In two articles this month, I explained the importance of having a free and diverse media, one which criticizes government institutions and individuals holding power and authority. This is because society as a whole has agreed that rather than appointing divisions of policemen and judges to oversee all government offices and all those in power, and then have to appoint more divisions of policemen and judges to oversee the policemen and judges, the media would have the freedom to examine all those in power in order to deter them from breaking the law - and if they did, to publicly accuse them, and encourage the police to search for incriminating evidence about them.
Admittedly, if we had a court system that all segments of society accepted, and it had the power to examine every claim and obtain evidence while keeping the witnesses unharmed – it would be possible to investigate each claim more reliably and fairly. In that case, there would be no heter (halakhic permission) to publicly criticize those in power. However, as long as society, including the religious and Haredi public, has failed to establish such a court system, it is right to accept public approval of the need to have a free media, because this approval actually creates a more moral situation than one where there is no free media (see, Rabbi Naftali Bar Ilan’s book ‘Regime and State in Israel According to the Torah’ Chapters 79-80).
The Moral Responsibility of Journalists
Admittedly, by nature of the profession, quite a few journalists are of bad character; are people who enjoy hurting others, or as Rabbeinu Yonah wrote about baalei lashon ha’ra (habitual slanderers) are like flies drawn to dirty places, in order to spread lashon ha’ra and hurt people (Shaarei Teshuvah 3: 217).
And because of their lust to publish derogatory statements that cause harm to others, their reports often contain either lies, or at the very least, severe bias. Despite this, society has chosen to let anyone who is willing to act according to the accepted rules to be a journalist, and search for offenses and crimes among those in power and authority. Not by chance, journalists are called by the unflattering term ‘watchdogs’, because quite often they resemble attacker dogs, who, lacking humanity and compassion, viciously sink their teeth into the prey they have found. And nevertheless, because of the public benefit of doing so, society is in favor of releasing hunting dogs into the open, in order to seek and sniff out corruption and injustice, and save society from the hands of such people in positions of power and authority.
However, the license to have a free media does not absolve the individual journalist from the moral responsibility for his actions. And even if he acted according to the accepted rules of law – but acted wickedly, cruelly enjoying the brutalization of the victims caught in his net, and used the rules to harm them unjustly, he is a rasha (evil person), and in the World of Truth will be punished very severely, as baalei lashon ha’ra are judged.
Despite this, the profession of journalism must not be treated as a degenerate profession that every God-fearing person should loathe. But since having a free media is valuable and beneficial to the betterment of society, it is fitting that moral and God-fearing people engage in it, so that it fulfills its role in a helpful and benevolent way. Therefore, we must find out the moral Torah-true path to work in the media, the basis for which are the prohibitive rules of speaking lashon ha’ra (defamation), together with the heter and mitzvah to speak lashon ha’ra for constructive purposes.
First of all, as in all professions, one’s initial intention should be le’Shem Shamayim (for the sake of Heaven) – to add goodness and blessing to the world. This is all the more necessary for someone who chooses the profession of journalism which is liable to arouse bad and cruel qualities in a person. He should remind himself from time to time that the purpose of his work is to benefit society and people, and save them from those with power who might harm and exploit them (as stated in the book ‘Chafetz Chaim’, 10: 5, ibid, 10: 14, where the fifth condition is the main aspect upon which the heter rests).
Second, a journalist must adhere to the truth, and be careful that the desire to publish an interesting article does not cause him to waive the necessary inquiries, or to exaggerate in describing the case, or in the condemnation of the subject. Whenever he is in doubt, he should present things as they appear to him, honestly and humbly, without attempting to claim that it is the absolute truth (as quoted in ‘Chafetz Chaim’ 10: 2, in details 1, 2, 4).
Third, if it turns out that he was wrong in his criticism, he must be quick to apologize for it publicly, and in all sincerity. However, a journalist should not be ashamed of having to apologize from time to time, for by the very nature of his work, since he has no authority to interrogate and summon witnesses, he will often err in his assessment and reporting. As long as he tries to adhere to the truth – he performs his job faithfully, and all that is left for him to do is quickly apologize for his mistake, sincerely and publicly.
Fourth, a journalist, as well as the media consumer, must always remember that media reports are questionable, because media work is done at a rapid pace, with limited ability to investigate and none to enforce, and it is possible that when additional facts are discovered, the whole story can change. Therefore, similar to the heter to speak lashon ha’ra for constructive purposes, a journalist is permitted to report, and media consumers are permitted to hear and read his reports, provided they accept these things as a warning worth taking into account, but nothing more.
Fifth, a God-fearing journalist must sometimes consider the subjects’ condition. In rare cases, when it turns out that public criticism of the subject will cause him or his family terrible harm, while on the other hand the benefit to the public of publishing the criticism is not particularly important, he should avoid publishing , and find less public ways to resolve the problem (similar to what is explained in ‘Chafetz Chaim’ 10: 1, in the seventh detail).
Sixth, he should make sure to criticize only public figures and those in power whose actions are liable to cause harm to the public, while avoiding criticizing offenses and failings of private individuals whose actions have no direct public impact. Correction of personal sins committed in a private setting should be done personally and in secrecy, between the sinner and his friends, and not by public condemnation in the media.
Seventh, he must judge the subject fairly, according to the commandment of the Torah (Leviticus 19:15): “Judge your people fairly.” In other words, it is not enough to look at the particular act being criticized and judge it honestly; rather, one must make an effort to familiarize himself with the subject's overall personality and his actions, and in light of this, examine the act being investigated. Devoid of this, fair judgement cannot be exercised.
In this regard, the position of halakha is different from the usual practice. According to the superficial way of thinking, it is sufficient to examine the individual case that is being investigated; however, the truth is contingent on the whole picture and ignoring it leads to error and injustice. Therefore, for example, criticism of a person who is known as a tsaddik (a righteous person), should be made only after a multifold examination, for it is unlikely the testimony about his sin is correct (Rambam’s Commentary on Mishnayot, Avot 1: 6; Shaarei Teshuvah 3: 218).
Eighth, intensity of criticism should be commensurate with the severity of the crime or injustice. Unlike many members of the media, who, whenever they find a shortcoming, even a minor one, and even one that is easy to correct – by virtue of the claim of din pruta ke’din meah (figuratively, a small case is just as important as a big case) - publicize it openly, and even disqualify a person because of it, despite all his rights. A God-fearing journalist must know that din pruta ke’din meah is stated about judges, but the media are not judges, rather, emissaries who are meant to benefit the public, and therefore it is their duty to distinguish between insignificant and significant cases.
-The media must take care not to disqualify a senior and successful commander because he did not keep a certain non-crucial procedure. Media criticism of this kind is more harmful to the public than beneficial, for it causes mediocre people to remain in the system - those who strictly observe the rules, but fail in battle and cause the loss of soldiers.
-Criticism of petty matters is liable to result in the dismissal of a senior bureaucrat who could prevent the unemployment of thousands of people, just because he was not meticulous in keeping a certain insignificant regulation. Although he deserves to be punished for violating the regulation, he should not be fired for it.
Therefore, in the case of a non-serious violation of procedures, it is better to deal with the situation privately. At the very least, the media criticism should include emphasis on the subjects’ virtues, and express a moral position that he should not be fired, so that his superiors are not forced to fire him under pressure from the media, and thereby harm the public..
We find then, that the role of journalists is important and complex. As long as they have the public’s interest in mind, and are precise in their words, and criticize decisions and actions of public figures fairly – they fulfill a mitzvah.
If they criticize out of ridicule or personal hatred – even when their reports are beneficial to the public, they have transgressed.
If they exaggerate and tilt from the truth – they have committed a severe offense, because in their exaggeration, they also cause harm to the public.
Similarly, if they publish negative information about a private individual that is of no benefit to the public – they have transgressed the severe sin of lashon ha’ra. And the greater the insult, the more severe the transgression.
And in spite of everything, in general, having a free media benefits the public, and even immoral journalists are indirectly beneficial, for people learn to be careful because “there is an eye that sees, an ear that hears, and all your deeds are written in a book.”
When decent journalists condemn the wicked, in order to prevent them from continuing to transgress, they fulfill the mitzvah to rebuke the wicked, which is necessary for Tikun Olam. Without it, it is impossible to defeat the wicked, including delinquent journalists and media outlets. Ostensibly, every struggle between a tzaddik (righteous person) and a rasha (wicked person) is supposed to end in the victory of the rasha, because the rasha allows himself to use lies and all other improper means to defeat the tzaddik, whereas the hands of the tzaddik are bound by the rules of justice and fairness.
Nevertheless, the tzaddik has one advantage: the moral advantage. He can define the views of the rasha as evil. And since values carry crucial weight, this moral determination will lead in the end to the victory of the tzaddikim. But if the tzaddikim neglect the media arena, and waive their right to define the views of the rashaim as evil and condemn them, they have no chance of defeating them.
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.