Is Hillary Clinton too sexy?
Apparently that is what some haredi newspapers in Brooklyn thought recently when they removed an image of the Secretary of State from the iconic photo from the White House Situation Room taken on the night of the military operation to kill Osama bin Laden.
The obliteration of Hillary — once by Photoshop and once by cropping — stirred a debate in media and religious circles about the practice of fervently Orthodox newspapers not to run pictures of women in their publications.
It was also fodder for late night TV comics, like Stephen Colbert, who held up a copy of one of the newspapers, Di Tzitung, on his show and declared: “I’m with the chasids on this one. There is nothing more sexually suggestive than a woman killing a terrorist.”
In light of the controversy, Di Tzitung explained in a statement that its “editorial policies are guided by a rabbinical board,” which, “because of laws of modesty, does not allow for the publishing of photos of women.”
The story of the disappearing Clinton was broken by the blogger Shmarya Rosenberg of FailedMessiah.com. “There is no Jewish law mandating the removal of normally clothed women from pictures like this,” he said. It was, he added, outright sexism.
However, Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, said that the decision not to run women’s pictures was not a halachic one but a “religious-based convention.” The editors of these haredi papers, he added, “do not want to be in position to pick and choose” between women who are appropriate for publication and those who are not. “It would be insulting to the women they pick,” he said.
He noted that sometimes this policy might seem absurd, like when a newspaper runs an obituary of a famous rebbetzin and puts not her picture but the picture of her husband. (Readers might at first wonder who died.)
But it seems absurd, he said, only if you are outside the community. “For people in the community it is not a surprise,” he said.
Haredi newspapers have a special role in a community that tends to shun the two principal engines of news delivery — the Internet and television — because of the media’s emphasis on celebrities, consumerism and scandal. People in the haredi world still favor print. And on Shabbos that is all they will read.
So while American newspapers are in trouble, with papers downsizing, laying off employees and, in many instances, closing, the haredi press is thriving.
Di Tzeitung, a Yiddish weekly that caters to the Satmar community, is one of the smaller ones. The granddaddy of them is Hamodia, which is read by most of the other chasidic groups and has both a daily paper and a weekend edition. The weekend edition, with its many sections that can be enjoyed over Shabbos, is for the haredi community what The New York Times is for many others. The papers run a somewhat sanitized account of the news (no celebrities or sex scandals discussed) and also include women’s supplements and a children’s activity section.
A new kid on the block is Ami magazine, a weekend paper published in English and including three glossy magazines. The children’s magazine, called “aim!” is where the second erasure of Hillary Clinton occurred. While Clinton was Photoshopped out of Di Tzeitung, she was merely cropped out of “aim!”
The publishers of Di Tzeitung eventually apologized for the photo alteration, not because it took out a woman but because it violated the White House policy that had been posted with the photo on Flickr explicitly banning any digital manipulation. They cast the decision as a “photo editor’s mistake.”
The editor of Ami, Rabbi Yitzchok Frankfurter, did not issue an apology, just an explanation. Cropping, he said, is done all the time. “To crop a photo, i.e. to show part of it, is entirely acceptable — and done routinely by most papers and magazines.”
Rabbi Shafran, who is also a columnist and editor for Ami, noted that many of the magazines are run by women, including Hamodia, whose editor and president is Ruth Lichtenstein.
Rosenberg of FailedMessiah said that he saw no significance to the leadership role of women. Journalism, he said, is considered “women’s work” and doesn’t have nearly the same importance as Torah study. Besides, he added, most men do not have the skill to write since their secular education often stops by eighth grade.
Perhaps the best observation came from Ben Smith, a blogger for Politico.com, who said that Hillary Clinton should not take it personally. He pointed out that Di Tzeitung, like most of the haredi press, endorsed Clinton in her heated primary campaign for president against Barack Obama. Haredim like Hillary; they just don’t like her picture.
Ari Goldman is a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. His Mixed Media column will run regularly.