Did The Forward Abuse An Elderly, Frail, Impaired Rabbi And Is It Now Lying To Try To Cover That Up?
Originally published at 6:26 pm CDT 7-3-2013
Paul Berger writes on the Forward's website:
…Since I first reported [Yeshiva University Chancellor and Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Norman] Lamm’s admission [about failing to report child sexual abuse that took place two decades ago and more at Yeshiva University's affiliated high school to police] there has been a great deal of speculation surrounding the circumstances of our interview. I have been accused of knowingly taking advantage of a man with a deteriorating mental state while his daughter was terminally ill. There is even a version of our interview circulating in which Lamm’s wife turns me away from his apartment door, so that I have to lurk outside until she leaves before I can sneak back in and take advantage of Lamm.None of the above is true.Prior to my interview with Lamm, I was unaware of rumors that Lamm or his daughter, Sara Lamm Dratch, were ill. All I knew was that a handful of former students had told me painful stories of their sexual abuse at Y.U.’s Manhattan high school for boys and that, according to them, the person who knew the most about it was Lamm.
So I did what any reporter would do. I looked up Lamm’s address and, one morning, I showed up at his apartment door. I told Lamm who I was.
I told him why I was there. At first, he appeared unwilling to talk. He went back inside his apartment and had a brief conversation — with his wife, I believe — and then he invited me inside.…
For several reasons, Berger appears to be lying.
Lamm lives in a security building with a doorman, and you can't just got to someone's apartment and knock on the door.
You have to get up by invitation – or by trickery.
This afternoon, I spoke with a member of Lamm's family. He told me Lamm has been both physically and mentally weak for several years, and this impairment is clearly visible.
"He wasn't fully aware…Anyone who spends time with him would know that he [is both mentally and physically impaired].…It's obvious he's not a person who can handle that line of questioning," the family member said.
He told me Lamm hasn't spoken publicly in several years, and only went into his office at YU "when he could."
"He was a figurehead [the past few years]," the family member said.
Lamm has had several falls, even knocking out teeth, he said. He is visibly physically and mentally frail, and it is obvious.
"The Forward treated [Lamm] very cruelly," the family member said with evident sadness, stressing that Lamm deserved respect for all the good he done for YU and for Jews. "He was ambushed."
Berger writes, "I told Lamm who I was. I told him why I was there. At first, he appeared unwilling to talk. He went back inside his apartment and had a brief conversation — with his wife, I believe — and then he invited me inside.…"
In other words, a confused Lamm had to go and ask someone if he could admit a visitor.
At no time did Berger speak to this other person or attempt to find out if Lamm – an 85-year-old visibly doddering man – was competent.
I asked an expert on mass communications law and ethics, Jane Kirtley, about the propriety of interviewing a vulnerable adult with dementia without having the express permission of his family or legal guardian. According to her CV, "Kirtley has been the Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota since August 1999. She was named Director of the Silha Center in May 2000. Prior to that, she was Executive Director of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Arlington, Virginia, for 14 years. Before joining the Reporters Committee staff, Kirtley was an attorney for five years with the law firm of Nixon, Hargrave, Devans and Doyle in Rochester, New York and Washington D.C. She is a member of the New York, District of Columbia, and Virginia bars. Kirtley also worked as a reporter for the Evansville (Indiana) Press and The Oak Ridger and Nashville Banner (Tennessee)."
I asked Kirtly the following question:
If a journalist is told or knows that a person has dementia or is similarly impaired, is it ethical to interview that person without consent of his family? If an interview like that is done, does the journalist or publication need to inform readers that the interviewee is impaired?
Kirtly answered as follows:
…I believe that any impaired person cannot give informed consent to an interview. Therefore, from both an ethical and legal perspective, it is very problematic for a journalist to interview someone with dementia (assuming it has progressed to the point where the person is impaired) at all, and to do so without the permission of whomever is authorized to consent is even more problematic. Only the most extreme situation would justify it -- I suppose if the impaired person was being abused by his/her caregiver, for example. But an impaired person may not have accurate perceptions of reality. So if it is done, anyway, there is absolutely an obligation to inform readers of the impairment so that they may assess for themselves the accuracy of the statements.
This is consistent with the SPJ [Society of Professional Journalists] code of ethics.
I'd point to the Minimize Harm tenet (first bullet) and Be Accountable (first bullet), as well as Seek Truth and Report It (third bullet).
You didn't ask about potential legal issues, but there are many here, including invasion of privacy (publication of private facts and false light, in particular), libel, false light, and infliction of emotional distress.…
Even if Berger "didn't know" Lamm was impaired before he did the interview, he must have known during it and certainly knew after that – and so did the Forward.
The ethical thing for the Forward to have done would have been to go back and add a correction mentioning Lamm's impairment to all the stories it did that quote or cite that interview.
But the Forward did not do that.
Instead, the Forward has been quietly maintaining that Lamm is not impaired or was not impaired at the time of the interview – but this is clearly false.
A journalist asked me this morning how a major university could have had a chancellor who was impaired.
The answer, I think, has to with with how dementia slowly eats away at a person's competency, and the natural desire of people – be they friends, admirers, coworkers or spouses – to deny what they are seeing but the truth is too difficult, too awful, to confront.
And then add to that the common Orthodox and haredi practice of allowing rosh yeshivas and important rabbis to age in place – even when they can no longer perform all, most or any of their job duties. And like those yeshivas, YU most likely has in place people who do most of Lamm's work for him.
Lamm appears to be in the early middle stage of dementia (late in Stage 3 in this 7 stage explanation of mental and physical decline in Alzheimer's and related dementias).
He could have come have in to the office, met people – even sat in the study hall do some mild study and talk to a few students.
But the complexities, the critical work? Not at all.
I have personal experience with Paul Berger's lack of ethics. A couple years ago, he did a freelance piece for Tablet Magazine that cited my work.
He called me several months before that piece ran, asked me for help, and I gave it to him.
Months later, when the Tablet piece ran, I was shocked. Berger had made it appear that I had lied in my reporting. He had never asked me about these "lies" and his source was my source.
So I got my source on the phone. He told me Berger had badgered him, and he had repeatedly told Berger to stop. Then, months later, on hol hamoed Passover no less, my source is in an amusement park on a ride with his kids. His cellphone rings. It's Berger. My source again tells Berger to stop bothering him. Berger won't stop, and in response, my source says to him in what he described as a voice dripping with sarcasm, Lebovits is a tzaddik.
Berger took that "quote" and reported a story that strongly favored Baruch Lebovits and made me look like a liar.
But my source called Tablet. I contacted Tablet. And the story was corrected.
The Forward was given all of these details. They kept Berger on staff anyway.
After that, I heard similar stories from other alleged victims of Berger.
And when Berger's YU exposé was published, I heard from several people, including another journalist, that Lamm had dementia and had been exploited by Berger.
No one who told me about Lamm's impairment argued that he had given the Forward incorrect information – although that is certainly possible.
Instead, they argued that Berger and the Forward had essentially abused a vulnerable, impaired adult.
My personal experiences with Paul Berger and the Forward's editor, Jane Eisner, lead me to believe those critics of the Forward are absolutely correct.