Judaism and Journalistic Ethics - Video with Transcript | Reconstructing Judaism

Judaism and Journalistic Ethics - Video with Transcript

Video

Jewish Values and Journalistic Ethics

It is a fascinating time in the world of journalism right now; some might say unprecedented. With fake news proliferating and an antagonistic relationship between the White House and the press, the role of the media and factual reporting has never seemed more urgent. Can Jewish values inform the practice of journalism and journalistic ethics? Check out this conversation between Rabbi David A. Teutsch, Ph.D., a leading Jewish ethicist, and Bryan Schwartzman, an award-winning journalist who is part of RRC’s communications team. 

This interview took place on March 21, 2017 on Facebook Live. Check out our Facebook page here.

The following interview transcript has been edited for clarity.

Bryan Schwartzman:
 Hi, I’m Bryan Schwartzman, live from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and it’s my pleasure and privilege to be here with Rabbi David Teutsch, who directs RRC’s program in Jewish ethics. We are here to discuss what Jewish values have to say about journalism and journalistic ethics. It’s an unusually fraught and unprecedented time in journalism right now. We’ve already seen the media go through a very disruptive period, where it seems like how people are getting their news has really changed radically, and then with a campaign followed by post-election, we’ve seen the media labeled as an opposition party, and we’ve struggled with how to respond. The whole notion of objectivity has come under question. I am here with David Teutsch, who is frequently quoted in the media, and often talks about the importance of public discourse. He is the author of a three-volume guide to Jewish practice in which there’s a whole section on the ethics of speech, which journalism certainly falls under. I’ll just share that I spent ten years as a reporter for Philadelphia’s Jewish Exponent and David was a regular source of mine, a great fountain of information, and really knows how to speak to and about the media. So I just wanted to welcome you, and I’ll just start by noting that the way people get their news has changed a great deal over the last few years. I’m curious how you get your news every day.
 

David Teutsch:
I don’t think any one source is very complete. So every morning there are two newspapers at my home: the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer. And I get news from about a dozen online sources that come into my mailbox every day. Many of them are Jewish in nature but not all. And I try to keep up with a plethora of issues of concern to me, which means that I also get news from the several dozen organizations with which I’m active. What organizations discern to be news is not the same as what you find in the newspapers.
 
Bryan Schwartzman:
That’s interesting — it’s almost a lost art these days, reading the newspaper, and there’s something about it that forces you to look at stories you wouldn’t have otherwise, as opposed to just going to sources or topics you know you care about. 

David Teutsch:
One of the unfortunate things in our current world is that people tend to only read the sources that support the views they already hold, and that means most people don’t digest longer, more thoughtful, stories, more careful and nuanced stories, and more raw data on a regular basis. Certainly those who get their news from Comedy Central are getting soundbites and satire, and they may know something about current issues, but they’re certainly not exploring them in any depth.

Bryan Schwartzman: One thing that’s really concerned me is a fear that we’ve forgotten how to listen to each other, to really hear and engage with people with widely different viewpoints. The twentieth century paper fulfilled that function. What role do you see in both the Jewish community and the general press for helping us have these kinds of conversations?

David Teutsch:
The first job of the press is to present information in a way that makes sense to people, and to do it in a way that is removed from rancor and personal bias to the extent possible. One of the problems during the last presidential campaign was that the media were ambivalent about whether they should just quote the candidates, or analyze the truthfulness of what the candidates said. It seems to me that part of the job of the media is to do fact checking and to report what they find out about the facts; and to do that in a way that is no more colored by name-calling than we would be if we were talking to someone whom we really cared about. Name calling by its nature disrupts political discourse, and there’s been far too much of it, not only from presidential candidates, but from the media as well — particularly the online media that do not necessarily feel the same constraints that the major newspapers do.

Bryan Schwartzman:
It’s interesting that you brought that up. A couple of months ago the New York Times took the really unprecedented step of using the word “lie” in a headline — “President Repeats Election Day Lie About Voter Turnout” — regarding the claim that the President won the popular vote. Are there ethical concerns from your point of view, as to putting out the word “lie” and labeling a statement as such? Is that a healthy conversation for us to be having right now? 

David Teutsch:
I think it’s a really important conversation. You know, the Jewish tradition teaches that each person has an obligation to be a dover emet — a speaker of truth — and when someone is not being a dover emet they need to be called on it, whether it’s a private citizen or politician or a news source. [An] unintentional misstatement of fact needs to be pointed out and corrected, but that’s very different from an intentional misstatement of fact. So for example, President Trump’s recent statement that his headquarters were bugged by the Obama administration has now been called factually untrue by the F.B.I., by the CIA, and by leading members of the Congress. And yet President Trump has continued to assert it as if it were fact. It seems to me that in that kind of situation, it is critically important that not only government employees point out that it is untrue, but also that the media do so. In the case where the President is confronted with the facts and chooses to continue to misstate those facts anyway, it is appropriate to point out that he is lying, because it’s a reflection on his effectiveness as president. 

Bryan Schwartzman:
I want to talk about Jewish sources for a little bit. To the extent that I understand Jewish law and the concept of lashon ha-ra, if Jewish newspapers followed that to the letter every week, it would be almost impossible to put out a newspaper with breaking news stories, editorials,  criticisms and things like that. Is that the case, and if not, what kind of guidance can news sources look to for Jewish values?

David Teutsch:
So lashon ha-ra means stating something that is both true and negative about someone . It doesn’t mean lying, and it doesn’t mean disregarding of the truth. So it is clear that there are circumstances under which one is allowed to do lashon ha-ra,. There’s a balancing assessment to be done. For example, if someone were about to hire a bookkeeper, and you know that that bookkeeper just got out of jail for defrauding his previous employer, even though it’s lashon ha-ra, you need to tell that potential employer because it’s warning, it’s azhara. The likelihood that the warning will save the potential employer from harm trumps your obligation not to do lashon ha-ra. So newspapers have an obligation to ask, “What is it that the community needs to know in order to function effectively both collectively and individually?” When that knowledge is important for people to know, then the newspaper has an obligation to disclose it. So, for example, there was a situation in Philadelphia a number of years ago where there were sexual improprieties that were covered up by some parts of the Jewish community. Given that any number of people were hurt in those incidents, and that there was a really important public service to exposing that wrongdoing in order to prevent it from happening again, it was my opinion that it would have been appropriate at that time for the Jewish Exponent, the local Jewish newspaper, to run a story about it. The Exponent’s editors got pressure from a number of people in the community who were sympathetic to the wrongdoers and ended up not running that story. But sexual abuse is a topic that needs to be aired, it needs to be looked at, because it’s for the public good that we deal with it openly. So in that case the Exponent, I think, erred when it decided not to print something that involved lashon ha-ra. So the question is, is there a genuine need to know? If we think about the way the sex lives of presidents were handled in days gone by, we can remember that neither Roosevelt’s private sex life nor Kennedy’s was ever put in the newspaper because the newspapers felt that it was irrelevant to their functioning as President. I think the newspapers were right about that, and gossiping about people’s sex lives in general does not help create a better environment for decision making. On the other hand, sexual abuse is something that needs to be dragged into the open and pointed out, because we need to root it out of Jewish culture, and we need to root it out of American culture.

Bryan Schwartzman:
And certainly some Jewish publications have taken a really brave stand on this. The New York Jewish Week did some really groundbreaking stuff about that fifteen years ago. I know in my time at the Exponent, I did cover some of these cases, and it just really is wrenching to deal with. To this day I wonder, did I do enough, did I do too much to impugn certain people who shouldn’t have been impugned? It weighs on you, and I guess I’m wondering in today’s media culture where everything is faster faster faster, does Jewish tradition give any kind of framework or process for reviewing ethics in a way that works with this sort of constant motion timeframe.

David Teutsch:
Well it’s a little bit easier for weekly newspapers, because at least you have 24 or 48 hours to think about things. It’s much tougher on websites where they’re putting things up hourly and often even minute to minute, where there is very little reflection time and often no delay to check facts. It’s been my experience In talking with people who have done that kind of work, that they’re not engaged in ethical reflection much at all about what they put out, and that’s tragic. So, yes, I think there is room for thinking deeply about issues of journalistic ethics, which is a subset of speech ethics, and a newspaper that chooses not to be developing policies about ethics and fact-checking neglects that at its peril and at the moral peril of its readers.

Bryan Schwartzman:
Obviously, journalism as a profession, as a practice, comes after our classic sources were formed. But are there any stories or anecdotes from the Talmud or before that might shed some light on the process of news gathering? 

David Teutsch:
One of the most famous stories about gossip is of a person who comes to the rabbi and confesses that he was gossiping and asks how to make up for his transgression. The rabbi says, “Rip open a pillow and watch where the feathers go.” And then the man comes back and says, “OK I did that,” and then the rabbi says, “Now go and gather up the feathers.” The first thing journalists need to keep in mind is no matter what they do, after they’ve said something in print, on the web or on the air, the retraction if they ever have to issue one, will never be as broadly seen or heard as the original statement. So before you say anything, you have to ask: Is what I’m saying true? Do I have the evidence to support it? And is it in the public interest for me to put it in print? It seems to me those are really critical questions that come directly out of our tradition of thinking about lashon ha-ra, and they provide really good basic guidance that unfortunately is often not followed.

Bryan Schwartzman:
I feel, rightly or wrongly, there’s just the impression that Jewish tradition doesn’t concern itself with intent, that all it cares about is action. So much talking about journalistic ethics involves asking questions like: What was the intent behind something? Did the reporter or the editor or the publisher justify that? Is that a misreading? In terms of speech, is Jewish tradition concerned with intent? 

David Teutsch:
Certainly, Jewish tradition is concerned with intent. The idea of rechilut, which is speech that is intentionally dispiriting or disparaging or intentionally disruptive of relationships, the word “intentionally” is very important there. So we recognize that intentionality matters. Contrast that with motzi shem ra, which is about saying something about someone that isn’t true, whether you intended to harm them or not. In that case, what your intent was in saying it is irrelevant. Motzi shem ra is simply a question of outcome. But with rechilut, intention really is taken into consideration. That’s even more important when we think about journalism because journalism isn’t just about private conversation. It’s about spreading perspective across the broadest audience possible. For a journalist it is impossible to be 100% objective. There is no way to completely set aside our biases, nor should we have to, but we need to know what our biases are and make sure that talking about them in the public weal is appropriate. For example, Jewish newspapers are, generally speaking, pro-Judaism, pro-Jewish community, and interested in helping the Jewish community to thrive. I think everybody who reads a Jewish newspaper understands that, and reads Jewish papers and magazines with that sort of lenses on. That seems to me to be completely appropriate to what Jewish journalism is about. Often that’s read as taking a party line on Israel, and I would argue that that’s bad journalism, because effective reporting about what’s going on in Israel and in the Jewish world about Israel requires us to portray the full range of responses. Often Jewish newspapers don’t do that — sometimes because they’re pressured by the Federations that fund them, sometimes because of who owns the paper, and sometimes because of pressure from the community or rabbis in the community. It’s up to the journal to say: Okay, it’s our obligation to report the full range of views on this issue, and not to simply to give in to the narrower perspective of some subpart of the community. That’s challenging, and again it speaks to how we put personal biases aside and what’s really in the public interest.
 
Bryan Schwartzman:

I was told that there is a midrash in which Aaron, to keep the peace, chooses telling a misstatement rather than fomenting further conflict. I think that that comes up again and again in the field of Jewish journalism. If you’ve got a synagogue or an organization that’s struggling to raise money or find its relevance, that story is of concern to people, because everybody’s dealing with similar challenges, but doing a story like that can potentially be harmful to an organization, to a synagogue. How would you weigh making those kinds of choices? 
 
David Teutsch:

The account of Aaron, who is described as a rodef shalom, a pursuer of peace, is a midrash about two people who have a terrible argument and end up not speaking to each other. Aaron goes to the first and says, “Your friend Ploni feels terrible about the disagreement and would do anything to make it up,” and then he goes to the second and says the same thing. When the two see each other, they make up. So that’s about settling the conflict, and it’s not quite the same thing as the right to know, though as major a source in our tradition as Maimonides said that even though there was the goal of peace, that doesn’t supplant the obligation to truth, and Maimonides was opposed to the action that, according to the Midrash, Aaron took. So there’s definitely tension about how we arrange our hierarchy of values and and apply it. So I would suggest to journalists that they ask themselves what good will come of running an particular story. If the answer is that people need to know what’s going on here because with more facts they’ll be able to make a better decision about whether they need to or ought to donate or want to donate, that seems to me a really legitimate reason for running a story. If an organization is on its last legs and dissolving, sometimes running a story like that brings forward people who are old supporters who haven’t been involved lately, who would like to see the organization continue. Sometimes people are being approached for money and don’t really realize that their money may not be enough to keep the organization from dying, and therefore in retrospect they feel that they were improperly solicited. So for all those reasons that may be an important story to tell. Any news story is going to make somebody uncomfortable. So we can’t use the standard, “Will somebody be uncomfortable?” We have to use the standard “Will enough good come out of this to justify the amount of lashon ha-ra involved in the story?”

Bryan Schwartzman:

If we accept that that our news sources are important and that they’re struggling, with the standard that “we should run this because people will read it,” does that fall short of ethical consideration?

David Teutsch:
It depends on the stories you’re running. The other night I wasn’t paying very close attention to the news program, and it ended and then one of those entertainment shows came on, and it was all about gossip about stars and other famous people, and I couldn’t think of one reason why a Jew should either help put on such a show or listen to such a show, because it was all about lashon ha-ra. So it’s not good enough to say we need to do lashon ha-ra to stay in business, because some things deserve to go out of business. The question is: Are we doing a public service by putting this information out there? And if the answer is no, we can’t justify spreading information. Ithe necessary consequence is that it’s harder to be an ethical journalist. It’s not worth sacrificing our integrity in order to stay in business
 
Bryan Schwartzman:

You’ve written and spoken about the importance of civic culture and all sorts of debilitating speech. What role do consumers of news and citizens have in the manner that their news sources uphold our standards, that they build civic discourse rather than tearing it down?
 
David Teutsch:
One of the most important ways we vote is with our feet. When we are exposed to media that are behaving in an unethical way, we should let them know we think that, and we should stop listening to them. One of the more interesting campaigns right now is about the Breitbart website, which is sometimes euphemistically called the “alt-right” but is also powerfully racist and anti-Semitic. One of the campaigns going on right now is to contact businesses whose advertising has appeared on the Breitbart website, and to let them know that if they don’t stop advertising on the Breitbart website, we will stop frequenting those businesses. If that’s what it takes to send a message that anti-Semitism and racism and anti-immigrant statements are unacceptable, then it seems to me that that’s a valuable strategy moving forward. What’s gone on in large parts of the radical media on both ends of the spectrum is simply unacceptable if what we’re trying to create is meaningful public discourse. Democracy in particular depends upon meaningful public discourse in order for people to be able to formulate the sophisticated views they need in order to use their votes  in an effective way. This last election showed exactly what happens when the media fails in its responsibilities, both calling out liars on the one hand, and providing complex and balanced views on issues on the other. We count on the media in order to make democracy work. It simply will not unless the media function well. In our time that’s going to take a lot of reform, particularly because, as fewer Americans get their news from newspapers, they tend to get it from soundbites and from extremist resources, and that makes it very hard for the middle to hold. In a democracy a strong middle is absolutely essential to the dialogue that will make our country work.

Bryan Schwartzman:
I imagine we can’t expect non-Jewish sources to be guided by Jewish values, but I’m wondering, for either a Jewish reporter at a non-Jewish institution, or even a non-Jewish reporter, are there values or things in the Jewish tradition to point out to them, to say  this insight can help you think about the hardest part of doing your work?

David Teutsch:
The Talmud says that the seal of God is truth. What we hope is that people will behave in a godly way by seeking to discover the truth and the writing about the truth of situations as fairly as they can. That is the essence of what really good journalism is about. I think that insight about journalism cuts across pretty much all religions as well as secular thinking, and what we most want is for journalists to have more conversations about how they can decide on standards and uphold them. The best journalists are already doing that, but there has been an unwillingness among journalists to openly attack those who don’t meet those standards. And just as the shift to calling politicians on their lies is an important step in the right direction, members of the media are also going to have to be in the business of calling journalists on bad behavior when they exhibit it, and that certainly includes websites like Breitbart.

Bryan Schwartzman:
One of the thorniest issues in journalism ethics is using deception to get to the truth — going undercover, things like that. Does the Jewish tradition offer any leeway for that, or is something like deceiving to reveal the truth always wrong?

David Teutsch:
Deception can be harmless. Think about when everybody dresses up on Purim. So the question that gets weighed in here again — to revert back to an earlier part of our conversation — is about intention. By the way that comes up in a number of halachic sources, legal sources from Jewish tradition, regarding cross-dressing. If cross-dressing is done, according to several of our sources, for the purpose of sneaking into a bathhouse to look at naked bodies, or if it’s done in order to rob a bank, it’s wrong. On the other hand, if cross-dressing is done with no malicious intent, it’s permitted. So here, we would have to say, well, what’s the intent of the person who’s engaging in that deception? Is that person really trying to serve the higher good, and is that person doing something to make sure that innocents are not hurt in the process? If they can answer those two questions with “yes,” then I would say certain kinds of innocent deceptions are appropriate. But again, it’s a challenge, because in order to know which it is, you have to look into your own heart, really question your own motives, and make sure that you’re living by standards that you are perfectly willing to later disclose and uphold. If you feel that after you’ve done whatever you’re going to do, you need to keep secret what you did, that’s a really good indicator that what you did was inappropriate. The first test of ethics is whether a particular action or inaction will stand up to the light of day. After the fact am I willing to bare totally what happened and what I did? If the answer is “I’m not willing to bare it,” then that’s a pretty good indicator you’ve gone over the line.

Bryan Schwartzman:
I mean, it happens often — I’m thinking of a famous case from about twenty years ago in the South with the Food Lion supermarket chain, where a reporter got a job working at the supermarket to show unsafe, unsanitary conditions. I think he was actually sued, but you know, that’s the kind of thing where the only way to get access to a perceived wrong is to go undercover

David Teutsch:
That actually raises a different ethical question. Jewish tradition says that when you become an employee, you are obliged to act in the best interest of your employer. So here’s a person who’s now got two employers, presumably a newspaper and a grocery store, and by agreeing to both terms of employment without disclosing it to the second employer, he’s actually violating the covenant that an employee makes with an employer. So that’s not a question simply of deception or speech ethics, that’s a question of contract violation. On some level, if it had been among Jews and adjudicated in a beit din, that person would have needed to answer for that even if they were trying to serve the greater good.

Bryan Schwartzman:
I think we’re running out of time — we’ve had a fascinating conversation, and I really appreciate your time and insight. I wanted to ask one last question. We are at the Reconstructionist Rabbinic College, and the Reconstructionist movement places a strong emphasis on Jewish civilization. I think unquestionably the press as we know it has played a significant role in Jewish civilization from Eastern Europe in the early twentieth century onward. In America we’ve had a fairly vibrant press. We could say that Jewish media today, like the mainstream media, is in a weakened state. Some of the institutions are less powerful than they once were. Do you see a role for the press in terms of developing Jewish civilization going forward? 

David Teutsch:
There is always a huge role for media, not only as a reporter of news, but as the publisher of  magazines both in print and online that share both fiction and nonfiction of worth. What we’re living through is a period of very rapid change about how the media work. So it is true that newspapers are weaker than they used to be, but it is also true that newspapers’ online presence has a vastly greater following than it did even ten years ago. The question is not whether the media have a role — they will continue to have an enormously important role — but how that role will evolve given the changes in social media and in technology. In all times of change there is always weakening, but I have faith that given the important role the media plays, it will continue to find its way forward, perhaps structured in different ways, perhaps available in different ways, but I have no doubt but that it will be there, and that it will continue to be a really important part of Jewish life.  

Bryan Schwartzman: Thank you - this was both enlightening and a lot of fun.

David Teutsch: It was my pleasure.

RRC: Professor Emeritus and Senior Consultant, Center for Jewish Ethics

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