osewalrus (osewalrus) wrote,

An interesting follow up on Feldman piece

My thanks to jonbaker for pointing me to this link.

Apparently, Noah Feldman knew before the article was published that the central personal anecdote of his piece, that Maimonides went so far as to crop him and his then-fiancee from his class reunion photo, was untrue. And so did the NYT. Rather, because the crowd would not all fit into the picture, the photographer took several shots, each excluding a different set of people. The photo run ultimately excluded other people beside Feldman and his then-fiancee.

More below the cut.

What is curious is why Feldman did not correct the piece, and why the New York Times allowed a piece they knew to be inaccurate to run. Feldman offers as a defense that he thought when he wrote his essay that the photo had been cropped. Very well, an honest mistake. But why not correct it before running the inaccurate version? To this Feldman says: "When [the photographer] turned up the contact sheet there was no contradiction at all, as far as I could tell. They had several photos to choose from and they chose one that I wasn’t in. There’s no question that one could offer other explanations for what happened."

A review of the article does indeed show that Feldman never claimed that Maimonides had deliberately altered the photo. He merely worked very hard to create that impression. While it may therefore be true that there is no "contradiction" between Feldman's story in the literal sense, this does not answer the question as to why one would allow a piece to run under one's name designed to create a false impression of events. As a scholar and published author, Feldman knew the article lead off with a highly charged and emotional anecdote that would be widely interpreted in a way that was simply not true. As a newspaper, the NY Times has an independent obligation not to print things they know to be inaccurate. The question isn't whether there is "no contradiction" between the Feldman version and what actually happened, the question is whether the version printed in the NY Times as fact actually and accurately describes the events.

Of course, if it really was "just as bad" to select a picture that excluded Feldman (along with 16 other people), why not simply rewrite the opening anecdote to conform to the actual facts and avoid creating a false impression? This could have been done by simply dropping a parenthetical or inserting a clause such as "in preparing this story I discovered that we were not in fact cropped out, but that the newsletter selected a photo that naturally cut us out as overflowing the boundary -- a difference that really makes no difference and consistent with their decision to pretend I no longer exist." But Feldman chose not to do so, and the NYT did not insist.

The answer, of course, is that while selecting a photo tha happened to exclude Feldman, his fiancee, and 16 other people may be consistent with subsequent actions and therefore "just as bad" morally (assuming one takes Feldman's perspective), it does not have nearly the emotional impact as giving the impression that everyone else was in the picture and the school deliberately cropped Feldman and his fiancee out -- or so the occasional nastygram to me for my earlier piece suggests. Those disgusted by my close-minded bigotry make much of the deliberate "soviet" or "Orwellian" effort to eliminate Feldman and his fiancee from from the picture. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Feldman -- a published academic with three books, numerous articles, and a regular contributor of columns such as this to the NYT and elsewhere -- opted to leave the false but more dramatic version intact for its deliberate inflammatory effect.

As an aside, I gotta say, this doesn't exactly fill me with a lot of confidence in his other scholarship -- particularly his work on Iraq in which he is equally emotionally invested.

What is more puzzling of course is why the New York Times, a respected mainstream newspaper, chose to print something it knew was inaccurate (even if literally true). As explained in the article linked to above (for those who will feel compelled to comment but nevertheless cannot be troubled to actually read the linked to piece first), the New York Times paid the original Maimo photographer to go back to Boston and get the negatives for the express purpose of running the "doctored" photo Feldman described in support of his piece. When the NYT discovered that the photo had clearly not been modified, and that 16 other people besides Feldman were excluded from the picture, the Times opted not to run the photo. Nevertheless, they ran the article as written, knowing it did not accurately report the events in question.

In Feldman's defense, he is not exactly the most consistent fellow in the world. Despite having made this family anecdote the lead and emotional center of his piece, and despite describing the heartwarming scene of he and his children attending Purim services, Feldman declined to answer whether he was raising his children Jewish on the grounds that “I never talk about personal things related to family.”

Unless, of course, it is to use family as props in his own narrative. On second thought, that kind of ego-centrism and self-deception is consistent with the Noah Feldman I knew at Maimo.

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