Journalism: A sacred obligation
Journalism is a sacred task, or at least it should be. The Torah makes it so in the second half of tomorrow’s double parashah (Acharei Mot-Kedoshim), other biblical texts emphasize it, and the expounders of Jewish law expand on it. There is no getting around this fact, especially in a nation such as ours, which was established as a representative democracy that enshrines journalistic freedom in the Constitution and the laws that flow from it.
There are two kinds of democracies — direct democracy and representative democracy. In a direct democracy, all the people must meet and make all the decisions. This is considered “pure” democracy, but inevitably it is unworkable. There is no way “all the people” can get together and debate the issues, much less decide them.
The founders of this nation envisioned it as a representative, or republican with a small “r,” democracy, in which the people get to choose representatives who either exercise the people’s will on their behalf, or risk being thrown out at the next election. Our founders were clear on this. Alexander Hamilton, for example, in a letter he wrote in 1777, called for a “representative democracy, where the right of election is well secured and regulated, and the exercise of the legislative, executive and judiciary authorities is vested in select persons, chosen really and not nominally by the people….”
That vision became reality in 1787 and was well underway by the time John Quincy Adams became our sixth president. He had this to say about what his father and the other founders had accomplished: “If there have been those who doubted whether a confederated representative democracy [was] a government competent to the wise and orderly management of the common concerns of a mighty nation, those doubts have been dispelled.”
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Abraham Lincoln arguably put it best at Gettysburg in 1863 when he said ours was a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
Such a system of governance working, however, depends on the people having free and unfettered access to the information required for them to decide at the appropriate times who should lead that government and what direction that government should take. Giving them that information rests primarily with our journalists.
Alas, the journalism we have today does not even come close to meeting that sacred task.
Last week, for example, Fox News settled a lawsuit brought against it by Dominion Voting Systems. The company had maintained that the unabashedly conservative media outlet had falsely claimed that in 2020, its voting machines were programmed to reallocate votes cast for President Donald Trump to his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, thus helping Biden to steal the election. In addition to the $787.5 million that Fox agreed to pay Dominion, the news outlet was forced to acknowledge, sadly in quite half-hearted terms, that “certain claims about Dominion [were] false.”
Fox News’s media analyst Howard Kurtz was more pointed in reporting on the settlement. Appearing on the afternoon Fox program “Your World with Neil Cavuto” after the settlement was announced, Kurtz said that the election fraud claims about Dominion were “obviously false” and were nothing more than “conspiracy theories.” (Kurtz, by the way, complained on air in February that Fox forbade him from reporting on the Dominion lawsuit.)
The judge in the case, Eric Davis, was a lot stronger in late March, when he ruled that the case would go to trial. In his decision, Davis wrote that it was “CRYSTAL clear” — emphasis his — “that none of the Statements relating to Dominion about the 2020 election are true.” What was not clear, crystal or otherwise, however, was whether “actual malice” was intended in reporting those falsehoods. That, Davis ruled, was the only issue left for the jury to decide. The settlement obviated the need for a trial, so we will never know what the jury would have decided.
Just days after the settlement was reached, an arbitration panel ordered Mike Lindell to pay $5 million to a software engineer who accepted the MyPillow chief executive’s “Prove Mike Wrong Challenge” and then proved Mike wrong in his claims that China somehow was at least partially responsible for Biden’s 2020 win. (Lindell is also being sued by Dominion Voting Systems for claiming what Fox claimed, which it now admits was false.) Lindell has been one of Fox News’s most loyal advertisers, and such Fox hosts as Tucker Carlson gave him lots of airtime to spread his claims.
Biased and distorted reporting is not exclusive to Fox News and conspiracy theorists, however. On the left as well as on the right, twisting the truth has become an art form in what passes for legitimate news. Especially because lies and distortions are features of social media generally, “we the people” are being denied the very outlets we must depend on to make educated decisions in choosing their government and how it is run.
To be sure, there is no body of Jewish law that deals specifically with any form of the media. These laws are extracted from another body of law, one that occupies more than five percent of the Torah’s 613 mitzvot. There are two categories of such sins: lashon hara, or bad speech, and motzi shem ra, slanderous speech. These categories involve things we say or write, or things we listen to or read.
One commandment found in tomorrow’s Torah reading, Leviticus 19:14, is most relevant: It says, “You shall not place a stumbling block before the blind.”
This is a commandment for all of us, of course, not just journalists. It applies especially to journalists, however, because of the great influence they exert on shaping public opinion.
There are countless examples of how this commandment is understood. Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, better known as Rashi, put it this way in his commentary to that verse. “Do not give someone who is ‘blind’ in some matter advice that is not appropriate for him.” Maimonides, the Rambam, uses almost those same words in his Mishnah Torah The Laws of the Preservation of Life 12:14. The extra talmudic commentary on Leviticus, known as the Sifra, makes this point more expansively. (See Sifra Kedoshim 2:14.)
In one of the psalms we recite on Shabbatot and festivals, this commandment is restated: “Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking dishonestly. Reject evil and do good, seek peace, and pursue it.” (See Psalm 34:14-15.)
It is this commandment that makes journalism a sacred profession. When a person (or a news organization) has the power to influence someone in need of information or advice, such a person or entity has a responsibility to use this power of persuasion in a positive and constructive manner.
The commandment, however, goes beyond reporting false information. It also prohibits praising or in any way giving a platform to those who act wickedly, and especially when they seek to spread false information. In a 15th-century commentary, we are told this, for example:
“Because there is a stumbling block to the world in the honoring of the wicked, one should guard himself against speaking good of the wicked, nor should one mention them for good, as it is said [in Proverbs 10:7], ‘But the name of the wicked will rot.’ And it is written [in Proverbs 29:26], ‘A wrongdoer is a loathing to the righteous.’ And if a man does not want to speak of the wickedness of a wicked man let him not speak of his goodness.” (See Orchot Tzadikim [also known as Sefer Ha-Middot] 24:9. While the author is in dispute, the work echoes earlier ethical texts from Rambam, Solomon ibn Gabirol, and others.) This clearly prohibits putting someone like Mike Lindell on the air, or offering praise of those, politicians especially, whose statements or acts reflect wickedness (Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene or Ilhan Omar, for example).
Journalists, of course, are people like the rest of us. They and the media outlets they work for have the right to their opinions, just as we do. Those opinions, however, belong on the editorial page, or the op-ed page, and in programs hosted by people who do not disguise themselves as unbiased, on the right or the left. They must never claim, however, that something is true when it is unproven or is proven to be an outright lie.
Most important, in reporting on something, a journalist must never reveal his or her opinions. Reporting must be “just the facts,” as the late Jack Webb is often misquoted as saying. Journalists, of course, should quote how others view those facts, but only in a balanced and unbiased way.
Opinion is not fact. Fact is based on evidence. Journalists must never blur the lines between the two. We the people have a right to know. Journalists — no matter what their personal beliefs are — have the obligation to let us know, and halachah requires that what they let us know is true.
Shammai Engelmayer is a rabbi-emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is www.shammai.org.