Tim Tebow is Jewish

“Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?”

That was the headline last week on a blog posted by New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane.

Brisbane is The Times’ ombudsman; his job is to hold the paper accountable to journalistic standards and to act as its readers’ representative. The blog caused a lot of jaws to drop and tongues to wag. The reactions were either “duh” or “yikes.” Those in the first group were appalled that an arbiter of professional values was calling the very pursuit of accuracy into question; the others, pouncing on how the question was framed — “vigilante”? really? — read the headline as a sign that the propagandists charging “liberal bias” had succeeded in intimidating even The Times.

The headline, in other words, begged the question. Its implicit answer is that Times reporters should faithfully record what sources claim, and depict conflicting claims within the framework of he-said/she-said. An adroit reporter might juxtapose goofy claims with credible contrary evidence; an enterprising editor might assign a sidebar, within whose walls it’s acceptable to check facts. But by and large, especially in the realm of politics and public affairs, this conception of journalism casts us as arbitrators in a dispute between warring press releases.

What kind of journalism would empower us as citizens instead of blowing us off with, “We’ll have to leave it there”? It would have to step up to two responsibilities, each of which carries risks, but ducking either one is as good as giving up on what a free press can do for democracy.
Take my headline, above. When I say that Tim Tebow is Jewish, I’m doing two things. One is making a factual claim. The other is pursuing an agenda. Journalism’s job, I think, is to investigate both.

You can check whether Tim Tebow is Jewish (he’s not), just as you can check whether Barack Obama was born in America (yup); whether the Earth is 6,000 years old (nope); or whether the United States has the best health care system in the world (we’re No. 37). There’s a big chunk of rhetorical real estate to which the words “true” and “false” can be appropriately applied. People who say that climate change is a hoax are wrong. So are people who say that taxes have gone through the roof in California.

Some assertions, like Mitt Romney’s claim that Bain Capital netted 100,000 new jobs, can be checked in principle, but not in reality, because Bain refuses to release the data needed to confirm or disprove it. That 100,000 claim is the equivalent of an ad for a male enhancement pill; a consumer warning is the least the media could provide. A reporter or host who fails to call a falsehood false — on the spot, within the story, in real time — is committing journalistic malpractice.

But fact-checking is just one part of the journalist’s job. The other is to help citizens understand the intention of the speaker, to expose the purpose of an assertion. When I say Tim Tebow is Jewish, my goal is to grab your attention. I know it’s not true. I’m lying.

The mens rea of a speaker — the intent to deceive — is fair game for journalism. It’s not enough to say that Sarah Palin and Chuck Grassley are factually wrong about “death panels”; an analysis of a disinformation campaign belongs in the story (as The Times, to its credit, provided). The lies Dick Cheney sold The Times about Saddam’s uranium centrifuges cried out for political deconstruction. Good reporting on the charges about Barack Obama by Donald Trump, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich also requires reporting on the speakers’ marketing campaigns for TV ratings, lecture fees and book sales. Motives matter.

Here’s how that works, when it works: After Fox & Friends followed the money trail from “ground zero mosque” builder Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf to Saudi prince and purported terrorist funder Al Waleed bin Talal, not only did Jon Stewart point out that Al Waleed is News Corp.’s largest shareholder; he also used that inconvenient truth to raise the key question about Fox News’ failure to mention the connection: Are they stupid, or evil? That’s not overstepping the bounds between journalism and partisanship; it’s reclaiming the ground that journalistic cowardice has ceded to partisanship. (And yes, I know that Stewart calls himself a “fake journalist,” not a real one. But if that’s fake, the Pulitzers need a new category.)

Sometimes motive is the most important part of a story. The significance of Mitt Romney’s reinvention of his record isn’t that he’s lying about the past; it’s that he will say and do anything to be president. He wants Tea Partyers to believe that he’s one of them, but he wants the rest of us think that he’s actually winking at us while pandering to them, and at the same time he wants the press to admire his feint-to-the-right/pivot-to-the-center strategy as a triumph in narrative-making. It’s not journalistically unprofessional to call Romney’s strategy cynical; it’s professionally derelict not to.

Stephen Colbert is also winking at us, but his meaning isn’t that we’re all in on the joke that money-fueled politics has become; it’s that our civic hair is on fire. When The Times’ public editor wonders whether verification is vigilantism, it’s a sign not only that the right’s 30-plus years of working the refs has succeeded, but also that the postmodern allergy to a category called “truth” is on the verge of being fatal to democracy. When Stewart and Colbert make motive the topic and analysis entertaining, I feel a tectonic shift — a promising one — in the ground of political storytelling.

Tim Tebow ain’t Jewish, but journalism ain’t stenography.

QB’s signature pose has Jews and gentiles ‘Tebowing’

The biggest story in the NFL this season is Tim Tebow, a devout Christian quarterback who doesn’t throw very well but has helped the Denver Broncos pull off a string of last-second victories.

But the rugged Tebow’s signature move comes when play has stopped—taking a knee in prayer after scoring a touchdown. The pose has become a popular Internet meme, with fans “Tebowing” all over the world. That includes Jewish fans.

“In Denver, people see football as religion; Tebow unites people of all faiths,” said Jared Kleinstein, creator of the website Tebowing.com, in an interview with JTA.

Kleinstein, a Jewish Coloradan, created the site after watching Tebow’s TD celebration and being inspired to re-create the now iconic pose. Although some may think of it as nothing more than a sports-oriented version of planking, an analogous practice in which one lies face down in an odd place, Kleinstein believes that Tebowing is a physical manifestation of how football fans are inspired by the quarterback.

Tebowing, Kleinstein said, “is the prime example of someone not having any shame and inspiring people to be OK with whatever religion they follow.”

Tebowing has become a popular way for young fans to express pride in their beloved hero. Kleinstein says he receives an average of 10,000 pictures per day of people Tebowing and has to sift through piles to find the exceptional ones. While many of the pictures are silly, such as Tebowing in the office or in front of the U.S. Capitol, many have inspired others.

“Tebowing.com is 100 percent pride,” Kleinstein says proudly. “If you’re Jewish and you see this, I think you can be inspired to be as open about your religion as he is.”

During a recent trip to Israel, the 10th-grade class at Denver’s Jewish Day School—Kleinstein’s alma mater, incidentally—was photographed Tebowing in front of the Western Wall.

“They knew that their Tebowing would identify them as being from Denver,” said Sara Caine Kornfeld, a teacher at the school. Tebowing, she said, is “clearly a source of pride.”

Indeed, the Colorado Jewish community has warmed to Tebow despite their difference in religious beliefs.

Rabbi Marc Gitler of the East Denver Orthodox Synagogue described the 24-year-old quarterback as a source of pride for anyone who could be mocked for their devotion.

“Even from people who are very [religious Jews], they are happy to just have a guy who is religious and a good role model,” he said.

“I think it’s a great story, a person who was doubted and showed that he can win games in this miraculous fashion. It’s great for this country and great for this religious, moral human being.”

As a Heisman Trophy winner and first round draft choice, the Broncos and their fans had high hopes for Tim Tebow when he entered the National Football League last season. But his sloppy form and poor statistics cast doubt on the University of Florida graduate. Tebow saw little action, and many assumed his quarterbacking career would be short-lived.

But after the Broncos started the 2011 season with a 1-4 record, new coach John Fox benched Kyle Orton halfway through a game against the San Diego Chargers. Tebow, for better or for worse, now was the starting quarterback.

Not surprisingly, Tebow has come up short statistically. His completion rate of 48.5 percent this season is well below par for an NFL starter, and he has only 1,290 passing yards. In comparison, the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers, arguably the best quarterback in the league, has a nearly 70 percent completion rate with 4,125 yards.

Yet Tebow in his second season has seen an astronomical rise to fame based on his late-game heroics. Led by their lefthander, as well as a solid defense, the Broncos have won seven of their last eight games with Tebow as a starter—some of the victories can only be described as miraculous—to vault into first place in the American Football Conference’s Western Division.

Add in Tebow’s wholesome persona and some fans and commentators are left wondering what role faith has had in his unlikely success.

“He isn’t the football player who says ‘I love Jesus’ and then is found with a stripper the next day,” Gitler said. “He presumably isn’t just paying lip service to his beliefs but actually does what he says he does, and that is front and center.”

Tebow’s public displays of faith are not ecumenical—he is unabashed in stressing his faith in Jesus. But that hasn’t turned off Jewish fans, said Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, executive editor of the Intermountain Jewish News.

“For those who are Christian, [Tebow’s fame] has been positive,” Goldberg said. “For those who are Jewish, it hasn’t been negative.”

Though admittedly ambivalent about football, Goldberg says he recognizes that Tebow has infused a different spirit into the city.

“This is a long religion—and by that I mean football-starved city,” Goldberg said. “Whoever revived it has made things better for all.”