Brian Williams, Bob Simon, and the role of journalism

13 Feb
The untimely passing of Bob Simon and recollection of his legacy, contrasts with the controversy of Brian Williams.

The untimely passing of Bob Simon and recollection of his legacy, contrasts with the controversy of Brian Williams.

Shabbat Shalom,
When I was a young boy and a teenager, before I discovered my career path would be the rabbinate, I had other aspirations. I wasn’t interested in becoming an astronaut, nor a doctor or a scientist. In my wildest dreams, maybe a baseball player, but I knew I had no chance. So, I aspired to be a journalist. I was fascinated by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their coverage of Watergate and how through their use of a vibrant free press they spoke truth to power. While most of my friends TV consumption revolved around cartoons and reruns, I enjoyed the evening news, especially the most trusted man in America, Walter Cronkite. Journalists, I realized early on, had an important responsibility to report the news and convey the truth. Journalists are not supposed to be in the news themselves, and their reputations depend on the trust that the public invests in them to tell the truth.

This week, journalists have been in the news. I am saddened by the tragic and senseless death of CBS correspondent Bob Simon in an auto collision in New York. For five decades, he established a reputation as the best of the best. The memorial tributes to Bob Simon stand in stark contrast to NBC’s Brian Williams and the revelation that he fabricated a story in 2003 that he was shot down in a helicopter while reporting in Iraq. His public apology and six-month suspension are appropriate, but the incident casts a pall not only over his career but over journalism in general.

This week, as we mark Shabbat Shekalim, we are reminded of integrity as a core value of our tradition. In the passage that instructs te Israelites about the levy of the half-Shekel the Torah says (Exodus 30:13):

זֶה ׀ יִתְּנוּ כָּל־הָעֹבֵר עַל־הַפְּקֻדִים מַחֲצִית הַשֶּׁקֶל בְּשֶׁקֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ עֶשְׂרִים גֵּרָה הַשֶּׁקֶל מַחֲצִית הַשֶּׁקֶל תְּרוּמָה לה׳

This they shall give, every one who passes among those who are counted, half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary; a shekel is twenty gerahs; a half shekel shall be the offering of the Lord.

This is what everyone shall pay: Prompted by the word “this,” the Sages conjecture that God showed Moses a flame in the shape of a helf-shekel. Why a flame? Because money is like fire; it can warm and comfort–or it can consume and destroy (Elimelekh of Lyzhansk)

In our world, we consume news as much for entertainment as to know what’s going on. In response, the news media must focus on the entertainment value of their stories. High entertainment value yields higher advertising revenue. That yields higher ratings and salaries for TV reporters. While Brian Williams is responsible for his own misdeeds, we as consumers of news are complicit in demanding high entertainment value from the news in addition to truth. Money is like fire. When we’re careful, it can keep us warm and comfort us. However, it can also burn when it dominates our focus. Bob Simon, of blessed memory, will be remembered for striking the delicate balance in reporting news both for entertainment value and truth. Brian Williams crossed a line and sacrificed truth on the altar of entertainment and money. Let us demand the highest standards from our journalists so that our vibrant free press will continue to serve as a vital check on government and harbinger of truth.

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