Not the straight story

Can misleading readers ever be justified?

The editor decided to tell only part of the story so innocent people and the community would not be hurt. To this day, he’s not sure he did the right thing.

By David Gross

David Gross is the former editor of The Jewish Week.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 3, no. 4 (April 1991), p. 5.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.

 

It began with a phone call.

I was at the time the editor of The Jewish Week, a paper reporting news of special interest to the Jewish community. It was then, and still is, the largest-circulation Jewish-content newspaper in the world, with about 120,000 subscribers.

I had known the caller for some time. “Do you know,” he said, “that W.M. is a regular advertiser in a Nazi paper? Can you imagine the nerve of this guy — he gives money with one hand to Jewish charities, and with the other he supports Nazis!”

I promised my caller to look into the story. W. M. ran a large mail-order business, selling all kinds of kitchen gadgets, household aids, gift items, and the like. I had seen some of his ads over the years — the kind that catch your eye with bold, 96-point blocks of type, and then try to dazzle with hyperbolic claims.

I phoned a friend at the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith. He confirmed that the paper in question, 

The Spotlight, published in Arlington, Virginia, was as racist, bigoted and pro-Nazi as I remembered it to be. I asked him to glance at some recent issues, to see if W.M.’s company was really a regular advertiser. I waited, and heard my friend turning pages. “Full-page ads,” the ADL man said. “We never knew this was a Jewish-owned company, Now that we know —”

“Hold off,” I asked him. “I know this guy, I know his wife and kids — his son and my son attend the same school. If there’s a big story, in my paper or from you, it’ll kill them. People will spit in their faces. Give me a few days, maybe I can work something out we’ll all be happy with.”

“Okay,” he said finally. “Keep me in the picture.”

At home that evening, I phoned W.M. who lives in the same town as I do. I came straight to the point — would he explain how he, a respected member of the Jewish community, justified his full-page ads in a neo-Nazi paper?

I could almost hear his breathing intensify on the other end of the line.

“Listen,” he said, “this is business. It’s a good paper for my business. If I don’t advertise, one of my competitors will.”

“You’re not hearing me,” I said. “This is an anti-Semitic rag, you’re a Jew and —”

“What do you think I do with the profits? I give them to the United Jewish Appeal.”

“Baloney! What kind of twisted thinking is that?”

“Look, I put ads into hundreds of papers all over the country, I can’t check out each and every one of them to see what they publish — I’m running a business.”

He had inadvertently given me an idea. “You pull your ads, all of them, cancel right now, and I’ll say that when you found out that this was a racist paper, you withdrew your ads immediately. Otherwise, I run the story straight, and people will learn that you give to Jewish charities with one hand, and back a Nazi sheet with the other.”

There was a long pause. “I’ll think it over. I’ll call you in the morning.” The phone went dead.

Early the next morning his wife called. Her voice was teary. “Please don’t do this to us,” she said. “He’ll cancel the ads, I’ll see to it, but don’t make him look so bad, I’ll never be able to hold up my head in this community — and my children will be ashamed. Please!”

W.M. phoned a few hours later. He had canceled the ads. He sounded angry and unrepentant.

I ran the story as agreed, which said he’d canceled his business advertising in The Spotlight after learning of the publication’s racist philosophy.

As a lifelong journalist committed to honest reporting, I have wondered more than once why I didn’t tell my readers the true story. At the time, I attributed it to wanting to shield W.M.’s family. But, in retrospect, I may have had another motive — in a sense I was shielding the Jewish community.

Let me explain: A Jewish newspaper is replete with bad news — anti-Semitic incidents; ongoing threats to Israel from terrorists; a decline in religious affiliation; inter-marriages and the subsequent reduction in the number of Jews. My readers, and people outside the Jewish community, did not need to know the shameful news that a respected Jewish leader had been driven by greed to advertise in a Nazi paper. If the ads ceased, I reasoned, that would be enough.

To this day, I am not sure I did the right thing. Perhaps, if there had not been so much “bad news” for the Jewish community that particular week, I would have printed the straight story on W.M.

I still live in the same town as W.M. and his wife; neither will speak to me which is not important. He is still in the same business, only now his ads do not support neo-Nazism.