Is Journalism Kosher?

On Sunday, 45 years after it began, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz finished his English translation of the Talmud, the seminal, 45-volume work of Jewish law, and to mark the occasion, hundreds of communities from Russia to the United States celebrated a Global Day of Jewish Learning. New York City alone hosted more than a dozen Global Day learning opportunities.

At one of those events -- and it doesn't take a leap of faith to assume at most of these events -- more questions were raised than answered: What would Rabbi Steinsaltz say about the state of journalism today? Would he agree that the modern endeavor of reporting is really just craze mongering? What does the Talmud have to say about journalism? What does Judaism in general (not that Judaism can ever be generalized) think about the Fourth Estate? And what is journalism, anyway?

Uri Heilman, managing editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), commonly known as the Jewish AP, and Ari Goldman, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, set out to answer some of those questions at the Columbia Barnard Hillel on Sunday night.

The discussion, titled "Is Journalism Kosher?" centered on the Jewish prohibition against lashon hara, which literally means "evil tongue" but is commonly translated as "gossip."

The guy who wrote the book about such evil speech, Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan (1838 - 1933), and is referred to by the name of that book, Chofetz Chaim, said that lashon harah harms three people: the speaker, the listener and the one who is the subject of the gossip.

The Chofetz Chaim didn't like newspapers. He said newspaper editors sin. He said editors cause other people to sin. Reading a newspaper, according to the Chofetz Chaim, is an unholy act. He apparently didn't even like the telephone, thought it was a tool that could be used for gossip.

"I can only imagine what he would think about the Internet," Goldman, the journalism professor, joked.

When he was a teenager, Goldman attended a rather strict yeshiva in Brooklyn. Every day he had to take the train from his parents' home in Queens to the school. It was the 1960s and there were seven daily newspapers in New York City. On the subway, he started picking up wayward papers and fell in love. Noticing that Goldman had started to bring the paper with him to yeshiva, one of his teachers was furious. The rabbi told Goldman the paper was filth, lashon hara. He told him not to read the newspaper. Instead, he told him, go study the Talmud.

Since that experience and throughout his career as a journalist -- he covered religion for two decades at the New York Times -- Goldman has asked himself: Is journalism kosher? Is journalism the right thing to do? Is it a good, noble, appropriate profession?

Heilman, the managing editor of JTA, had a different experience growing up: "In the interest of full disclosure, I went into journalism without asking a rabbi whether or not it was kosher. I didn't have a rabbi who told me, 'Feh! Throw that newspaper out.' If he did, I probably would've ignored him," he said.

"But I became a journalist first, and then afterwards I went looking for justifications. I am a religious Jew and as many religious Jews know, that's often the way you do things. You're not sure: Is it trief, is it kosher? You'll eat it, and then you'll find a rabbi who will give you the OK."

Heilman looks to a story in the Torah to explain the Jewish view of reporting: Before the people of Israel entered the land after wandering in the desert for so long, they sent a group of spies into the land with the express purpose of finding out if it was a place of strength or weakness, if there were many or few people. The spies returned with an accurate report of what they saw. Accuracy aside, the spies, and the Jewish people as a whole, were punished.

"How could they be punished for recording what was accurate?" Heilman asked.

In the Torah, there are explicit and implicit warnings against gossip. But the spies didn't gossip. The traditional answer to this problem is that the spies veered from their assignment, Heilman said. Sure, they reported the facts when they talked about the land of Israel being "a land that consumed its inhabitants." They had witnessed many funerals there, and that was the scene the spies described when they returned. But, as the commentaries explain, the funerals were taking place so that the locals wouldn't pay attention or notice the spies, not so that the spies would pay attention to the funerals. The spies forgot their assignment.

That's the traditional response. A journalist-centric answer is that there are details that are material and there are details that are immaterial to the story. The spies didn't tell the wrong story, they told it in the wrong way.

The Torah itself is just a bunch of stories about people who have sinned and failed in some way or another. So is the whole of Torah lashon hara? And the Talmud, the Jewish oral tradition that was later written down in the face of exile and fills in many of the missing details of the Five Books of Moses through stories about people, is that also lashon hara? God forbid. Nothing's so black and white. There is good speech and there is bad speech. There are good stories and there are bad stories. In a similar way, there is good journalism and there is bad journalism.

The Talmud Times

"The Talmud is a guide, a model for good journalism," Goldman said. It's not just a book. Instead, it's like a library of Jewish wisdom and lore. It's filled with arguments. There's a majority opinion and a minority opinion. In the Talmud, every side has a say, and what every side says is important.

Even the structure of the Talmud is like a newspaper. In the Talmud, you start with a Mishnah, which is a short summary of a given law, and then move to an exposition of the law. This is not unlike a news story, which has a lead, a succinct summary of the news, and then the body of the story, which delves into all the elements of the story mentioned in the lead.

On a single page of Talmud, many disparate points of view are entertained. In the same way, a good newspaper represents all the views. Everyone finds his or her place in the pages of a newspaper -- a good newspaper, at least.

So how could journalism be unkosher, if its structure so closely resembles the compendium of Jewish law itself?

"Journalism can be kosher if practiced the right way, but it can be very unkosher, it can also be, as we say, trief, if practiced the wrong way," Goldman said. "To know the difference is the difference between being a responsible journalist who works within our tradition and a journalist who is doing damage and harm."

The examples of good, kosher journalism are obvious. Goldman points to Pulitzer Prize for Public Service-winning stories as examples. These are stories that heal the world and help the society: The Boston Globe's reporting of local priests' sexual abuse of children; the Washington Post's coverage of care at the Walter Reed military hospital; the Chicago Tribune's reporting on dangerous car seats and toys, which led to a recall of such products; the New Orleans Times-Picayune's actions during the crisis of Hurricane Katrina (it served as a community center, a point of connection); the New York Times' coverage of 9/11 and the work it did to strengthen New York and New Yorkers.

There are also cases of journalism gone wrong. For example: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution coverage of the case of Richard Jewell, who was accused of the Atlanta Olympics bombing but, after his reputation was thoroughly damaged, was later found to be innocent.

"I like to think that when my rabbi said, 'Put that newspaper away, that's trief,' he was speaking about bad journalism, not good journalism," Goldman said.

Kosher Correspondents, Unkosher Commentary

So a journalist learns the ins and outs of responsible, ethical, world-healing reporting. He or she absorbs these principles and uses them in the field and in the newsroom. Does the difficulty of keeping journalistic kashrut end at publishing time? Today, in 2010, it does not.

The very notion of journalism is now blurry. Modern digital "reporting" is an infinite progression of tweets and tumblrs, and the people doing the posting usually have no formal training. That is a good thing, I think. Anything that blends the boundaries between storyteller and audience is a good thing. Or it could be.

Just as likely, blurry could be bad. The abovementioned journalist, trained or not, hits publish, and then the story really begins. Today, it is not enough to practice ethical reporting. Editors and moderators can read comment threads until the end of time and not even begin to have an inkling of the itch that would eventually cause them to scratch the surface.

So what can be done? Censor the obscene? Well, what's obscene? OK. Shut comments down all together?

That's what the JTA did when comments got out of hand on its website.

"We found that most of the comments were ... hate-filled," Heilman said. "What's the point of having it?"

Forget the stories themselves. Before the shut down, subjects of JTA stories would often call Heilman and say they were embarrassed by the comments below the story. The comments didn't further the discussion. They weren't conducive to, well, anything. So JTA turned the comments off. Now, thoughtful and hateful readers alike can send their thoughts as letters-to-the-editor, and the JTA will hand pick the best.

For a news wire service like JTA, that's a fine solution. But what about a publication such as the Huffington Post, which has a lively community of commentary?

As the boundaries get blurrier and the barriers to entry fall away, simply shutting down a comment section on a website will not be a viable solution. Doing so will spell the eventual failure of any site that relies on an active community of readers -- that is, on a steady stream of commentary.

Rabbi Hillel, an epic (the epic) figure in the Talmud and Jewish history alike, famously pinpointed the essence of Judaism: "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn" (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 31a).

Rabbi Steinsaltz, who just completed his translation of that and thousands upon thousands of other bits of Jewish wisdom, ended the live Global Day of Jewish Learning webcast on Sunday with the following:

The great secret of the Talmud is the brit to be involved. And so, what I wish, what I pray, what I try to give to people here: Please, be involved in your Jewishness, in your life, in your soul. Be involved. ... Heaven is not the limit. We are going because we say in some way that the Torah is above heaven. Oh, as somebody once said really beautifully: 'In all kinds of religions, they believe that the law, their religion is from heaven. We believe that our law, our Torah is heaven itself.' So please, continue to be in heaven.

Keep reading. Keep learning. Keep commenting. Keep connecting. Keep pouring yourself into this conversation that is life and history. Do that, and this world should be blessed that its stories are stories of peace and its commentaries are commentaries of love. Do that, and you will help keep journalism kosher.