Monday, July 1, 2013

Rabbi Teaches NBC A Lesson

In one of its final reports before being pulled off the air, NBC's "Rock Center" committed a journalistic sin in an interview with a Rabbi.

Rabbi Berkowitz

The report, which aired June 24th, focused on allegations of sex abuse within the Hasidic religious community, included an interview with Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz.  The edited piece left the impression that the Rabbi was arguing that allegations of abuse should only be investigated within the sect and not reported to police.

In January of this year, a once prominent member of the community was sentenced to 103 years in prison for child sexual abuse.

The correspondent on the report, Dr. Nancy Snyderman, made voice-over comments between snippets of Berkowitz's interview saying things like  Berkowitz "...insists that they can handle the problem themselves."

The problem (for NBC) is that is not what he said.  We know that because Berkowitz taped the full interview himself (with NBC's full awareness.)

You can read some of the "he said - she said" stuff in an article in The Huffington Post.

Some conservative websites accuse NBC of deliberately manipulating the Rabbi's words and point to other examples such as in the Trayvon Martin case where things were taken out of context.

Intent is possible -- but another, just as likely explanation, is that due to smaller staffs and increasing time crunches -- journalists just make more mistakes than ever before. And they often make mistakes that tend to support whatever preconceived notion they had going into a story.

For us -- the larger teaching point here is no matter the explanation -- you should always protect yourself if you are going into an interview that could in any way be controversial or contentious.  We teach our clients that it is kosher to tell the media that they too will be making audio -- or preferably video recordings of every interview.

Armed with that kind of backup -- if you are taken out of context or misrepresented -- you can, as Rabbi Berkowitz did -- correct the record.

After he pointed out the error of Rock Center's ways, NBC posted an "editors note." Even that didn't fully fix the matter because it implied that the Rabbi was only now adding what he meant to say -- when in fact he said it on camera at the start.  Here is an excerpt from NBC's note:

We want to clarify a quote from  Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz that was included in our web story about sexual abuse in the Hasidic community.  In our story, we reported that Rabbi Berkowitz insists the community can handle the problem itself...

He said: “Whatever these type of crimes are have to be eradicated.  And in order to eradicate them, we have to do it within the way the community knows how to solve its problems.  'Cause sometimes when you come banging with drums from the outside, the community becomes more insular.” 

Rabbi Berkowitz says that when he referred to the community knowing how to solve its problems, he was referring to efforts  to prevent sexual abuse – not whether to report sexual abuse to police.   He says he has always advocated reporting suspected abuse to the appropriate law enforcement agencies and that “rabbis work together hand in hand with the authorities.”  He added that “these deviants must be punished.”  We regret any misunderstanding. 
To make matters worse, NBC also admitted that in the original posting they included a photo of the wrong man when talking about the person who got 103 years in the slammer for child sexual abuse.

NBC has now removed the entire offending video from their website.

Rabbi Berkowitz was saved somewhat by his own tape.  Although many more people probably saw the flawed story than saw any half-hearted corrections.

Even before agreeing to an interview -- we tell our clients they should ask for an email from the reporter or producer with an outline of the story they are working on and the areas they want to cover in the interview.(Don't ask for the actual questions -- you almost never will get them.)  But having in writing the general scope of an interview helps protect you from the bait and switch and just plain sloppy reporting that is so prevalent today.

The Rabbi showed that sometimes you can rely on scripture -- and other times a transcript is what is needed. His experience may also show why Rock Center is no more.

UPDATE:  We are advised that NBC "made good" on their bad treatment of the Rabbi by posting online a lengthy interview with him which is very deferential and respectful -- and doesn't repeat the errors of the earlier interview.  That video is here:

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