The Crown Heights riots of 1991 have been characterized by The New York Times of late with an intriguing phrase: "violence between blacks and Orthodox Jews." The paper has twice invoked the phrase in the context of the appellate court reversal, on technical grounds, of Lemrick Nelson Jr.'s federal civil rights conviction for the killing of Yankel Rosenbaum during those riots.
Maybe I'm overly sensitive to such matters these days, but the word "between" struck me as implying that the violence of those days was essentially a mutual affair, not at all what I recalled. So I contacted the reporter whose byline appeared on the reports.
When he admitted that his choice of phrase had "not been the wisest," I responded that I appreciated his honesty and was satisfied to know that a more appropriate description of the events would be used in future reports.
Some people, he suggested, might consider the car accident in which a Jewish driver had hit and killed a black child to itself constitute violence.
Well, he said, he didn't know about that. The phrase, in the end, he insisted, was "not really inaccurate."
"How so?" I asked.
Well, some people, he suggested, might consider the car accident in which a Jewish driver had hit and killed a black child -- the tragic mishap that set off the rioting -- to itself constitute violence.
I interjected that most people would not describe an accident as an act of violence.
And what was more, he continued, ignoring my response, there was the matter of the interaction of Mr. Rosenbaum and Mr. Nelson. He seemed to remember reports of the former in some way attempting to hurt the latter.
It was then that I slipped, letting honesty get the better of diplomacy. "I think those justifications are rather outrageous."
He took great umbrage at my choice of adjective and told me he did not want to continue the conversation. I apologized and asked if he would please just elaborate on the assertions he had made. He refused and told me the conversation was over.
After hanging up, I typed up the details of our conversation while they were still fresh in my short-term memory, and then I consulted the United States Court of Appeals' "findings of fact" regarding the events that led to Mr. Rosenbaum's murder. That document made clear not only that the vehicular death was the result of an accident but that the subsequent incitement that followed was entirely the effort of blacks against Jews.
At the scene of the accident, the court found, while some members of an African American crowd attempted to aid the injured, others "began to attack the driver of the car."
"In the meantime," the document continues, "a crowd of several hundred people" gathered, some of whom "complained about Jews. At about eleven o'clock, a bald, African-American man" addressed the crowd; his "angry and aggressive" speech, on videotape, was reported to have included the exhortation "Let's get the Jews," a chant taken up by the crowd, which proceeded, at the bald man's urging, to move toward Kingston Avenue.
It was nearby where Mr. Rosenbaum was murdered. According to the document: "A group of ten and fifteen people, including Mr. Nelson, then began beating him, knocking him to the ground and striking him repeatedly."
As to violence on Mr. Rosenbaum's part, the judicial findings are rather clear. As a police car approached the scene, "Nelson attempted to flee with the rest of the crowd, but Rosenbaum grabbed hold of Nelson's T-shirt and prevented him from making good his escape. After trying unsuccessfully by other means to induce Rosenbaum to let him go, Nelson stabbed Rosenbaum and fled."
I faxed the reporter those findings, along with my detailed recollection of our conversation, and informed him that I withdrew my apology for calling his contentions outrageous -- for that was precisely what they were. I reminded him that he, not I, had ended our conversation, and informed him that I would be happy to resume it if he pleased.
When he didn't respond, I sent a copy of the correspondence to the Times' Executive Editor, Howell Raines.
A few days later, I received a written reply from Senior Editor Bill Borders, who did not address the reporter's justifications but offered instead one of his own. He cited an August 21, 1991 report in his paper describing "blacks and Hasidim throwing bottles and rocks at each other" on August 20.
"None of this, of course," he wrote, "is an attempt to discover who started the violence or who was ultimately responsible, but it certainly seems clear that it involved both sides."
Yankel Rosenbaum, however, was murdered on the 19th, before any bottle or rock throwing by any of the area's Jews. I noted that fact to Mr. Borders, and informed him that, thus, the phrase "he killed a Hasidic scholar during violence between blacks and Orthodox Jews" remained both inaccurate and misleading.
As to the import of "who started the violence or who was ultimately responsible," I suggested he consider the case of a rapist who was subsequently scratched by his victim. Would the Times ever describe such a crime as "violence between Mr. Smith and Ms. Jones"? I managed to restrain myself from referring to the nasty "violence between Nazis and Jews" in the Warsaw Ghetto.
The New York Times has come under attack in recent months for its Middle East coverage, by critics who accuse it of favoring a perversely "balanced" portrayal over true fairness and accuracy.
My recent interaction with the paper has nothing to do with the Middle East. But one might be forgiven, I think, for wondering about the fact that there nevertheless seems to be a disturbing common denominator.