09.21.12 9:00 PM ET
An Error To Hate
Late last month, we reported on an apparent hate crime: a journalism student at Michigan State claimed he was beaten up at a party and his parents attributed the attack to anti-Semitism. In their version of events, 19-year-old Zachary Tennen was asked by his assailants if he was Jewish. They then gave a Nazi salute and beat him up. But there's a cautionary tale here for the rest of us students of journalism.
Turns out that neither the authorities nor the Anti-Defamation League's Michigan office believe the Tennens' version of events. According to the Lansing State Journal:
“There is no indication at all that this was a hate crime. None. Zero,” Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III said Monday. “I think it’s a shame when one person makes an allegation and everyone takes it as the truth and gets up in arms about it.”
The ADL's Michigan office interviewed 50 people about the attack and concluded that "the evidence does not support his claim that the assault involved anti-Semitic hate speech or gestures, nor does it indicate that the incident was motivated by his religion."
We reported the Tennens' original accounts as facts without attributing them properly. We would like to think people do not make up such stories, but they do. We should have exercised more caution and been explicit that the Tennens' stories had not yet been independently corroborated by authorities or other accounts from witnesses. We regret the error.
This story is particularly a shame because anti-Semitism is a real and horrific phenomenon. Falsely applying the accusation gives comfort only to those real anti-Semites, who benefit as the charge carries less as less weight.