recurring throughout history.

Twenty years after he shouted to his editor into a pay phone that the newspaper of record was getting the story wrong, my husband took it upon himself to set the record straight.

I was not on the streets of Crown Heights in August of 1991. But I was at Straub's Fitness this Friday morning and can report that in the case of the Elliptical Machine Almost-Rumble, one party was guilty of being a rude and inconsiderate machine hog, the other party robbed of her right to exercise during her one free hour a day as a busy mom of young triplets.

This is a trite comparison with a profound lesson. In the gym, as on the streets of a city, innocent people sometimes get kicked in the face in the course of something that is supposed to be a dance.

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