Topping the news this year, and especially this week, is – the news.
That is not good news for anyone, because we depend on the media to be the great safeguards of democracy.
The recent Ebola scare is an excellent example. For several weeks, Ebola-related reports dominated the news, including such broadcast come-ons as “how to avoid contracting Ebola on subways and in elevators – at 11.”
News outlets knew there that was no possibility of an Ebola epidemic, and every story carried a throwaway line saying so, but the barrage of Ebola-related stories and how they were played or displayed scared so many people that nearly 40 percent of Americans feared an Ebola outbreak was imminent. That, wrote Maggie Fox, a senior health writer for NBC News, on NBC’s website, “might be our fault. Us, as in the news media, and the entertainment media.”
The Ebola scare was good for ratings, which translates into profits. In the news business, business is business.
We often see this when it comes to weather reporting – and I do not mean the recent mostly responsible warnings about a monster storm. I refer, instead, to the kind of broadcast come-ons used in the Ebola scare: “There’s a hurricane in the forecast – at 11”; “A stormy commute in the morning for some – at 11.” Too often, a hurricane is in the forecast, but it is so far offshore that the only thing we will experience is some mild rain. As for that stormy commute, it will happen – somewhere else.
Then there is the Brian Williams news cycle circus. The NBC Nightly News anchor and managing editor was caught in a 12-year-old lie meant to augment his credibility as a fearless reporter – that he was on a Chinook helicopter that took fire in Iraq in 2003. He was an hour away from the attack. Williams has been suspended without pay for six months by NBC News.
Hyped-up come-ons and souped-up “reporting creds” are not the most dangerous concern, however. High in the news recently – and especially in the last week, as the number of cases climbed above 100, including the most recent addition of a 1-year-old Jersey City child – is the current measles outbreak, which began in December.
Measles was supposed to be just a bad distant memory in the United States. That it may be making a comeback, we are told by nearly every responsible source, is because an increasing number of parents have refused to allow their children to be vaccinated. They base their objections mainly on a 1998 study that was published in the British medical journal the Lancet. The study of just 12 children purported to show a correlation between the measles vaccine (which also protects against mumps and rubella, or “German measles”) and autism.
The study was under attack from the time it was published. In 2010, it was proven an “elaborate fraud,” as another British medical journal, BMJ, put it following its own investigation in 2011. Nevertheless, as BMJ said in an editorial, “the damage to public health continues,” in part “fueled by unbalanced media reportingâ€¦.”
There is no “vaccine controversy.” The measles vaccine does not cause autism in anyone. That is the only thing the media should report. It is just not what sells newspapers and spikes broadcast ratings. Anti-vaccine proponents continue to perpetuate the autism myth virtually unchallenged in print and on the air.
Equally dangerous – or perhaps even more so because of the role it surely plays in keeping peace from breaking out between Israelis and Palestinians – is the story told in an article recently published by online in Tablet. Written by a former reporter for the Associated Press, Matti Friedman, the article exposed how outright hostility towards Israel – and Jews – at the AP and other major media results in routine distortions and false reporting that demonizes Israel and fuels the growing anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment in most of the world.
If there had been such a thing as news reporting 2,000 years ago, it is almost certain that the majority of sages of blessed memory would have advocated for a free press. They also would have insisted, however, that this free press report only that which people need to know, that all the facts be presented without spin, and that the report be true in all its particulars.
According to the Babylonian Talmud tractate Pesachim 118a, those who spread untruths and those who encourage them to do so by listening to them, and by extension by reading them, “deserve to be thrown to the dogs,” rabbinic hyperbole meant to emphasize the seriousness of lashon hara, “evil speech.” The hyperbole was drawn from this Shabbat’s Torah reading. Exodus 22:30 ends with “you shall cast it to the dogs,” while the next verse (23:1) begins with, “You must not carry false rumors.”
Another principle of Jewish law is lifnei iver, or the placing of a stumbling block before the blind. This principle and the category of sinful behavior it spawned derive from Leviticus 19:14, which warns us not to “put a stumbling block before the blind.”
This is a general principle that goes beyond its simple meaning. As the Babylonian sage Samuel said, one application of the verse is that “it is forbidden to deceive people” (see BT tractate Chulin 94a). Using truth to distort the truth (“there’s a storm in the forecast”; “the vaccine controversy”) is putting a stumbling block before the blind. This principle goes hand in hand with another halachic principle that derives from the same verse – g’neivat da’at, or the stealing of knowledge.
By not reporting accurately, the consumers of news are being denied all the facts they need to make an informed decision.
President Thomas Jefferson, a staunch advocate of a free press, believed newspapers should base themselves on “true facts and sound principles only.'”
He added, wistfully, “Yet I fear such a paper would find few subscribers.”