NJ Mayors, Rabbis and the BBC

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

Like many in our community, I’ve been transfixed by the dramatic FBI arrests in New Jersey that netted prominent rabbis as well as mayors, city council presidents and other officials.

It’s both titillating and scary; first Bernie Madoff, now this.  There haven’t been so many high-profile Jewish baddies since Leopold and Loeb.

And this one looks huge, involving as it does some of the leading figures in the Syrian Jewish community, money laundering and trafficking in human organs.

So it’s interesting to see how different news organizations handle a situation in which Jews are among the alleged culprits.
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In my net surfing, I came across a comment excoriating the BBC for the headline on its initial news brief:  “US rabbis arrested in crime probe.”

The fact that the headline focused only on the rabbis, the online commentator wrote, proves once again that the British news agency is “anti-Jewish.”

Well…I don’t know about anti-Jewish.  But was it good  journalism? Give me a break.

Isn’t it at least as significant that three mayors were arrested, along with the rabbis?  That’s the tack most newspapers took, including the Jewish Week. Our initial news brief headline: “Rabbis, Mayors arrested in FBI Corruption Probe.”  MSNBC’s:  “Feds Bust 44, Including 3 Mayors, 5 Rabbis.”  (JTA ran a story headlined “NJ rabbis arrested in corruption probe,” but that’s different; the news agency was writing for a Jewish audience that naturally would be looking for the Jewish angle in the controversy).

I understand why allegedly corrupt rabbis make good headline fodder. And face it:  who’s going to be lured into reading a story with a headline about corrupt public officials in New Jersey? That’s like reading a headline saying “Flash: Today the Sun Rose in the East.”

But the initial BBC headline made it sound as if the only people arrested were rabbis, even though it was clear from the outset that the primary targets of the investigation were the public officials.

If the FBI had snagged pastors instead of rabbis, would the BBC have used a similar headline, or would they have brought the handcuffed mayors into the picture, as well?  I just don’t know.

I’ve always been uncomfortable with claims the BBC is anti-Jewish because of its skewed Middle East news coverage. And I hate the tendency of some Jews to hurl the anti-Semitism charge at the least provocation.

But it seems to me the respected news agency loses credibility when it pulls a boneheaded move like singling out the rabbis in their initial headline about raids that hauled in a lot of people without “rabbi” attached to their names.

UPDATE: while the news link remains the same, the BBC has updated its headline to “US corruption probe nets dozens.”

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.