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Eliyahu Federman Headshot

NBC Deceptively Edits Rabbi on Sexual Abuse, Ignoring Lessons From Zimmerman Scandal

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The prosecution in George Zimmerman's trial may claim that Zimmerman was motivated by racism. This narrative reached a pinnacle last December, when NBC edited audio of George Zimmerman's 911 call in a deceptive manner that made him appear racist. Though Zimmerman only mentioned race after being asked by the dispatcher if Trayvon Martin was, "black, white or Hispanic," NBC's edits left the impression that Zimmerman brought up Martin's race unprompted. During the 2012 Republican primary, NBC falsely portrayed Texas Governor Rick Perry's 'Black Cloud' metaphor as a racist reference to President Obama when he was actually referring to the national debt. NBC later admitting to selective editing.

But NBC's malicious editing is not limited to portraying a one-sided view of politics and race but also religion. This past weekend NBC Rock Center aired an interview of Avraham Berkowitz, a bearded Orthodox rabbi who defied their preconceived narrative that Hasidic communities advise sexual abuse victims to turn to rabbis instead of police. Rather than modify their narrative, NBC edited the interview and used the rabbi's words in a context that grossly distorted his views. Though the rabbi advocates reporting sexual abuse to the police, NBC's selective editing left the opposite impression.

Unlike the more insular Hasidic movements represented in the segment, Berkowitz is a member of Chabad-Lubavitch, a Hasidic group that encourages interacting with the broader society, does not generally believe in censorship, and advocates sexual abuse awareness. But NBC apparently did not care about accurately reporting distinctions between Hasidic groups so amid the stories of several youth transcending restrictive upbringings, censorship of textbooks, and combating sexual abuse in the most insular Hasidic enclaves, was the gross misportrayal of Berkowitz, a Chabad rabbi.

NBC edited Berkowitz's interview for the segment, all to fit the false narrative that Berkowitz was advocating handling sexual abuse allegations internally.

Toward the end of the segment, NBC correspondent, Dr. Nancy Snyderman begins with a voice-over narration:

But last year, the Hasidic community could no longer deny its own problems, a young women came forward to tell police her rabbi, Nechamya Weberman, had sexually abused her for years. It was a rare instance of a Hasid going to outside authorities to report a crime.

The frame then cuts to Berkowitz saying:

The community leaders within are dealing with this.

Dr. Snyderman continues with her voice-over narration:

Avraham Berkowitz is a local rabbi in the community and he says people are now acknowledging that sexual abuse is happening and insists that they can handle the problem themselves.

The frame then cuts back to Berkowitz:

Whatever these types of crimes are, they have to be eradicated, and in order to eradicate them. We have to do it within the way the community knows how to solve its problems. Because sometimes when you come banging with drums from the outside, the community becomes more insular.

In the false narrated context NBC provides, the clear implication of the parsed quotes is that Berkowitz was advocating that victims report abuse "internally" to rabbis rather than law enforcement officials.

In the unedited full context, obtained from Berkowitz who recorded the full interview with NBC's knowledge, Dr. Nancy Snyderman of NBC never even asks Berkowits whether he thinks abuse should be reported directly to the police, yet they superimpose his unrelated quotes in a segment addressing the issue of reporting sexual abuse.

As the full interview demonstrates, Berkowitz was referring to educational initiatives on abuse prevention, not the reporting of sexual abuse, and makes clear that rabbis should work hand-in-hand with the authorities.

Here is the full transcript. The bold quotes are the ones NBC decided to use in the segment.

Snyderman: There are, there have been crimes and the Weberman case has shined a very unflattering light on the community.

Berkowitz: So I spoke about violent, public violent crimes of murder and rape very low, very little. When you talk about sexual abuse of children it's something that's being exposed. It's a silent crime and there are deviants in every society and it's not just in our community but as you see in the Catholic Church ......

Snyderman: And are you able to look at your community with a critical eye and say, "This is not okay"?

Berkowitz: So, absolutely. First of all we absolutely have to look at it with a critical view, the question is what do we, do we have to have this conversation in public, how do we resolve, that's a question within the Chasidic world, how do they grapple with these dark, dark problems and how do they solve it. So if it's talking about pushing it under the rug, no way...

In our community, for example, when it comes it's a much more open and public debate. We are one of the largest Chasidic communities in Brooklyn,

the Rabbis work together hand in hand with the authorities

and the children are now taught that if someone is doing something inappropriate to you, you have the ABC's. And I was so pleased with my six year old daughter tells me, "Daddy, the 'D' of the ABC's, do tell. Someone does something inappropriate I'm ganna tell."

Snyderman: We have images of a young girl who was molested being heckled by adult men as she was going to court and even so disturbing to see a young girl who had suffered being made the villain.

Berkowitz: I'm very disturbed by those images. But again, there, we have to remember one thing. Whatever these types of crimes are have to be eradicated and in order to eradicate them they have to do it within the way the community knows how to solve its problems because sometimes when you come banging with drums from the outside the community becomes more insular. So the community needs to face this, the community leaders within are dealing with this, but sometimes what they say to the outside seems as if they're covering up for it.

But I must say again these deviants must be punished and they now know because of the awareness that's happening they now know that they cannot continue to commit these crimes.

They know that they'll be caught and our children are also taught because of like I told you, you say that we are separated... they are now taught what is considered inappropriate ...

... And I must say as a parent it's the number one thing that I worry about in our camps, in our schools, what are you teaching your staff, our teachers to make sure that our children are protected. And I'm very pleased that the new programs that the Chasidic schools are teaching within our, with their sensitivities, to teach our children about the differences.

In subsequent email correspondence with Berkowitz, the producer of NBC readily admits that Berkwoitz did not advocate that victims turn to rabbis instead of the police. But NBC edited the interview and added a narrated voice-over to imply that he was referring to handling reporting internally.

Berkowitz's view on reporting sexual abuse appears to be consistent with the 2011 Crown Heights Rabbinical Court ruling, which requires that suspected abuse be reported directly to the police.

After publishing an article highlighting the inaccuracy, and after Berkowitz sent multiple emails to the producer of the show, Robert Buchanan, NBC finally agreed to remove the inaccurate segment admitting in an email that because "some are misinterpreting your ... [Rabbi Berkowitz] ... comment- we are going to take the story off the web."

NBC then issued an editor's note clarifying the rabbi's comments on sexual abuse:

In the story, he said 'the community can handle the problem themselves.' Rabbi Berkowitz says he was referring to the community handling efforts to prevent sexual abuse - not whether to report sexual abuse to police. He says he has always advocated reporting suspected abuse to the appropriate law enforcement agencies...

Of course this clarification is not enough and conveniently leaves out the misleading voice-over narration. NBC damaged this rabbi's reputation without taking full responsibility for creating a misperception about his views on reporting sexual abuse to the police.

Whether NBC's deceptive editing stems from a political bias, stereotypes about Hasidic Jews, or an attempt to make material more salacious to attract more viewers, NBC should seek to restore its journalistic integrity by conducting an internal review to explain how and why these things happened.

Eliyahu Federman has been published in the New York Times, Jerusalem Post, The Forward, USA Today and elsewhere on issues related to sexual abuse awareness, gender equality and police-community relations. He graduated law school in NY, where he served as executive editor of law review.