What’s The Story?

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Today TPM, along with a slew of other news outlets, picked up a story out of Lancaster County, PA, which detailed a series of false but weaponized ‘War on Christmas’ stories from Fox and the Breitbart hate network, that had allegedly led a Jewish family to leave the area fearing a replay of the recent “Pizzagate” episode. What appears undisputed is that the original conservative media reports falsely claimed that a Jewish family’s complaints about the production of ‘A Christmas Carol’ had led to the play’s cancelation. The question is whether the family reacted to being demonized in these publications by temporarily leaving the area.

This evening the ADL put out a press release claiming that it had investigated the story, spoken to the family and determined that the story was “untrue and damaging.”

Here’s the ADL press release in full …

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), like many, read many numerous local and national news stories reporting that a Jewish family allegedly “fled” Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The reports claimed that the family feared retribution after being wrongfully blamed for the cancellation of the school production of A Christmas Carol. ADL investigated, and found that in actuality, the family left on vacation for winter break.

“News reports alleging that a Jewish family has ‘fled’ Lancaster County are untrue and damaging,” said Nancy Baron-Baer, ADL Regional Director. “We spoke with the family, who explained that they went on a previously-planned vacation for the holidays. Stories like this can sow fear in the Jewish community and beyond, and it is important to stop the spread of misinformation.

“There is no truth to the rumor that the school cancelled A Christmas Carol at the request of parents. The Hempfield School District released a FAQ clearly stating that the play was cancelled due to the inordinate amount of class time taken up by rehearsals. We commend the district for setting the record straight.”

Now, the ADL has no reason to downplay the story of the harassment of a Jewish family. So was the initial report in Lancaster Online false? Here’s the relevant part of that original story.

The fifth-grader’s parents, who spoke to LNP on the condition that they not be named, say they didn’t complain about the play or request that it be canceled, but just asked in September if their child could be excused from the play, and were told yes.

Since the Fox and Breitbart stories, a spokeswoman for the school district said, the school has received at least 200 emails and phone calls either supporting or objecting to the decision or asking for additional information.

The Jewish student’s parents say some of the reactions to the stories frightened them.

After seeing reader comments like “It would be nice if we had the addresses of those concerned citizens and, I bet, this info is known to people living in the area” on the Breitbart story, the parents pulled their child out of school and headed out of the area for a bit.

“There’s no way we’re going to take a chance after the pizza incident,” they said, referencing the man who fired an assault rifle in a Washington D.C area pizzeria after reading a fake-news story that said Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of there.

For now, they’re waiting to see what happens, but hope to be able to keep their child in the school.

“We’ve seen some really beautiful things from the people in this community,” the mother told LNP.

The tone of the two accounts seems dramatically different. But if you look closely at what they say, they don’t necessarily contradict each other. The ADL account only notes that the family left on a previously planned vacation. It doesn’t discuss one way or another whether the purported harassment took place. While the time away being pre-planned is clearly relevant information, you can feel menaced and take advantage of an already planned vacation to get away for a while. Indeed, in the fourth to last paragraph above, there’s more emphasis on taking the child out of the school, with leaving the area a secondary matter. The critical thing is whether the quotes in the local paper’s report are accurate or themselves fake. If they’re real, clearly the family felt menaced, even if leaving the area was planned in advance.

On that front we have some clarifying context from another late report in The Washington Post. The Post spoke to a local rabbi who confirms that the family and the fifth grader were subjected to harassment after the false news reports …

Rabbi Jack Paskoff, of Lancaster’s Shaarai Shomayim reform synagogue, said the family does not belong to his shul, but he’s been closely involved in the situation and in regular touch with the family.

Paskoff said the child was being taunted on the school bus by kids saying it was “your fault the play was canceled.”

“It was getting prevalent enough that the family got concerned,” he said.

What can we piece together from each of these reports?

Assuming each of the three reports is accurate in its specific claims (and I see no reason to doubt that), we have the following. 1) National press reports falsely blames Jewish family for causing the cancelation of Christmas play. 2) Family and fifth grader are subject to harassment over the false reports. 3) Family becomes concerned enough by the harassment to consider permanently removing their child from the school. The question is whether they left the area simply on a pre-planned holiday or whether leaving also got bound up with the situation in the community.

The initial local report’s use of the verb “fled” certainly doesn’t sound like leaving on a pre-planned holiday vacation. I presume the ADL is accurately conveying the family’s saying that the time away was planned in advance. There’s definitely a tension between those two accounts. But they don’t necessarily contradict each other. The fact of the harassment seems well-attested in the local news report and The Washington Post while simply being ignored in the press release from the ADL.

It seems odd that the ADL would make it seem like nothing had happened at all and hang everything on whether the trip had been planned in advance. Why would they do that? I don’t have any good answer to that. But it certainly seems to leave a misleading impression.

There’s more reporting here that needs to be done. But I’m already seeing the main stories on this today derided as “fake news.” But the main outlines of this story seem pretty clear.

Late Update: We have a few more details on this story since last night. Lancaster Online (LNP) has now updated their original story, based on the press release from the ADL. Lancaster Online says they stand by their original story. But in response to the ADL press release they’ve changed the story to focus on the family’s fears and decision to pull their child out of the school. It seems the paper tried to follow up with the family to resolve the conflicting information over their reason for being away but were unable to make contact with them. Here’s the key passage in the revised piece.

An earlier version of this story stated the family had fled the county over fears for their child’s safety. But the Anti-Defamation League, in a statement posted Thursday, said it had spoken to the family and the family said it was traveling on vacation.

“News reports alleging that a Jewish family has ‘fled’ Lancaster County are untrue and damaging,” said Nancy Baron-Baer, a regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, which works to fight anti-Semitism. “We spoke with the family, who explained that they went on a previously-planned vacation for the holidays. Stories like this can sow fear in the Jewish community and beyond, and it is important to stop the spread of misinformation.”

No further comment was available from the family Thursday or Friday.

In a previous interview, the mother of the Centerville student said the family hoped to return their child to the school but that they were waiting to see how the matter played out.

Later Update: Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern followed up with the ADL about why their statement appeared to refute the entire story while leaving the issue of harassment unaddressed. Their answer wasn’t terribly good.

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