Forward reporter Paul Berger hails from the British Isles where tabloid journalism is a blood sport. In spite of his mannered language, Berger has honed the art of the ambush. He did a lot of good reporting about the sex abuse scandal in the Yeshiva University high school but overreached when he quoted an interview with retired YU President Norman Lamm who was in an advanced state of dementia, a fact subsequently reported in the Forward itself. I called out that lapse in my post: The Forward and YU are Colluding in Claiming Rabbi Norman Lamm is Mentally Competent.
I got wind of another potential whopper by Berger that would have dwarfed his Lamm lapse and I called him out on it in my post, Which Lazy Journalist Will Take the Dershowitz Bait? I reported that Berger was planning a post based on tapes offered to him by family and attorneys of alleged molester Baruch Lebovits. Moreover the tapes were excerpts spliced out of context. I got to know this because Berger approached Mr. Niall MacGiollabhui, the attorney of the object of the hit job, and asked for comment. The attorney naturally informed his client, whistleblower Sam Kellner, who is under indictment for attempted extortion, a complaint contrived by Lebovits’ family, employees, and attorneys to undermine the sex abuse prosecution. Sam shared his story with others. Through a source other than the attorney, I learned of the upcoming story and did my post.
A Twitter exchange ensued between between Berger and me:
- Lopin (11/13): Which Lazy Journalist Will Take the Dershowitz Bait?
- Berger: If this is meant to scare me off, you’re doing a poor job
- Lopin: If U think Dershowitz’s latest press handout is good, run with it. The truth will out. Just b sure u know the context!
- Berger: I do know the context. You don’t. Interested to know who leaked my private questions to Kellner’s lawyer.
- Lopin: I have never talked to Kellner’s lawyer in my life. But I would be interested questions. Can U share?
- Berger: I didn’t say you spoke to him. Strange that hours after I send my qs, you guess at the parameters of my story. || First time in my career someone has tried to preempt a story in this way. Dubious tactics.
- Lopin: Just wait until next week and you will thank me if you avoid doing this flawed misleading story. You obviously don’t know the velocity of gossip in chasidish world. Your sources also leaked. “Silence is golden” is for goyim.|| Have you asked @HikindDov about prior outcry by the victim who testified against Lebovits? || Other journalists know I had a lot of good #BrooklynDA scoops & no chaff. I am trying to help U get it right
I wasn’t nice to Berger and I may have provoked his peevish and defensive response. The case against Kellner sets my blood boiling because it is such a miscarriage of justice. Still, if I had it to do over, my style would have been more restrained.
The Kellner indictment will be dismissed in January. The two veteran ADAs in charge of the case already concluded it should be dismissed, but were overruled by Michael Vecchione, outgoing head of the Brooklyn DA Rackets Division who is notorious for wrongful convictions. Vecchione only kept the case alive by removing the ADAs from the case. This morning, Vecchione, too much of a coward to represent his own dirty work, sent in the Counsel for his Rackets Division, Monique Ferrell. She did not turn over to the defense a number of items that the court ordered the DA to turn over at the previous session and even insisted materials related to a witness in the current case against Kellner were not turned over because their existence is merely a rumor.
The case against Kellner is deader than a door-nail, and is only kept alive as a favor to the Lebovits camp whose primary defense attorney is Arthur Aidala, a close friend of DA Hynes. The claim of extortion, while completely unfounded, serves both as a PR move to defend Lebovits and as a legal tactic to muddy the waters if the case should go to trial. It also would have provided cover for the DA if he had done a sweetheart plea deal. The planned deal was averted through a letter by activists to the presiding judge, Mark Dwyer, and by the intervention of DA-elect Kenneth Thompson. Time is running out for the Lebovits defense team including their appellate lawyers, Alan and Nathan Dershowitz (also known as the Dershbags in court circles).
The PR value of the extortion defense depends on someone spreading it. The Lebovits family and the Dershbags looked long and hard for a respectable carrier and settled on Paul Berger who was either gullible or let himself be suckered.
Berger ran a story acknowledging that Lebovits may be a molester but focusing on speculation that Kellner is also an extortionist. He does a grave disservice to Hasidic victims of abuse brave enough to press charges. He makes it seem like all these things involving Hasidim involve a murky world of extortion. He seems clueless about the legitimate role of beit din in some cases and the fact that legitimate victims of abuse often seek beit din support to ward off charges of mesirah (snitching). He seems to think all black hats look alike. A better journalist would have sorted out the cast of characters. A better journalist would have genuinely searched for the counter narrative to the one offered up by the Lebovits defense. Instead, in what passed for balance, he posited a moral equivalency between Lebovits and Kellner. He gave very short shrift to the role of Michael Vecchione, perhaps the most notorious wrongful conviction prosecutor in the country. Berger also ignored the grand jury testimony against Kellner by Moshe (Gabbai) Friedman, the Satmar power broker, cousin of Lebovits, and a vigorous defender of other molesters such as Weberman. As anticipated, the Forward’s story depended on heavily edited, decontextualized snippets of voice recordings.
Kellner’s attorney wrote a powerful letter to the Ms. Jane Eisner, the editor of the Forward, taking it to task for not bothering to pay attention to the actual records on which the prosecution case is based and not sharing enough of the tape with him and his client to allow Mr. Kellner to provide either context or an alternative explanation of the content. To Mr. Berger’s embarrassment, the Forward published the entire, devastating critique by Kellner’s attorney.
Paul Berger replied to the letter, primarily, by blaming me. He narrowly focuses on his failure to follow-up on his promise to share more of the tape with Mr. Kellner’s attorney because he was afraid that the planned story would end up on an anonymous blog. Actually, Mr Berger and I have exchanged more congenial correspondence a few years ago and once spent about an hour on the phone discussing his coverage of DA Hynes which he defended and I criticized as too favorable. I raised some points which he promised to look into, though as far as I know, had no impact of his reporting of orthodox sex abuse. Mr. Berger also knows my blog because he has searched it and found some information he repeated in his articles about Richard Andron. In fact he knows that I am a credible blogger on the subject of sex abuse in the orthodox Jewish community.
The claim that he had to make sure I did not know his story plans makes no sense. There was no way that he and I were likely to come up with the same conclusions. He was bent on casting doubt on the charges against Lebovits. I have a 4-year track record of calling Lebovits a molester and a one year track record of defending Kellner’s innocence.
What is most entertaining is his blithe dismissal of all of the other criticisms of his story, most notably, his failure to at least carefully look at the actual evidence of the prosecution in the case or even the available transcripts of the evidence held by the DA or even the actual indictment. He dismisses all these other problems by concluding: “I stand by the reporting in my story.” Don’t take my word for it. Reread the letter by Kellner’s attorney and Bergers “rebuttal.”
I owe Mr. Berger an apology. He was not lazy. He put a lot of work into his biased story, he just failed to do the work necessary to get it right. But I stand by another initial perception triggered by his tweet claiming I was trying to intimidate him. No journalist publishing in a national newspaper with a circulation of 30,000 has grounds to be intimidated. As I Tweeted at the time in reply to his complaint about intimidation, “If U think Dershowitz’s latest press handout is good, run with it. The truth will out. Just b sure u know the context.”
I am infuriated by his wimpy, whiny complaint that parts of his story might have leaked. Indeed, he was trucking with the worst sort of leaks, selective leaks designed for character assassination. Mr Berger utterly ignored the fact that most of the case against Kellner was based on a succession of tapes submitted to the prosecution and then discredited by investigation. Mr. Berger did not even bother to ask why the Lebovits camp was handing him this tape instead of giving it straight to the DA, if it was so compelling. I suspect, as suggested by Mr. Kellner’s attorney, it is because it was obtained by illegal bugging and was also deemed irrelevant, once taken in context. So in the end, I feel it only fair to fight derogatory leaks with truth. I respect journalistic colleagues and have carefully stayed away from tipping off stories in the making, including some I expect to dislike. But character assassination in the guise of journalism is another thing. I do not feel obliged to lay off on such plots.
It would be nice to think he and the Forward will finally get the message that the public does hold journalists to account for the quality of their reporting, their respect for the truth, and perhaps even, for their compassion for victims of sexual abuse (other than victims of Yeshiva University). I am not holding my breath about the Forward.