The New York Post is famous for its tasteless headlines, like “Headless Body in Topless Bar,” “Eaten Alive: Giant Tigers Kill Pretty Zookeeper,” and a hundred puns on Anthony Weiner’s name.
But the Post reached a new low over the weekend with a front page with the quote “Who Didn’t Want Him Dead?” next to a picture of Menachem Stark and the words: “Slumlord Found Burned in Dumpster.”
The Satmar community was outraged that the paper would turn a family and community tragedy into a spectacle and vilify a man who could not defend himself. To be sure, Stark had a checkered past, but the headline pushed the ethical envelope, even for a tabloid. It was based on “one law enforcement source” who said, “Any number of people wanted to kill this guy.” The reader should always be wary of anonymous quotes and of editors who change quotes — the quote in the article (“Any number of people wanted to kill this guy”) is quite different from the quote in the headline (“Who didn’t want him dead?”).
Various critics jumped on the Post, from Satmar community leaders to newly elected officials like Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and Public Advocate Letitia James. “Who did not want him dead?” Adams said in response to the Post headline. “Who didn’t? We didn’t. His children did not want him dead. The residents of this city did not want him dead.” Adams and James, both African Americans, held a rally with Satmar Hasidim at Brooklyn Borough Hall to demand that the Post apologize.
While stopping short of an apology, the paper issued a statement that recognized the implications of what it wrote. “The Post does not say Mr. Stark deserved to die,” a spokesman told the website Politicker. “But our reporting showed that he had many enemies, which may have led to the commission of this terrible crime. Our thoughts and prayers are with the family at this time of loss.”
Not surprisingly, the Post also got beaten up by its long-time rival, the Daily News, which demonstrated such contempt for the paper it didn’t even mention its name but called it “a down-market New York tabloid newspaper.” The News labeled the Post coverage “insensitive” and echoed condemnations of the paper for conveying “negative rumors.”
The very next day the News trafficked in some negative rumors of its own when it reported that Stark’s business partner, Israel Perlmutter, “is being eyed as a possible suspect in the grisly killing.” Who said so? “A police source.” The News followed up this questionable source with: “Another police official said no one had been ruled out.” Hardly an indictment of Perlmutter.
As might be expected, The New York Times was far more restrained when it came to coverage of this crime. “Charred Body of Kidnapped Man Is Found on Long Island,” the Times reported on Sunday, without using the word chasid in the headline. The next day’s article, “A Developer Is Mourned and Vilified in Brooklyn,” presented a more complex view of the man, much of it based on public records rather than anonymous sources.
Other notable coverage included WPIX 11 TV, whose crime expert, Wally Zeins, speculated on camera that the Stark murder could be the result of a Hasidic rivalry between the Satmars and the Lubavitchers. The police, he said, were “going to look into” any “animosity” between the groups. That falls into the “no one has been ruled out” category. The Satmars and the Lubavitchers, who had battles on the streets of Brooklyn decades ago (including a kidnapping in 1983), are now on much better terms. To the station’s credit, Zeins’ speculation, which came on its early news show, was edited out in a later broadcast.
The Jewish papers and websites played the story prominently. The haredi papers, like Hamodia, which bills itself as “the Daily Newspaper of Torah Jewry,” ran articles emphasizing Stark’s generosity and goodness. “Grief and Outrage Over Murder of Reb Menachem Stark,” was the headline on the story about Stark’s funeral, which brought out 1,000 mourners on Saturday night. “Countless prayers were uttered on Friday on behalf of the greatly beloved member of the Williamsburg community,” the article said. The article noted that many of the participants wept openly.
A separate article in Hamodia said that the community expressed “disgust and fury” over the Post headline.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Forward ran an article, by its columnist Jay Michaelson, that labeled Stark a “crook” and “a slumlord who gave slumlords a bad name.” Michaelson lambasted a haredi community that tolerates and celebrates such a person in their midst and cries anti-Semitism when such a person is attacked. “The mourning of him as some kind of hero makes matters even worse,” he wrote.
Michaelson defended the Post against charges of hateful coverage and said that its over-the-top headline was “business as usual” for the tabloid.
The Forward also ran an article by a brother-in-law of Stark, Alexander Buxbaum, with the headline: “Menachem Stark Was Good Man Who Didn’t Deserve To Die — Or Be Smeared.”
Tablet, the online magazine, did a roundup of the mainstream coverage of the Stark murder but then added a special touch of its own. It linked the article to a performance that Stark’s brother, Cantor Yaakov Yosef Stark, gave of the Kel Molei Rachamim, the memorial prayer for the dead. The performance, which can be found on YouTube, had been filmed months ago but seemed appropriate to reprise at this time.
Ari Goldman, a former New York Times reporter, teaches journalism at Columbia University. He is a past board member of The Jewish Week.