ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 149

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Ahead of Pulitzers, New York Times mum on alleged unethical yeshiva reporting

Critics say coverage misrepresented data, obfuscated sources’ biases to criticize Hasidic school system; advocacy group defends reporting as shining light on ‘critical issue’

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

The New York Times building in New York City, May 13, 2019. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel, File)
The New York Times building in New York City, May 13, 2019. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel, File)

NEW YORK — The New York Times has refused to address alleged ethical lapses in a major investigatory series on the state’s yeshiva school system, after claims the newspaper misrepresented data, obfuscated sources’ biases and omitted context to present a slanted view of the schools to readers.

The Times is believed to be angling to win a Pulitzer Prize for the reporting. The winners of the prestigious awards will be announced on Monday.

The high-profile series of 18 articles, starting in September, was harshly critical of yeshivas, saying the schools deprive children of secular education in violation of state law, exploit public funding, contribute to poverty, and mistreat students, among other allegations.

Many Hasidic Jews, including community leaders, decried the Times’ reporting as defamatory, and accused the newspaper of placing undue scrutiny on the Hasidic community out of bigotry or political considerations. Proponents also argue that government meddling is an infringement on religious protections.

Critics of the yeshiva system have defended the coverage as putting a long-overdue focus on the schools, which they say neglect secular education to the detriment of the students and their professional future.

The reporting methods have also come under fire. An article in the conservative US outlet, The Daily Signal, last week said that The Times had misrepresented data, inappropriately granted sources anonymity, and failed to disclose sources’ conflicts of interest. Community representatives have in the past week also alerted the Times and the Pulitzer Prizes committee of alleged ethical lapses, but have not received a response.

A December article that said the yeshivas exploit public funding for special education has come under particular scrutiny.

The article said parents who were used as sources had been granted anonymity because criticizing community leaders could lead to those who had expressed criticism being ostracized. The Times quoted an anonymous mother who said a school had pressured her to say her daughter had autism, although the child is not autistic. The mother, Beatrice Weber, had already been a prominent critic of the yeshivas, as the director of Yaffed, a non-profit that has led the effort to reform the yeshiva system. She had already been featured by name in previous Times coverage and written an op-ed for the newspaper that was critical of her child’s yeshiva.

The newspaper’s policy guidelines say anonymity should only be granted if The Times “could not otherwise print information it considers newsworthy and reliable,” that readers should be told as much as possible about the source’s motivation, and that the newspaper does not “dissemble,” including by quoting someone anonymously who has already been cited by name.

The same article quotes Elana Sigall, a “former top city special education official” who now visits yeshivas as a consultant, as a neutral expert on the Hasidic school system. The article does not mention that Sigall has campaigned against the yeshivas and is producing a documentary that is critical of the school system. The Times says “the general rule is to tell readers as much as we can about the placement and known motivation of the source.”

Members of US Haredi Jewish communities hold a protest before a Board of Regents meeting to vote on new requirements that private schools teach English, math, science, and history to high school students outside the New York State Education Department Building in Albany, New York, September 12, 2022. (Will Waldron/The Albany Times Union via AP)

One of the schools used as an example had demanded that a mother push for a public aide to accompany her child at school at all times, although the mother did not think it was necessary. The school later said the child had been violent in the past, and administrators wanted the public aide to ensure safety. The mother has left the Hasidic community and is in a custody battle related to the yeshiva, representing a conflict of interest that was not disclosed in the article, according to a letter community representatives sent to The Times.

Top editors are required to sign off on anonymous sourcing.

Critics also said the article omitted necessary context. The coverage presented one of the schools, the Chabad Girls Academy, as a typical yeshiva, without disclosing that it has only 13 students and specifically caters to special-needs pupils.

The article used a school called Luria Academy as an example, although it is not a yeshiva. The academy is a Jewish school that has some Orthodox students, the article said, without specifying that it is not Hasidic or connected to the yeshiva system. The school had considered seeking special education funds, but decided against it.

The reporting was also accused of misrepresenting data. One school said that 19 percent of its students were classified as special needs, in line with the New York City average, while the Times said 50% of the students qualified. The reason for the discrepancy was unclear and the data sources are not public.

Another school said 18% of its students were disabled, but The Times put the figure at 59%. The reporters contacted the school for comment shortly before Christmas, and published the day after the holiday. The Department of Education was closed at the time, so the school was unable to contact the office to determine where the conflicting figures had come from and issue a response to the reporters. The Times said the school disputed the data.

The three sources and the data form a central plank in the story’s premise.

Critics also said the report conflated two types of public funding for special needs students — one that supports those students if they need to attend private schools, and another that funds services for the students in non-specialized public and private schools.

Overall, the article argued that Hasidic schools disproportionately receive special education funding, saying that in “25 of the city’s approximately 160 Hasidic yeshivas, more than half of the students are classified as needing special education,” as opposed to around 20% of all public students. The article does not state how many Hasidic students overall qualify for the funding, why only 25 schools were sampled, and whether any of those schools specifically catered to special needs students.

Reporter Brian Rosenthal and The New York Times have not commented on the allegations. The Times did not respond to requests for comment from The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: A man walks by school bus with Yiddish signage in Borough Park, Brooklyn, New York City, January 1, 2014. (Nati Shohat/Flash90/File)

The article series generated intense backlash in religious communities in New York and condemnation from Jewish organizations.

Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox umbrella group, launched a public campaign against The New York Times in January, arguing that the coverage played a part in record levels of antisemitism in the US.

The campaign, called “Know Us,” published an open letter to the Pulitzer committee also claiming bias and ethics violations on the part of The Times. The letter noted that The Times quoted Yaffed board members without disclosing their involvement with the group, and ignored input from community members who went against the series’ narrative.

The letter also accused The Times of falsely claiming credit for state policy changes toward the yeshivas to present the series as having an impact. The initial piece in the investigation series was published days before New York State issued new regulations on yeshivas. The legislation was years in the making, was scheduled ahead of time, and widely expected to win approval. Agudath argued The Times had timed its article to be published immediately ahead of the legislation to imply a linkage.

In another case, one of the lead reporters in the series, Eliza Shapiro, claimed credit for New York State legislation banning corporal punishment in schools. A New York State senator advancing the bill, Julia Salazar, rejected Shapiro’s claim, saying the legislation was unrelated to yeshivas.

The Anti-Defamation League warned twice that the article series stereotyped the Hasidic community and could contribute to antisemitism, while acknowledging that the yeshiva system warranted scrutiny.

The coverage has also prompted joy and relief in opponents of the yeshiva system, who see it as a long-needed focus on the schools, and argue that change has been impeded by political considerations.

Yaffed defended the coverage in a Sunday statement to The Times of Israel.

“Educational neglect within the Hasidic community is an issue that affects tens of thousands of children and has been an open secret for the past 30 years,” it said. “Reporting on this pervasive problem has brought it to the attention of lawmakers, educators, and society at large, and we are heartened by indications that this awareness has sparked the very conversations that will bring about much-needed reform.

“Trying to distract from this critical issue with spurious claims of antisemitism is immoral, abhorrent and dangerous for the fight against the actual rising antisemitism that exists today,” Yaffed said.

In addition to the coverage, other recent events have put pressure on the system and have been prominently featured in The Times.

In October, a major yeshiva admitted in US federal court it had defrauded the government of millions of dollars, including by misappropriating funds designated to feed needy children.

Also in October, New York State officials for the first time ruled that a yeshiva was violating the law by not providing sufficient secular education.

In September, the state finalized rules that will boost oversight at yeshivas and other non-public schools and require them to provide a minimum level of secular education in four core areas. A group of yeshivas and supporting organizations have filed a lawsuit against the state, seeking to overturn the new rules.

In March, a judge issued a ruling that curtailed the state’s ability to regulate private schools, in a blow to the yeshiva system’s opponents. The Times did not report on the development, which was covered by other mainstream media, and has not continued the yeshiva series since.

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