Memo To: Dan Okrent, New York Times “ombudsman”
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: A New Year’s Resolution?
As the first “ombudsman” or “public editor” in the history of the Times, you already have your hands full with complaints of all kinds from the readers. You can’t possibly deal with more than a small fraction of them in your Sunday column, but I do hope you can much good behind the scenes with the editors and reporters at the world’s most important newspaper. When the Times makes an error, especially when it makes the same error repeatedly, it becomes magnified throughout the news media and eventually is treated as if it were a fact. One such error that I have been trying unsuccessfully to correct is the Times insistence on reporting that Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan once said “Judaism is a gutter religion” when he never said any such thing. It may seem a minor matter to the paper’s editors, but it contributes in a major way to the perception throughout America that Muslims are anti-Semitic. As I mentioned to you in an earlier note, when I called the managing editor of the Associated Press last year to point out there is no evidence Minister Farrakhan ever uttered the words “Judaism” and “gutter religion” or “dirty religion” in the same speech, let alone the same breath, I was told that AP follows the New York Times, and if the Times said he did, case is closed.
I’d hoped that my several letters to the Times on this matter – including one to publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. – would lead to at least a quiet retreat from this practice, especially after an editor, Joyce Purnick, informed me that she could not pin down the source of the quote – which she had used in her Metro column. What has me steamed up today, Dan, is the front-page report in Tuesday’s Times with the headline: “Dispute in Michael Jackson Camp Over Role of the Nation of Islam.” The young lady who wrote the story out of the Los Angeles bureau made enough factual errors to warrant criticism without my bringing up my pet peeve, but there it was in the last paragraph: “Mr. Farrakhan has called Judaism a ‘gutter religion’.” It is hard for me to blame Sharon Waxman, who wrote the piece, as she is clearly in the early stages of learning how to be an efficient reporter. The article must have gone through several more experienced hands before it made it into type. That’s where I would hope you would make a New Year’s resolution on my behalf to have the Times cease and desist. It has been two years now since I have publicly offered a $1,000 reward to anyone who can source the quote, with the only claimants those who point to the Times and lesser papers that rely on the Times.
As to the rest of the Waxman report on Michael Jackson and the Nation of Islam, I’m in no position to know whether Jackson is innocent or guilty of the charges of child molestation filed against him by the Santa Barbara District Attorney. I paid almost no attention to the story until yesterday when I read the assertions that “officials from the Nation of Islam… have moved in with Michael Jackson and are asserting control over the singer’s business affairs, friends, employees and business associates of Mr. Jackson said.” I did go into CBS website and read the transcript of the “60 Minutes” interview Jackson had last Sunday with Ed Bradley, to get his point of view, which is not beyond the realm of reasonableness. I did also call out to Leonard Muhammad, the Nation of Islam chief of staff, Min. Farrakhan’s son-in-law, and a good friend of mine since we first met in 1996. Leonard laughed and said he knew when he saw the Times story that I would call him about it, adding that the story “is not credible because it does not have enough facts.”
It is a fact that Leonard has been for several days working out of the office of Jackson’s attorney, but if he is being compensated for his counseling it is as a private individual, not as an official of the NOI. Leonard was a Chicago businessman before he met and married Farrakhan’s daughter Donna, and while he has managed the Nation’s financial affairs, he has also continued to have other business involvements that are independent of the Nation. He’s also on the best of terms with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and works with the Chicago police department in its efforts to bridge the racial gap in the city. I believe he's also a consultant to a state of Illinois’ group that works with children and families at risk, which would seem to fit in with Michael Jackson’s difficulties with the law.
As to the Times report that the Nation of Islam is now providing security for Jackson, Leonard told me that there are people who work for Jackson directly on his security team who are members of the Nation, but they were hired directly by Jackson, in the same way he says Shaquille O’Neill of the LA Lakers and heavyweight champ Lennox Lewis have members of the Nation on their security teams. In other words, there are zero financial relations between Michael Jackson and the Nation. Why would Jackson, who is a Jehovah Witness with no intentions of becoming a Muslim, want Leonard Muhammad to counsel him on matters relating to business and the news media. It should be enough to say that it was Leonard who organized the Million Man March in October 1995, a spectacular success. Rep. Charlie Rangel told me a few years ago that “Leonard has the capacity to do practically anything he sets out to do.”
So what is this business with Michael Jackson all about? After a scan of the internet, it does look like the Santa Barbara District Attorney has the keenest interest in having Jackson go before a jury that is pre-disposed to think ill of him. I immediately think if how the U.S. Attorney in New York, Rudy Giuliani, more than a decade ago made a name for himself by putting billionaire Michael Milken in the slammer, with the help of Wall Street Journal editors and reporters. Guiliani fed hearsay accusations about Milken to the WSJ that were fed to him by a real crook, Ivan Boesky. Once he was thoroughly demonized in the "trial by press," he didn't stand a chance. The Santa Barbara DA is likely to remain a small-town lawyer for life but for this opportunity to put away another high-profile rich guy, a world-renowned entertainer, by any means possible.
Where are the accusations coming from that the Nation of Islam is now in “control” of Jackson’s business, media and legal strategies? As Ms. Waxman did not seem to interview Jackson’s business manager or accountant before she wrote her front-pager, it appears she relied exclusively on people who had been making a nice living by being contractors to Jackson and are not anymore. They must be furious at Leonard and Jackson's accountant for shutting off their feed in the Jackson trough. I hear of deal where one was paid $150,000 to design a website for Jackson, a project that should have cost no more than $15,000. Such is the life you lead when you are rich and famous.
Now I don't really expect you to do anything about this story, Mr. Ombudsman. The Jackson story will unfold in a way that I'm sure will bring about a just result, especially as the entertainer surely is getting better counsel from his defense team than Michael Milken got. All I'd like from you is a New Year's resolution to have the most important newspaper in the world stop writing that Louis Farrakhan ever said anything at all derogatory about Judaism. If you'd like his phone number, I'll give it to you just to discuss this issue. He will tell you flat out that Islam would not even exist if it were not for Judaism. He thinks of Judaism as the father of Islam and Christianity as its mother.
Happy New Year, Dan, in a tough assignment.