Letter from the Editor: An apology for The Daily’s coverage of the Chabad house vandalism

Brian Rosenthal

What follows is my opinion alone and does not necessarily represent the view of the rest of the editorial board or staff.

With that important caveat stated, I would like to personally apologize for The Daily’s coverage of the vandalism at the Tannenbaum Chabad House last week. With the benefit of hindsight, I now feel that our coverage failed to properly portray and analyze the complexity and uncertainty surrounding the vandalism.

In other words, we sensationalized the story, wrongly elevating the profile of the vandals, contributing to an unwarranted hysteria and ultimately harming the struggle for true multiculturalism on this campus.

On the night of Saturday, Oct. 30, someone ripped nine light bulbs from their sockets on a 6-foot Hanukkah menorah in front of the Chabad house and also tore one of the menorah’s arms.

There is no doubt that the vandalism was wrong. Any situation in which one person damages the property of another is disrespectful and wrong. And this damage was especially stinging because it involved an important symbol to the Jewish people. It is certainly understandable that those involved with Chabad were upset.

And if this incident of vandalism was also a hate crime, it would warrant significant attention as a troubling threat to the multiculturalism that many on campus are fighting to achieve.

But, with all due respect to Jewish and non-Jewish community leaders and students who have said otherwise, this was not a hate crime.

The police have told us so. The spokesman for the Evanston Police Department told The Daily in an interview that despite earlier statements by Jewish leaders, officers never investigated the incident as a hate crime. The truth is that if an anti-Semite wanted to make a statement, there are a variety of more dramatic actions that the lunatic would have taken.

Instead, this incident was almost certainly the product of a group of drunken kids fooling around on Halloween Eve. The broken flower pots at Roycemore School, a few blocks away, are evidence of that.

Damage to property is wrong but hardly unprecedented in that area – take a stroll down Maple on any Sunday morning.

This incident did not affect the campus community on a broader scale. Thus, it did not deserve to be featured prominently, with a photo, on our front page on Monday and Tuesday.

Doing so gave undeserved attention to the vandals, encouraging other attention-seeking individuals to take similar actions. More importantly, it sensationalized the incident to a point that Jews on campus actually felt that they were being targeted.

Most importantly, it reinforced a mindset of viewing every potentially-offensive incident on campus as a dramatic attack. Overreacting to one incident breeds overreaction to the next, as each group feels that their unwarranted outrage is as valuable to the campus as that of the group before.

This oversensitivity does more harm than good for a simple reason: If every racial, ethnic and religious subgroup on this campus is busy protecting themselves from threats, they cannot meaningfully engage others. We must tear down walls between subgroups, not build new ones.

Why did The Daily fail to accurately portray the situation? I think part of the explanation, unfortunately, is that it was a slow news weekend. The vandalism made the front page on Monday because there was nothing else to put there. More indirectly, many people on campus were talking about the incident because there was little else to discuss on a sleepy mid-quarter Sunday.

Part of it is that several editors here, including me, are Jewish. That’s not to say we let personal feelings influence coverage. But on a practical level, we received e-mails about the incident via Jewish community listservs.

And part of it is due to some misinformation in one of those e-mails. Rabbi Dov Klein is a dear friend of mine, but his e-mail announcing the vandalism implied something that we later found out was not true – that police had classified the incident as a hate crime. As journalists, we are trained to triple check all details of news stories. But both EPD and University Police have policies of not responding to media requests on Sundays. So given Klein’s position as EPD chaplain, we operated under the assumption that he was correct. For whatever reason, he was not.

We should have checked that. In addition, there were a number of things that The Daily could have done to better contextualize the situation. Even on a Sunday, our reporters could have contacted experts in anti-Semitism at groups like the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Instead, we relied almost exclusively on campus Jewish leaders, who talked with us in the heat of an emotional day.

The Daily prides itself on its ability to not only recount things that have happened, but frame news in a way that enables our readers to understand its importance. In this case, we failed. For that, I apologize.

Brian Rosenthal is the Editor in Chief of The Daily Northwestern. He can be reached at [email protected]