Tag Archives: Watergate

A Free Press As the Root of Democracy: Reflections on Shabbat Shekalim

25 Feb

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When I was a youngster, before I discovered the rabbinate as my career, 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. Remember, the Chicago Cubs weren’t good in those days, and I thought maybe I’d have a chance. Alas, I did not. 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 reporting they spoke truth to power. Growing up in the 1970s, I watched as much TV as anyone, including all the reruns—The Lone Ranger, Star Trek, The Brady Bunch, and others. But I was also drawn to the evening news, especially the most trusted man in America, Walter Cronkite. I realized early on that journalists had an important responsibility to report the news and convey the truth.

Our free society depends on a free press. It shines a light on those who serve in public office to hold them to account for the the oaths of office they take to serve the public and our Constitution with integrity. A robust free press asks tough questions of government officials, irrespective of their party affiliation. Even Washington and Lincoln were often savaged by the press during their administrations, and so too with every President until today. Every president is in a bubble in which they surround themselves with supporters and are sensitive to criticism. Yet, time and again, Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s words ring true: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” The free press hold our leaders to account.

Our public officials swear to uphold the Constitution and by extension protect the public’s most vital assets such as clean air, clean water, fair labor laws, fair housing standards, anti-discrimination laws, financial protections, food and drug safety, national education standards, as well as national defense.  It’s impossible for each of us to become experts on public policy on the myriad issues facing our society, and the free press provides a great public service to protect transparency and our right to know whether our public officials are serving us with integrity.

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

This they shall give. Every one who passes among those who are counted, half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary. Why does the verse begin with zeh, “this they shall give”? Usually a verb in the Bible begins Waw-consecutive, including in cases like this involving instruction.   Prompted by the word “this,” the Sages conjecture that God showed Moses a flame in the shape of a half-shekel. Why a flame? Because money is like fire; it can warm and comfort–or it can consume and destroy (Elimelekh of Lyzhansk).

Throughout the history of our democracy, numerous politicians of different political persuasions have served our nation. Some have succeeded and provided warmth and comfort, while others failed, including those whose corruption threatened to consume and destroy our society. At every juncture a vibrant free press has served as a check on government. As George Orwell wrote: “Freedom of the Press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticize and oppose.”

We should be most concerned when the President repeatedly calls the mainstream news media the “enemy of the people”  and that he even goes so far as to demand that reporters stop utilizing anonymous sources.  Marc Felt  would never have confided to Bob Woodward the crimes of the Nixon White House unless he was certain of Woodward’s rock-solid assurance that his identity would not be revealed. For decades, he was known as Deep Throat, and he was an American hero for exposing a national crisis. Reporters must and will continue to rely on anonymous sources to reveal difficult truths.

And yet even in the Nixon years, as fraught as that administration’s relations with the press were, never were they barred from the White House briefing room as happened yesterday.

The press is not perfect, just like any human endeavor. They get things wrong, including the predictions of most news organizations of the outcome of the last election. The spike in fake news and alternative facts also do not exist in a vacuum. They exist because for multiple reasons, many Americans have lost trust in the mainstream media.

J.D. Vance, author of the bestselling book Hillbilly Elegy, has a remarkable story. He grew up in poor, white  Appalachia and went on to Yale Law School. He has become a go-to interpreter of working class whites and their distrust of mainstream institutions. He said recently in an interview :

“The news media seems to be approaching Trump in a very oppositional way. And whether it’s Trump or Obama, it’s always important for the media to take a somewhat oppositional tact because that’s one of their main roles as the fourth estate. But I also wish news executives would think about this credibility gap and think constructively about how to repair it…We may just be in a different media environment where people consume information in their bubbles.”

I think Vance raises an important issue in noting the lack of trust towards the news media, that news organizations would be advised to earn back. Part of the challenge is that journalism is a business as well as a craft. 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. 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.

Let us demand the highest standards from our journalists, and let us also reject any efforts to from officials to threaten the free press as a vital check on government and harbinger of truth. Shabbat Shekalim reminds us to preserve the integrity of our public institutions. Ken Yehi Ratzon.

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Nothing But the Truth

24 Oct
Ben Bradlee (right) with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein

Ben Bradlee (right) with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein

This was a busy news week with many reports of tragedies, including horrific terror attacks both in Jerusalem and the Canadian capital of Ottawa. I’ll come back to these incidents shortly. A news story that gave me pause, though, was the report I heard on the car radio Wednesday morning that Ben Bradlee died at the age of 93. The former Executive Editor of the Washington Post was an American hero who championed the First Amendment’s call for freedom of the press. He spoke truth to power when he made his historic decision to publish the Pentagon papers that exposed the abuses of the Johnson Administration’s prosecution of the Vietnam War. He then entrusted two young reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, to pursue the report of a suspicious burglary at the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. Their reporting exposed the corruption of the Nixon White House and contributed to Nixon’s ultimate resignation.

In reading various obituaries of Bradlee this week, I was struck by a tribute to him by Bob Woodward who remembered the words that as a young reporter he most hated to hear from Mr. Bradlee: “You don’t have it yet, kid.”

As important as freedom of the press and accountability of leaders were to Ben Bradlee, of utmost importance to Bradlee was the truth. The story had to be right before it could go to press.

At this point, I could pivot to the Torah reading and draw a nice analogy between our Torah portion, Parashat Noach, and the legacy of Ben Bradlee. The Torah reading notes Va-tishahet haaretz lifnei Ha-Elohim, va-timale haaretz hamas. “The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness” (Gen. 6:11; Hamas here is not related etymologically to the terrorist organization by the same name).  Through a close reading, the Sages wonder why the verse must add the phrase “before God.” Isn’t that obvious? Rather, the Jerusalem Talmud understands the word translated as “lawlessness” (hamas) to mean that people cheated each other for such small sums that the courts could not prosecute them (JT BM 4:2). This caused people to lose faith in the power of government to provide them with a fair and livable world, and society began to slip into anarchy (from Etz Hayim, p. 41). When the truth was ignored, society crumbled. Noah, though he had his faults, was uncorrupted by the pervasive lies around him, and God saved him. In modern times, Ben Bradlee stood for the truth and reminded our nation that our government’s credibility must rest on the foundation of truth.

That could be a decent enough D’var Torah, and we could call it a day and wish each other Shabbat Shalom. However, that same Wednesday, we learned of a terrible terrorist attack in Jerusalem in which a Palestinian terrorist rammed his car into a crowded train stop killing a precious three-month-old baby girl, Chasya Zissel Braun, z”l . Her parents had struggled for years to conceive, and they had just returned from taking their daughter to the Kotel for the first time. In addition to the death of this baby, several others were injured, and police on the scene quickly shot and killed the driver.

The Associated Press reported this crime with the following headline: Israeli police shoot man in east Jerusalem. They added the following summary: “Israeli police say they shot a man whose car slammed into a crowded train stop in east Jerusalem, in what they suspect was an intentional attack.”

The Internet soon lit up with criticism of the Associated Press biased, out-of-context headline. The AP responded by “correcting” the headline, which they changed to “Car slams into east Jerusalem train station.” That darn automobile just had anti-Semitism flowing through its engine, spark plugs and wiper fluid! Finally, after even more widespread outrage on social media, they changed the headline to “Palestinian kills baby at Jerusalem station.” Benji Lovitt, a blogger on the Times of Israel, lampooned the AP with a number of hypothetical headlines such as: “Noah Abducts Entire Animal Kingdom” or “John Lennon Drives Fan to Crime” or “Abraham Lincoln Interrupts Play.” This is dark humor at its best.

The good news is that the AP responded to criticism and wrote a more accurate headline that reflected the actual tragedy that occurred. Nevertheless, the original headline highlighted an inherent bias in the press that tends to view Israel as the aggressor and the Palestinians as victims.

Unfortunately, the same day this attack occurred in Jerusalem, there was also a terrorist attack at the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa, Ontario, reminding us that the cancerous scourge of terror can and does reach our shores. The press had no problems reporting this story. The New York Times headline read: “Gunman Panics Ottawa, Killing Soldier in Spree at Capital.” There was no hiding behind passive language or the government’s just actions in defending its citizens and government leaders.

In response to the murder of the baby girl in Israel and the Associated Press’s initial coverage, another blogger on The Times of Israel, Sarah Tuttle-Singer, wrote a chilling but poetic reflection. She asks us to imagine the joy of the Braun family over their newborn daughter and her first trip to the Kotel. Then she is killed before their eyes.
“Can you imagine their horror? The screams and then the silence…
“A baby girl is dead.
“Her family is shattered.
“Meanwhile, international media reports that “Israeli police shot an E. Jerusalem man.” (AP may have changed the headline, but the url exists forever and ever.)
“I kind of hate the world right now.
“Let’s all light a candle. It’s really dark here.”

In Parashat Noach, pervasive lying and lawlessness brought darkness to the universe. Only Noah and his family lit a candle of truth, and God saved them. Similarly, in our own time, the darkness of falsehood is spreading. When the world tolerates terror against the Jews and ignores the truth that militant Islam stands for death and destruction of Western civilization, it will continue to metastasize around the world. We’ve seen terror in America on 9/11, and now, unfortunately it has come to Canada as well. The Western free press is the first line of defense against anti-democratic trends around the world, and the credibility of journalism rests on getting it right.

Maybe the Associated Press’s response to criticism is a sign of hope. A large number of critics mustered a bit of Ben Bradlee and said to the AP: “You don’t have it yet, kid.” When we hold a mirror to the press and remind it what it stands for, we’ll not only help them get it right, we may even save lives. May God grant us the strength to bring truth and light into the world.