Blank Slate Media apologizes for letter, changes policy

Blank Slate Media apologizes for letter, changes policy
Blank Slate Media editor and publisher Steven Blank apologized for publishing a letter in December that many viewed as anti-Semitic. (Photo by Noah Manskar)

Blank Slate Media apologized last week for publishing a letter to the editor that was widely viewed as anti-Semitic, prompting praise from two of the company’s most vocal critics.

The company “made a serious error” in publishing a Dec. 16 letter that called Jewish investment banker and political donor George Soros a “Rothschild banker,” a reference to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that dredged up memories of the Holocaust for many readers, editor and publisher Steven Blank wrote in a Feb. 3 editorial.

“[W]e now recognize we made a serious error in not taking proper account of the potential harm certain ideas can cause, as well as the depth of the community’s feelings,” Blank wrote. “We express our profound sadness for the discomfort this may have caused.”

Blank Slate Media’s six weekly newspapers and website, The Island Now, will no longer publish letters containing such coded derogatory language about marginalized groups, Blank said in an interview.

Inflammatory submissions to Blank Slate Media are rare, and the editorial policy change will likely not affect the vast majority of the letters, published under the heading “Readers Write,” Blank said.

The apology followed decisions by two local synagogues, Temple Sinai of Roslyn and the Old Westbury Hebrew Congregation, and one other local business to cease advertising with Blank Slate Media.

Rabbi Michael Stanger of the Old Westbury synagogue said he also encouraged his congregants to cancel their subscriptions to Blank Slate newspapers.

The financial impact of those sanctions — and the threat of more — played a role in Blank’s decision to apologize, but more important was the convictions they symbolized, he said.

“That is an action that carries a lot of weight, and the willingness to use that, I think, spoke to me about the intensity of how the temples and congregants felt,” Blank said.

The December letter by John O’Kelly, a former East Williston school board trustee, celebrated Republican President Donald Trump’s election victory despite the efforts of “anti-Christian, anti-U.S. globalists, led by” Soros.

He called Soros a “Rothschild banker,” a reference to the prominent European Jewish banking family that conspiracy theorists falsely say controls world governments.

In a Dec. 30 editorial, Blank said he agreed the letter contained thinly veiled anti-Semitism, but argued readers were “better served by confronting ignorant or hateful ideas than pretending they don’t exist.”

But Stanger and Rabbi Michael A. White of Temple Sinai said in interviews that they felt publishing the letter gave legitimacy to anti-Semitic lies and created a platform for hate speech.

Stanger and White both said they were pleased that Blank apologized and changed his position.

They were in continuous contact with Blank after meeting with him Jan. 5, and they gave him feedback on the most recent editorial before it was published last week, Stanger said.

They will watch Blank Slate Media’s opinion pages to ensure Blank fulfills that commitment and will decide whether to resume advertising after conferring with their congregants and respective boards of trustees in the coming weeks, they said.

“I know it couldn’t have been easy to publicly reverse course the way he did, but I think it sends a very important message to the entire media about how to create appropriate boundaries in order to enable discourse on contentious issues to be transparent and productive and grounded in truth,” White said in an interview.

The Anti-Defamation League of New York, which had also criticized Blank, praised his apology and responsiveness to community concerns.

“It was encouraging to see that the editorial by the paper seems to reflect an understanding of why the letter was problematic, and there seems to be indicators that going forward there will be a course correction, said Etzion Neuer, the deputy director of the ADL’s New York office.

Debate over the publication of O’Kelly’s letter has continued on the newspapers’ opinion pages over the past month. Blank said he has received more than 20 submissions responding to O’Kelly’s letter or to the decision to publish it.

But reaction to the apology has been mixed, he said. Some online reader comments and letters to the editor this week criticized it as a concession to political correctness; one said Blank “folded like a cheap beach chair.”

The discussion of how to balance free speech and sensitivity to harmful language “is not going anywhere, and if anything it has intensified since the election,” Blank said.

In an interview, O’Kelly said he plans to never again submit a letter to Blank Slate Media after Blank’s move toward what he called “censorship.”

His criticisms of powerful Jewish figures should not have been taken as insults to Jewish people collectively, he said, calling the claims of anti-Semitism “just another way of saying ‘shut up.’”

“I’m not afraid of controversy but I don’t like being censored,” O’Kelly said.

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