Sitting at my computer on Monday contemplating the day and recent events, I was reminded of the words of two famous Americans.
First up were these from Thomas Jefferson (it was July 4, after all): “Our liberty,” he wrote in 1786, “cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that [freedom of the press] be limited without danger of losing it [our liberty].” So strongly did he feel that way that a year later, he wrote, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Keeping the faith: One religious perspective on issues of the day Then came to mind these quotes from Mark Twain.
In 1870, he wrote that the “liberty of the Press â€¦ means, in these days, the liberty of being deceived, swindled, and humbugged by the Press and paying hugely for the deception.”
Three years later, in his “License of the Press” speech of March 1873, he added, “There are laws to protect the freedom of the press’s speech, but none that are worth anything to protect the people from the press.”
Jefferson was correct; our precious freedom is dependent in great part on freedom of the press. Sadly, Twain was equally correct. The free press is only as honest and truth-telling, and hence as valuable to and protective of our liberty, as the media choose it to be.
These days, the media choose the salacious over the sagacious. What counts is what the people want to hear, not what they need to hear. Truth is boring; sleaze sells.
Two news stories in particular brought these quotes to the fore.
The first is the Dominique Strauss-Kahn debacle. The second is the almost minute-to-minute coverage being given to the preparations for yet another “mercy mission” to “rescue” Gazans from the non-existent privations of Israel’s naval blockade.
No one is suffering from an Israeli-created food shortage in Gaza and, since Israel eased most other restrictions, there also is no lack of such things as building materials – as witness the impressive and apparently well-stocked American-style shopping mall in Gaza City.
Why does anyone want to run the blockade? It is because the truth is rarely reported. Israel is repeatedly portrayed as being evil incarnate for the blockade, with virtually no consideration being given to the reason for the blockade or what the practical effect of the blockade is.
Every nation has the right – even the obligation – to protect itself from serious existential threats. Yet while it was OK, say, for the United States to blockade Cuba in October 1962, on the basis of a perceived threat, it apparently is not OK for Israel to blockade Gaza in the face of an actual threat. At least, that is how most of the world sees it – if for no other reason than that is how the media report on it.
In the face of an enemy sworn to destroy Israel, especially an enemy that has proven it has the will to do so even if it means sending children on suicide missions, the nation has every right to protect itself. This includes establishing a blockade designed to prevent that enemy from obtaining the weapons to carry out its threat. Anyone who seeks to run that blockade is nothing less than an accessory before the fact to murder.
Rarely these days do we see context in reports out of or about Israel. The focus is always on the “poor Palestinian” and how mighty Israel trods him underfoot. While we often read of the hardships imposed on Palestinians because of Israeli checkpoints or the building of a protective wall, rarely do we read how such measures have succeeded in ending what once seemed to be an endless string of terrorist attacks inside Israel.
As for Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the media frenzy that was unleashed on him less than two months ago has switched directions and is now devouring his accuser. Yet the media have no more actual verifiable information about her than they had about him.
The media were unyielding against Strauss-Kahn. They stopped his life in its tracks by zealously reporting every rumor as fact, but never doing fact-checking of their own. “DSK,” as he is popularly known in France, may indeed be a sleazy womanizer and a serial abuser, but no one in the media knows that for certain. He may indeed have sexually abused and even raped a hotel maid, but none in the media know that for certain, either.
In a country that prides itself on its justice system and loudly proclaims that a person is innocent until proven guilty, freedom of the press has become a truncheon used to beat all such democratic principles into the ground.
Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested and charged with rape. Reporting those facts was fair. How those facts were reported was not fair, as neither was all the media coverage that arose from that event.
Many of the principles we hold dear in America have roots in the Torah – the right to a trial, the right to confront witnesses, a ban on self-incrimination, privacy rights, workers’ rights, and so on. A free press does not exist in Torah law, but probably only because the press did not exist then. On the other hand, the Torah, both in its narrowest and its broadest senses, set clear rules for how the media should conduct themselves.
According to the Babylonian Talmud tractate Pesachim 118a, for example, “Whoever relates slander [and, by extension, libel, by speaking or writing it], and whoever accepts slander [and, by extension, libel, by listening to or reading it], and whoever gives false testimony against his neighbor [such as by reporting out-of-context or unverified information, or distorting facts to support a point of view] deserves to be thrown to the dogsâ€¦.”
In other words, it is as forbidden to encourage slander and, by extension, libel as it is to engage in them.
“In righteousness shall you judge your neighbor,” the Torah commands us (Leviticus 19:15). That is not possible without the free and unfettered media envisioned by Jefferson. Alas, the media we have are more like those described by Mark Twain. We are all losers thereby.