How Much Does the Truth Matter?

Not having posted here since November 30, I feel obliged to put something up if only to demonstrate that reports of my blogospheric demise are at least somewhat exaggerated, even if it means contributing one of those short posts that make Rabbi Menken kvell. And so . . .

The other day, the New York Times had this to say in an editorial on the Alito hearings:

The White House has tried to create an air of inevitability around Judge Alito’s confirmation. But the public is skeptical. In a new Harris poll, just 34 percent of those surveyed said they thought he should be confirmed, while 31 percent said he should not, and 34 percent were unsure. Nearly 70 percent said they would oppose Judge Alito’s nomination if they thought he would vote to make abortion illegal–which it appears he might well do.

Now, the notion that a Justice Alito or any Supreme Court justice in history will “vote to make abortion illegal” is — as any beginning law student will affirm — nonsense. Let me qualify that: I suppose that if a justice was to make the case that fetuses enjoy personhood under the Constitution (hey, if Wild Bill Douglas wished to accord such status to trees, then . . .) and government support for abortion procedures is seen as deprivation of that person’s life, then we’d have a jurisprudential argument for an abortion ban. But last time I checked, not even Nan Aaron and Ralph Neas were trying to scare the American public with that specter (pardon the term!), so outlandish a scenario is it (although, come to think of it, not more so than John Roberts as supporter of abortion clinic bombings).

What is indeed foreseeable is that Sam Alito would help overturn the holding of Woe (oops, Roe) that abortion is a constitutional right, thereby enabling a state legislature duly elected by the People to effectuate the wishes of those People by banning abortion in their state. What we have here, then, is an instance of the legendary institutions of the Harris poll and The New York Times making an elementary and grievous error of law and logic in full view of the American public.

What’s new about this, you ask? Isn’t the Times, along with the rest of the media, frequently rife with errors large and small, as a glance at the Corrections box in the Times on any given day will confirm? Yes, but this was not a newsroom piece filed by a cub reporter on a deadline; it was the considered opinion of the editorial board, presumably arrived at by its august members after thoughtful deliberation and consultation with experts.

And to compound the matter, no retraction by the Times has been, to my knowledge, forthcoming. Not even of the passive-voiced, actor-less “mistakes were made” variety that is so in vogue contemporarily; and certainly not a fullthroated mea culpa of the sort Daf Yomi-niks encountered the other day towards the end of Eiruvin when Rava began a public retraction of a teaching of his with an unambiguous and — unless truth is as precious to you as it was to Rava — seemingly unnecessary, preface of “The statement I made to you earlier was a mistake on my part.”

The best the Times was able to bring itself to do was to contradict itself with the following paragraph in another editorial several days later:

Judge Alito’s assertions that he will keep an open mind on Roe are little comfort. With nearly 70 percent of Americans saying in a recent Harris poll that they would oppose Judge Alito’s confirmation if they thought he would vote against constitutional protection for abortion rights, he was not likely to say at his hearings that he would do so. Few nominees would be so brave or foolhardy.

In other words, this time the Times was right on the role of Supreme Court justices in abortion cases, but wrong on what the Harris poll actually asked. Oh, well.

In any event, I’ll now ruin what was until this point a pretty well-reasoned post, by opining that the Times’ problem with owning up to the truth might, just might, have something to do with the underwear ads that are a regualr feature on its Section One news pages. Yup, you read that correctly.

And now to explain myself: I certainly didn’t mean what I just wrote in any demonstrably causative sense. That meshuggah I’m not. But I do confess to having been, for a long time, amazed at the inexplicable moral obtuseness of the Times in running those ads, which are often aggressively suggestive, alongside news of human tragedies of all sorts. On any given day, stories on Baghdad car bombings and sundry natural disasters are bordered by photos of mostly unclad females, often paired with mostly unclad males, and striking less-than-benign poses (I can already visualize a blogger of the Ortho-with-a-chip-on-his-shoulder genre asking how Kobre even knows of such things. Well, those ads are, indeed, one of a number of reasons the WSJ is my news source of choice).

Let me be clear: My amazement has nothing at all to do with religion and the offense that a religious person ought to take at what those ads portray; I’d never think to accuse the folks at the Times of such religious leanings. My puzzlement derives, instead, precisely from my assumption that decisions at the Times are made largely by card-carrying bleeding heart humanists, who fancy themselves exquisitely morally sensitive and committed to truth, justice and (People for) the American Way.

How do they justify to themselves the decision to daily juxtapose reports of profound human suffering with ads of that nature whose effect on readers they surely know full well, rather than banishing the latter to, say, the sports pages, assuming they can’t bear to forego the ad revenues? Can this at all be justified under any standard of moral seriousness? I think not. And the legions of equally sensitive and caring humanists who read the Times so religiously and revere it as a voice of moral authority, what are they thinking, or are they?

True, radio listeners and TV watchers are treated to this sort of thing all the time when reports of a five-alarm fire wiping out a family or of a parent fatally beating a child or genocide in Sudan are interspersed with the cheerful announcer doing last night’s sports scores or ads hawking Florida vacations. And, indeed, this has troubled me for a long time because I believe it has an insidiously desensitizing effect; it’s one of the reasons, believe it or not, that I prefer public radio. But it’s still not remotely on a par with what the Times does every day in running these ads.

Rather than make explicit the connection I see between the two halves of this post, I’ll leave that for the reader to ponder. But consider this: once there was a president whose ability to discuss matters of life and death in inappropriate settings put the lie to his moral seriousness, and he, too, had a problem telling the truth.

Now, did I say something about a short post?


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21 Responses

  1. DovBear says:

    underwear ads

    Mr. Kobre, are you actually suggesting that this problem, if it is a problem, is unique to the Times? Is there a magazine or newspaper anywhere in the world that seeks to match its ads with its news items? And do you really imagine that the WSJ (or any publication) would ever turn down the chance to run an underwear ad – or any legitimate ad for the matter?

    For that matter, are you claiming the WSJ never plays fast and loose with polling data or statistics? With a few clicks you can find legions of examples. And when the Journal does get it wrong, you won’t find any “full-throated” admissions of guilt in their ample corrections column either.

    Was this post was meant to be serious, or was it was just another cheap shot at the Times? The absurdly lavish descriptions of the Timesmen as “sensitive and caring humanists” has me leaning toward cheap shot, but Eytan Kobre might be too deep in the grips of his right-wing ideology to see that the accusations he’s leveled here apply equaly to any newspaper.

  2. Alexander says:

    But consider this: once there was a president whose ability to discuss matters of life and death in inappropriate settings put the lie to his moral seriousness, and he, too, had a problem telling the truth.

    Huh? This reference does not compute

  3. Charles B. Hall says:

    The New York Times is an easy target given the number of outrages in its news department in the past few years. How any newspaper could keep such a government shill as Judith Miller on the payroll is a puzzle to me. (Her work pretty much destroyed all the liberal media conspiracy theories.)

    But anyone who also reads the Daily News or the Post knows that the Times is by far the most tzniut of the three major daily newspapers here in the Big Apple.

  4. Bob Miller says:

    To use Ronald Reagan’s words, our approach to any media product, including blogs, should be “trust but verify”.

  5. Eytan Kobre says:

    Permit me, Mr. Bear, to respond to your thoughtful comment on my post (and, by the way, that’s a very becoming picture on your blog). First, the words in your comment I found most interesting are “if it is a problem.” Do you, then, not feel it is, and if so, why? Again, I speak not from a religious perspective, nor from a feminist vantage point, from which such an objectification of women ought to perturb deeply, but, as I wrote, from a humanist’s angle.

    You ask whether any publication anywhere matches its ads with its news stories. I’m confused as to the relevance of that point. I’m speaking about the moral seriousness at issue here, which doesn’t depend on how many people act accordingly. As for WSJ, they, in point of fact, do not run underwear ads and, no, I don’t presume to know why they don’t or whether they ever would. Do you, Mr. Bear? You do seem to know an awful lot about that paper (BTW, could you share just a mere handful out of the legions of examples of WSJ’s chicanery; my subscription may depend on it.)

    In any event, I didn’t intend any comparison of the respective ethics of NYT and WSJ; we’re speaking morality here, not hypocritical oneupsmanship,or at least I thought we were. Nor, pace, Charles Hall (pardon my omission of the B., just thought I’d be informal) was any comparison to the Post or News intended. Surely you know that I know that those papers run the same stuff as NYT and that they surely aren’t morally superior to NYT, nor do they claim to be. That cannot be said for NYT, and there’s the rub.

    I believe that there’s a qualitative difference between the former and latter. The Times isn’t a tabloid filled with ax murders and celebrity trash just a notch above the Enquirer. Reality notwithstanding, it sees itself, and particularly in Section One, as a font of intellectual and moral gravitas, and for it to run really large and provocative ads of half-clad women in that section with great regularity is passing strange, where for the other rags it is not. We can respectfully disagree, but that’s how I see it.

    A few last points: If my attempt at dry sarcasm has even Mr. Bear (can we just drop the stuffiness and call ya Berele?)off-balance and wondering, I must be better than I thought.

    As for my being in “the grip of right-wing ideology,” Mr. Bear you seem to be an avid follower of this blog and I’m surprised you came away with that impression. I’d like to think of myself as trying, at least, to arrive at my positions on an issue-by-issue basis, albeit ending up, possibly, somewhat to the right on many, maybe most issues. But I do rather abhor the reflexive mindlessness at both WABC and WLIB. You know so much; how, pray tell, do you know this too?

  6. DovBear says:

    BTW, could you share just a mere handful out of the legions of examples of WSJ’s chicanery; my subscription may depend on it.)

    Happy to be of service:

  7. DovBear says:

    Oh Eytan. Don’t be coy with me. Though you insist, after the fact, that you weren’t playing some hypocritical game of one-upmanship, the opposite is clear from the language of your original post. Disdain for the Times oozes from every sentence, and you miss no opportunity to salute the Journal, conveniently ignoring that the Journal also misses the impossibly high standards that you set for the Times. (Rava!)

    As for your bizarre question about the hated underwear ads, you make two mistakes. First, a humanist is not, as you seem to think, a sort of hypertensive, impossibly PC, ubur-liberal. I quote from

    “The term humanist is applied to such diverse men as Giovanni Boccaccio, Petrarch, Lorenzo Valla, Lorenzo de’ Medici, Erasmus, and Thomas More. In the 20th cent., F. C. S. Schiller and Irving Babbitt applied the term to their own thought. Modern usage of the term has had diverse meanings, but some contemporary emphases are on lasting human values, cultivation of the classics, and respect for scientific knowledge.”

    I fail to see why an underwear ad offends those values. (Some in fact might say the opposite, that a depiction of a young woman in the full flower of her youth glorifies the human.)

    Second, the idea that the paper sees itself as a “font of intellectual and moral gravitas” is yours alone. A straw man, in other words.

    So to sum up: You don’t know what a humanist it. The idea that the Times is dedicated exclusively to humanist values is a misrepresentation of their position. The running of underwear ads offends no humanist value I can think of, though it may offend religious people, or feminists (but not all feminists. Feminism, like humanism (like the Times for that matter) is large and contain multitudes. Oh, and I say that you’re in the grips of a right-wing ideology because I recognize the shibboleth: the tribal yowl of “Times=Evil” announces you as someone who’s not to be taken very seriously.

  8. Jewish Observer says:

    A humorist is a comedian with a tweed jacket and a pipe.

    – JO

  9. Bob Miller says:

    From the point of view of virtually any US city newspaper of ANY political persuasion, there is nothing wrong with underwear ads, racy content, advocacy or glorification of immoral lifestyles, etc. Americans have found ways to reconcile opposites for years, so it’s misleading to single out the NY Times for inconsistency.

    As a small minority in the US, many of whose members have bought into the secular American outlook anyway, Jews as a group are not able to sanitize the general news media. But, although we live in a consumer society, we don’t have to consume just anything.

    Orthodox Jews who want their news to be free of objectionable content need their own specialized news sources. The English language Yated Ne’eman (Monsey) and Hamodia (Brooklyn) already serve their particular audiences, and any Jew is free to try to start a newspaper or electronic news source reflecting some other hashkafah.

  10. Eytan Kobre says:

    Oh Mr. Bear (that’s how you began your post, so I figured I’d do the same–ya know, for dramatic effect) you are so very clever to see right through my little coyness and oneupsmanship game. I must say, however,that I’m puzzled at your statement that I “miss no opportunity to salute the Journal,conveniently ignoring that the Journal also misses the impossibly high standards that [I] set for the Times,” considering that my sole reference thereto was this: “Well, those ads are, indeed, one of a number of reasons the WSJ is my news source of choice.” If that’s a salute and an example of ignoring yada, yada, then so be it.

    BTW, for whom are those standards of truth “impossibly high?” Not for yourself, I assume. For the Times? But why, is the truth not worth the effort?

    You are, however, most perspicacious (no average bear, you) in picking up on my disdain for the Times (although I’m not sure that to describe it as “oozing from every sentence” is quite precise. But, hey, you’re the guy who feels complete truth-telling is an “impossibly high” objective.) In any event, I don’t disdain the Times; my feelings about it are far stronger than that, not having much at all to do with its liberal bias, but, rather, with little things like, inter alia, its coverage of the slaughter of 6 million of your and my brothers and sisters. If you don’t believe me, ask Laurel Leff who authored Buried by the Times , which Stuart Eizenstat describes as the story of “the abject failure of the world’s most influential newspaper, the New York Times, to report on the Holocaust that its owner and key figures knew was occurring.

    And that’s who you’re defending here, Mr. Bear? Feh.

    Back to your precious post. I won’t quibble with you (it’s just not smart to anger a hungry bear, especially one that’s probably upset at having been beaten out of first place after putting in so much effort . . . Oh, never mind.)about the meaning of “humanist.” I don’t have my trusty Webster’s with me, but I do believe that one of its meanings is the one I intended: morally sensitive, and, indeed, that might even be what your high-brow source at meant with “lasting human values,” but, whatever. Consider “humanist” in my post changed to “morally sensitive and humanitarian.” You say “I don’t know what a humanist”is? Guilty as charged.

    What’s important is that you entirely misunderstood my point about the underwear ads. It was not that they, in themselves, should offend the “morally sensitive,” but that running ads designed or, at a minimum, conducive to arouse people to animal lust on the same page as stories of human tragedy that deserve seriousness, deep empathy and pain, is to make a mockery of what I would hope would be a moral sensitivity to the victims of such tragedies. It’s not unlike a US president engaging in sexual activity with a young woman as he speaks on the phone with a congressman about war and genocide, which is what I was referring to obliquely,hoping not to have to spell out what I meant. (I can hear it already: Since I obviously “disdain” Clinton, I must love Bush, which matches the right-wing ideology by which I’m gripped. Spare me, Bear, puhlease.)

    For the record, I do believe those ads, in themselves, should offend both the “morally sensitive” and all feminists, in all their “multitudes.” What’s curious, Mr. B, is why you can’t seem to summon up the clarity or courage oe whatever it is it takes to actually take a stand on anything that even faintly smacks of anything that’s not a doctrinaire liberal position. Thus, the ads “may” offend religious people and some feminists, but –you hasten to add — surely not all, since there’s all kinds of people who hold all kinds of beliefs, yada, yada. No. They should offend all religious people and all feminists. There, I said it, and you should bring yourself to say so too without having to worry that your liberal credentials will be tarnished thereby.

    Come to think of it, you never did answer my question: Are those ads, for you,speaking as a Jew, a feminist, a morally sensitive person, whatever, “a problem”?

    And finally, I must address that unkindest cut of all: your calling me someone “who’s not to be taken very seriously.” That hurts so very deeply that I can hardly bear to comment on it. The small consolation I give myself is that the fact that you seem to truly believe that the folks at the Times don’t see themselves as morally serious and superior, that being “my idea alone,” hints that you ain’t all that serious a fella yourself.

    Best (and stay out of Jersey during the hunt, will ya; you’re too important to lose),


  11. Jewish Observer says:

    ‘That hurts so very deeply that I can hardly bear to comment on it.’

    Reb Eytan, if you are to be in this business of bloggnig you learn to develop a thicker skin! Nothing written by an anonymous writer should “hurt so deeply” that it paralyzes you from commenting. You should stand your ground, and if you believe in something do not be dissuaded by naysayers, but comment on!

  12. DovBear says:

    Back to your precious post. I won’t quibble with you (it’s just not smart to anger a hungry bear, especially one that’s probably upset at having been beaten out of first place after putting in so much effort . . . Oh, never mind.)

    Putting in so much effort? I wrote one post, asking for votes which is the same thing this blog and most every blog did.

    More on the rest later.

  13. Yaakov Menken says:

    Now, DB. You targeted us. You wrote, “it would mean quite a lot to me if I could sneak past Cross-Currents.” And then, in the comments, you wrote as follows:

    Shilling for votes is beyond acceptable….


    We are clearly “shilling” for votes also, though I think we’d both prefer to call it “campaigning.” In our case we’re really not out to “beat” the other blogs — I happen to think Gil is a great writer, and he spends more time researching his entries than any five other writers combined (on or off the Net). Our interest is in the free PR that comes with winning.

    That’s a world away from saying “I want to beat them.” Well, you tried hard.

  14. Eytan Kobre says:

    My dear little bear,

    As Ronnie Reagan (one of those right-wing ideologues in whose grip you presume I repose) would say: there you go again! You promised you wouldn’t take me seriously and whaddya know –on your very next post you go and take super-seriously my comment about straining to beat us (so seriously, in fact, that you crossed the line into the territory of untruth, as demonstrated by Reb Yaakov, see above; then again, you are the guy for whom complete truth-telling is an “impossibly high” standard, see my previous post). What are we going to do with you, my cuddly little friend. . .

    Best as always,


  15. Alexander says:

    Yaakov and Eytan, you’re both being very unfair. Nowhere did DovBear say that he didn’t try. He simply said that he tried as hard as any blogger, including you. Etyan zinged him first suggesting that Dov tried harder than most. That’s false. Dov’s protest (“Hey: I tried just as hard as you”) is true.

    Anyway, I believe Dov beat you in one category, and lost by one percentage point in another. Not bad when you consider there is only one of him, and 11 of you.

  16. Yaakov Menken says:


    Neither DB nor we got first place — DB was merely aiming for not second, not third, but beating Cross-Currents.
    This is all merely for humor value — it was on that count that Eytan poked him.

    I didn’t know that Eytan was even aware of DB’s special effort to beat us, but don’t pretend that DB merely “tried as hard as any blogger.” Oh, and I’m not mistaken, I checked the numeric values of votes and he neither beat nor tied us in either category. You think I didn’t care to check, given his special effort?

    The whole thing is silly. I can assure you that readers like Dr. Zuroff and Dr. Kranzler have far too many demands on their time to vote in blog awards — so I’m happy we made the finals. Now, we’re putting in an effort because of the PR we might get, as I said.

  17. DovBear says:

    I checked the percentages, and Alex is right. We tied in Overall, and I lost by one percentage point in Religion.

  18. Yaakov Menken says:

    DB, this is getting really silly. Do you really care so much? But since the truth matters, Alex said you beat us in one category. Tying is not beating.

    It’s irrelevant anyway; since I was aware of your campaign I checked the numeric results at midnight just to be certain — and we were several votes ahead of you. Before they closed the results you could see the actual numeric tally by clicking “view results” before voting. It’s a flaw (in my opinion) that after you vote you can no longer see anything but the percentage. Given over 1400 votes, the spread could be as large as 14 votes even when the percentage is the same.

    But what Alex wrote, about there being only one of you and 11 of us, is absolutely true. I also asked all my employees to vote, and now in the finals I’ve even mentioned it in my weekly email… it’s a silly popularity contest, to be certain, but the question is what sort of coverage will the JPost give these awards once they end. Even with that goal in mind, I’m kind of happy we’re not catching Hirhurim in Jewish Religion, given my respect for Gil’s writing. I like the idea of him having a 1st place as well.

  19. 4jkb4ia says:

    This is dishonest. If the Court overturns Roe, then it will be a miracle if abortion remains legal in some states where access to an abortion is very difficult to get now. Mississippi and North Dakota are examples which come immediately to mind. The fight to keep abortion legal in Missouri, my home state, will be less difficult but still challenging.
    So as not to betray DB overmuch, my husband says, “The New York Times is full of underwear ads. But they are in the local sections of the paper.”

  20. 4jkb4ia says:

    Thank you for supporting Gil, Rabbi Menken. That is very classy.

  21. 4jkb4ia says:

    My husband has so little of a dog in this, he wouldn’t vote for DB from work! He said it was shtick!

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