Yes, newspapers and members of the media can make mistakes.
But it’s one thing to make a mistake. It’s quite another to own up to it and try to rectify the situation.
That’s what Henry H. Nyce, publisher of Pottsville’s Republican-Herald did on Feb. 10, when he admitted his publication had erred by publishing a long, rambling, anti-Semitic letter to the editor. Filled with traditional Jewish stereotypes about money and power and other defamatory rhetoric, the letter, written by John Keesey of Pine Grove, ran in the Jan. 28 issue.
Perhaps it wasn’t quite on the level of the Chicago Daily Tribune’s 1948 “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline. But Nyce, who was unaware of what happened until after the fact, knew this couldn’t be ignored.
After hearing the objections of readers and consulting with the Philadelphia office of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), he took to the editorial page of the Republican-Herald and on its website, republicanherald.com.
“Since 1884, our readers have turned to the Republican-Herald and its forebears for information, education and free expression,” Nyce wrote. “In a democracy, citizens rely on the press as an essential source of facts and as a forum for public debate, and the Republican-Herald has always taken these responsibilities very seriously. In our increasingly divided country, this paper remains committed to strengthening our community by exposing readers to diverse opinions and inspiring respectful discussion.
“Unfortunately, while trying to honor free speech and open dialogue, we sometimes get it wrong. That is what happened recently when we published a letter that promoted anti-Semitic ideology. Bigotry diminishes intellectual debate and coarsens public discourse — the exact opposite results of what our paper strives to achieve. Anti-Semitism, and hate in any form, have no place in our community, and therefore have no place in our paper. We apologize for printing this bigoted letter, and we reject wholeheartedly the biased assertions of the author.”
The editorial went on to characterize specific points in the letter as “baseless and deeply offensive,” contradicted the author’s conspiracy theories and urged readers to learn more about anti-Semitism.
“It kind of slipped through our cracks and it was embarrassing and disappointing to me,” said Nyce, who’s been the publisher in Pottsville for 13 years. “We had a number of letters afterwards about how awful and anti-Semitic this was.
“This is the first time I’ve ever run an apology about what we stand for and what we believe in from something published to the letters to the editor of the newspaper,” he added. “And we’ve absolutely put in measures so that something like this never happens again.”
Pottsville’s Jewish community has shrunk to a mere handful of about 50 people, according to former resident Harry Wall.
Nyce has banned letter-writer Keesey from his pages.
“They made a mistake and unlike some other entities, they were willing to admit their mistake and do something about it,” said Nancy Baron-Baer, the ADL’s Eastern PA/Southern NJ/Delaware office regional director. “And for that we congratulate them.”
“When I spoke to the publisher I explained to him that when it comes to bigotry this can’t be a point-counterpoint,” added ADL Assistant Regional Director Jeremy Bannett, who dealt directly with Nyce. “Hate is not a legitimate point of view.
“We thank the paper for reaching out to us and asking for our input in addressing some of the malicious anti-Semitic stereotypes,” continued Bannett. “This sort of response is a model for papers across the country in the face of accusations of bigotry.”
The Poynter Institute, which trains journalists from around the world, would like more outlets to follow Nyce’s example.
“It sounds to me like their process broke down and the individual who read it either wasn’t qualified to recognize the offensive nature of the letter or maybe didn’t actually read it,” said the organization’s vice president, Kelly McBride, an expert on media ethics. “This editor is trying to foster a healthy relationship with his audience and trying to model growth to participate in civil discourse. I applaud them for that.”
So does Wall, who worked for the ADL at a time when country clubs and other social organizations in that community wouldn’t accept Jews.
“At a time hate discourse has been escalating, I think the Pottsville Republican[-Herald] acted in a model way,” said Wall, who now lives in New York. “They recognized they made a mistake and not only turned it around but I think made a valuable contribution to the discourse in the community.
“Out of that anti-Semitic letter came, in a way, a result you want — a teaching moment. I’ve seen these kinds of letters throughout the course of my life but you rarely see the media say, ‘This is unacceptable. We should not have allowed this to happen.’”
Delores Delin, a Jewish resident of Pottsville, said that non-Jewish members of the community have voiced their disgust with the letter, too.
“The climate between Jews and non-Jews here is very good,” said Delin, who’s lived in that area since 1955. “People were offended by what took place. I truly feel what happened here in the past has created a response of support from our non-Jewish friends.”
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