The Daily prints multiple errors about the Rachel Corrie play … all relating to Jewish pressure — How did this happen?

[UPDATE: The Daily acknowledged these mistakes in an Errata]

In the first issue of this coming semester, I expect some amount of letters that relate to the Rachel Corrie piece placed in the Culture section and on the cover before the long break. I’m not sure any of the letter writers will pick up on an area dense with mistakes in Natasha Greenblatt’s article, including a misquote combined with unintentional plagiarism (like in the Features piece grousing over the very dead landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted).

What’s interesting is that all these errors were made in the process of trying to show how pressure from Jews may have prevented large-scale productions of the play My Name is Rachel Corrie. Since we’re talking about alleged Jewish pressure, the readers of The Daily would think that our university paper has taken extra care not to get any facts wrong. I’d imagine The Daily’s editorial staff taking that special care if Muslim or First Nations community leaders allegedly applied pressure on behalf of their communities, but as for Jews, there seems to be a bit of a blind spot at the paper (at least from the evidence of this article).

Natasha Greenblatt writes in her Culture piece:

Artistic director James Nicola admitted he decided to postpone “after polling local Jewish religious and community leaders as to their feeling about the work.” Later, he said that Ariel Sharon’s illness and the Hamas election had created an inappropriate political climate for the play.

But Greenblatt is actually turning a paraphrase/description into a literal quote by Nicola, putting the words in quotation marks as if he said these words. Greenblatt has used text from this NYT article, by Jesse McKinley. Here’s the passage from McKinley’s work, with the text in red that re-appeared in The Daily without attribution:

But yesterday, James C. Nicola, the artistic director of the workshop, said he had decided to postpone the show after polling local Jewish religious and community leaders as to their feelings about the work.
“The uniform answer we got was that the fantasy that we could present the work of this writer simply as a work of art without appearing to take a position was just that, a fantasy,” he said.
In particular, the recent electoral upset by Hamas, the militant Palestinian group, and the sickness of Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, had made ”this community very defensive and very edgy,” Mr. Nicola said, ”and that seemed reasonable to me.”

Furthermore, the context of the quote in the NYT reveals another mistake here in Greenblatt’s piece. Greenblatt wrote, “Later, he [Nicola] said that Ariel Sharon‘s illness and the Hamas election […]”

Clearly, Nicola told the press he talked to Jewish community leaders at the same time he told the press that his decision was affected by the recent election of Hamas and the coma of the settlers’ former hero who forced through the Gaza withdrawal. In shifting the time of half his statement to the press, Greenblatt tries to more forcefully imply a cause-and-effect related to pressure by Jewish community leaders.

After writing about the NYC theater, Greenblatt moves on to the CanStage theater in Toronto and a couple more errors appear of a similar nature. Greenblatt writes:

Members of its board objected to what they perceived as anti-Jewish content. But that wasn’t what they told the press. Martin Bragg, the Artistic Producer of Canadian Stage, said the play “didn’t seem as powerful on the stage as it did on the page.”

Check out the article in Variety — which is used as a source for Wikipedia’s entry. Other than this article, and one in the The Star, there are no primary sources about this that I can find. The Variety article says:

While admitting he has neither read nor seen the script, CanStage board member Jack Rose said, “My view was it would provoke a negative reaction in the Jewish community.”

Philanthropist Bluma Appel, after whom CanStage’s flagship theater is named, concurred. “I told them I would react very badly to a play that was offensive to Jews,” she said.

So these two Board members [Update: I’m not sure the late Bluma Appel was in her last year on the Board when the Variety article went to press] were upfront with their feelings, and didn’t change their story. Here’s The Star’s account, which doesn’t name anyone:

Members of Bragg’s board were alarmed by negative response from influential supporters of the theatre, especially in Toronto’s Jewish community, who were canvassed for their opinion. Many were dismayed and openly critical when confronted with the prospect of the city’s flagship not-for-profit theatre producing a play that could be construed as anti-Semitic propaganda, especially during a frightening period when Israel’s existence is threatened by Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.

Setting aside that this passage is elaborate hearsay, with lots of room for inaccuracies, there is nothing in it that indicates this group of Board members was private about its feelings or inconsistent in its public message. But Greenblatt says the opposite, without any evidence from either primary source — “But that wasn’t what they told the press.” If The Daily can’t find any evidence to back up Greenblatt’s claim, then it needs to alert readers that Greenblatt made a mistake in accusing members of the Board of duplicity on this count.

Also, Greenblatt’s wording can imply that Board members and artistic producer Martin Bragg are parts of one entity, “They,” which first picked one story, then another, making things seem more shady. She writes, “But that wasn’t what they told the press. Martin Bragg […] said the play […]” … Martin Bragg isn’t even a member of the Board of CanStage — see this page on their website.

(BTW, for his part, Bragg said, “I pick the plays. No one on our board has ever told me what we can and can’t do.” He canceled the play after seeing the New York production with the esteemed British [CORRECTION, 1/12/08: someone from London emails and informs me that Dodds is American] actress Megan Dodds — something Greenblatt avoids mentioning — when he supposedly changed his mind about the work’s potential.)

… As of today, if you Google the phrase “diaries from troubled times,” you’ll find Natasha Greenblatt’s article copied or linked to on many sites around the net, sites devoted to the memory of Rachel Corrie and/or to exposing the iniquity of Israel. For example, here, here and here (the last one with the sidebar “Rachel Corrie Born: April 10, 1979 Murdered: March 16, 2003″).

The Daily’s insufficient fact-checking has not positively contributed to the health of discourses about Jewish-North-Americans. It’s offered more kindling for the idea that where there’s smoke about “Jewish pressure,” there must be fire.

____________

Are the inaccuracies entirely due to sloppiness, or reflexive rhetoric coming from ideological bias, that occurred when Natasha Greenblatt was writing the piece? I’m not sure it all falls on her. Greenblatt’s piece does not seem like it wasn’t revised by an editor at all. The first three paragraphs — which contain the errors discussed above — might be in a slightly different style than the rest.

There is a chance that the lack of fact-checking does not result from a blind spot The McGill Daily has about the potential slurring of Jews as opposed to other ethnic groups. The mistakes may result from a communications breakdown between editors.

Some speculations about the editing of the piece:

(1)

Perhaps the Culture section doesn’t fact-check, since it’s not used to printing articles which are so political, with hardly any reference to the art of the work. Maybe if Culture editors have doubts about who directed a movie, they look the movie up on IMDB.com, but that’s about it.

Greenblatt’s piece describes the contents of the playscript in only ONE line, referring to “rich inner thoughts and […] a window into their worlds.” Such minimal reference to the art of a work, whether in a review or in a preview, is unique for the Culture section.

It’s possible that Greenblatt delivered a piece to Coordinating Culture editor Simon Lewsen that was much less like previous pieces in the Culture section than he thought it was going to be, but out of habit, he didn’t fact-check it. Then, unfortunately, the non-Culture editors who saw the piece during the layout process didn’t alert Lewsen that parts might need fact-checking like a news story.

(2)

Or, perhaps the Culture section fumbled because they didn’t have time before the issue went to press and assumed that another editor had already fact-checked the piece.

I’ve been told that the initial liaison at The Daily for Natasha Greenblatt (who doesn’t go to McGill) was her friend Martin Lukacs. Perhaps Lukacs or an additional friend at The Daily worked with Greenblatt on the prose of her piece — maybe this helps account for a slightly different style in the first three paragraphs — and then the final draft was handed off to Lewsen at the Culture section, who didn’t confer with the author during the writing. Lewsen may have assumed the piece was already fact-checked, and simply read and accepted the article a day or so before deadline.

[ Note to the Public Editor : To prevent confusion between different editors, professional newspapers have policies that make explicit who is editing/fact-checking what, so the paper can trace whether the work has been done before printing, and so there can be accountability if there is a problem after printing. Although The Daily likes to spread out these duties more free-form, when we see that this could result in errors as serious as the ones we find in the My Name is Rachel Corrie cover story, it seems like the editors should get more meticulous on this count. It’s not going to make the paper any less “non-hierarchal.” ]

(3)

This would be interesting: what if Greenblatt never saw the play or read the script before she submitted her article? Did any of the editors ask her whether this was the case?

Besides the single line in Greenblatt’s piece that might describe contents of the playscript, there is only one other line in that I could understand people mistaking for such a description: “[Rachel was] a girl who likes boys, loves her dad, and writes poems about her cat, all things she shared with Anne.” In fact, the script doesn’t say anything about writing poems about cats (and liking boys and loving one’s father are common to most heterosexual young girls). The source for this sketch of Greenblatt’s seems to be a piece in The Guardian by Katherine Viner, one of the play’s editors, also linked to in the Wikipedia entry on the play.

Given that there is no specific reference to the dialogue, except via Cynthia Ozick’s furious review of the playscript in The New Republic, it seems like a possibility that Greenblatt did not see any production of the play, nor read the play (it was re-printed on Christmas, I think), before she wrote her piece.

If that was the case, and if any of the editors knew it, should The Daily have written a note to that effect informing the readers? Is it ethical not saying the writer hasn’t read the play, when readers might expect she has? Should a newspaper dismiss that information as irrelevant, in order to not undercut the rhetorical force of their writer, or should it, in this case, favor openness toward readers over imparting the sense of authorial authority?

I don’t know the answer to that question. Readers of The Daily Watch can email me, if they feel strongly one way or the other. I do think it would make readers of The Daily feel weirder about Greenblatt’s impassioned writing, if we knew that it did not result from a passionate reaction to the play, My Name is Rachel Corrie, as a production or a script, but only the author’s idea of what the person Rachel Corrie should represent.

These are all speculations, of course, I hope the editors can dispel some of them, but own up to either #1 or #2 above so that readers of The McGill Daily know that there is no blind spot which let these mistakes go to press (and Net, where mistakes add to a harmful echo chamber). In any case, the nature of the errors, as all foregrounding alleged pressure from inside the Jewish community, contradicts the code of ethics of the Canadian University Press, to which The Daily Constitution has bound itself. The link to the CUP code of ethics is in the sidebar, and the relevant part seems to be

Journalists should not report unsubstantiated opinions as fact, condemn [i.e., disparage or reproach] persons or groups by innuendo or hearsay, or distort meaning by over- or under-emphasis, or by placing facts or quotations out of context […]

____________

[ 1/4/08 — Note: This post was revised, when I found out that Bluma Appel, a Montreal native and the founder of CANFAR who passed away recently, may no longer have been a Board member of CanStage when she spoke to the press. ]

[ UPDATE: Drew Nelles’ account is that Lewsen and Features Editor Martin Lukacs edited the piece together, and Natasha Greenblatt did read the playscript. ]

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