The media is central to our public lives, but does halacha allow for a free press that criticizes and publishes unfavorable reports about people and organizations? Assuming that a free press is not prohibited, is being a journalist an ethical job?
To answer these two questions, the prohibition of lashon hara and the role of the media must be defined.
The Rules of Lashon Hara and Rechilut
Three prohibitions come up in relation to a free press: rechilut (gossip), lashon hara (slander), and hotza’at shem ra (libel) – see Rambam, Hilchot De’ot 7:2. The least severe of these is rechilut – i.e., reporting on the private life of an individual. More severe is lashon hara – i.e., a true report of bad behavior – and more severe than that is hotza’at shem ra – i.e., publishing evil lies about others.
Lashon hara is considered a grave sin because it poisons society and inter-personal relations to the point that our Sages compared it to the three severest sins together: idol worship, incest, and bloodshed. In fact, it’s even worse than all three given that the First Temple was destroyed because of these three sins for 70 years, while the Second Temple has been destroyed for almost 2,000 years due to baseless hatred and lashon hara (Yoma 9b, Arachin 15b).
Forbidden to Be a Journalist?
Thus, it would seem there is no heter to permit a free press and no heter to work as a journalist since journalists and the press often look for flaws in people and publicize them, which is a violation of lashon hara.
What’s more, since journalists are unable to exhaustively investigate every story, they will often transgress the sin of hotza’at shem ra. Beyond that, in order to attract readers and viewers, journalists often spreads rechilut about famous personalities and leading institutions.
Since journalists often find fault with people and publicize these faults, they are arguably baalei lashon hara, whom Rabbeinu Yonah (Shaarei Teshuvah 3:217) compared to flies that are always attracted to filthy places.
Making condemnatory statements about others is permitted if they serve a constructive purpose – e.g., saving a person from signing a bad business deal or marrying an unsuitable spouse. The circumstances under which such statements may be made, though, are very limited, according to the Chafetz Chaim.
First, a person must have first-hand knowledge of the incident (journalists usually only have second-hand knowledge). Second, a person must rebuke the subject first. Fulfilling this second condition, though, would make having a free press impossible since everyone who is rebuked would immediately declare that he regrets his behavior and will act differently in the future.
A third condition is that the person’s’ intent must be constructive. Many journalists, however, simply wish to make a living and don’t care whether their story will lead to a constructive end or not.
The Role of the Media in a Democratic Society
Now let’s discuss the positive value of journalism. It’s commonly agreed that a democratic state cannot exist without freedom of the press. In general, the media has three roles: 1) to inquire, 2) to express viewpoints that can bring about a change in public attitudes, and 3) to serve the public by conveying information.
The first role – to inquire – is the most important of the three, and it touches on the question of lashon hara. The media probes the government. The more power the media has to criticize the government, the more careful the government is not to act illegally or immorally.
The media also probe powerful and influential people who sometimes mislead the public. By doing so, they can expose their lies and thereby benefit the public.
In order for the media to fulfill its role, journalists are granted confidentiality; they need not disclose the source of the information. In other words, even if they obtained their information illegally, or for impure motives, they cannot be compelled to reveal their source. Why is that? Because the law recognizes that protecting the identity of leakers can thwart major crimes of those in power.
The Benefit in Journalistic Enquiry
The benefits of journalistic enquiry can be classified as both criminal and moral. On the criminal level:
1) The existence of a free press obviates the government from having to station policemen on every corner and in every business. The press itself prevents many crimes from being committed with its implicit threat of exposure.
2) Occasionally, thanks to media investigations, evidence emerges that matures into indictments.
On a moral level: The media investigates acts that aren’t illegal, but harm the public nonetheless. Examples include the behavior of manufacturers, healers, and fraudulent counselors. Media stories about them allow the public to make better informed choices on whether to continue believing them.
The Media and Mitzvot
Thus, a free press arguably fulfils several mitzvot:
1) “You must admonish your neighbor and not bear sin because of him” (Leviticus 19:17)
2) “Do not stand still when your neighbor’s life is in danger” (Leviticus 19:16)
3) Condemn the wicked and acts of injustice to rectify society (Shaarei Teshuvah 3:218, Chafetz Chaim 10:4).
The First Foundation for a Heter: Public Benefit
Thus, even when the conditions outlined by the Chafetz Chaim cannot strictly be fulfilled, a critical and free press may be allowed because of the great benefit the general public derives from it (lashon hara is often allowed if it will yield significant benefit).
Similarly, in a democracy, citizens may speak disparagingly of public figures or groups that act improperly because of the great public benefit that will result. In a democracy, each individual is a partner in the management of public life, and if he hears of acts of corruption or negligence by a certain minister or mayor, he can vote for another candidate.
(G-d willing, on another occasion, I will explain how the above is consistent with the rules of the Chafetz Chaim.)
The Second Foundation: Public Consent
There is widespread public agreement in all democracies in favor of a critical, independent, and incisive media. This public consensus possesses similar validity to the weight of the well-known rule “dina de’malchuta dina,” according to which the government has the right to legislate and impose taxes on citizens and to punish those who break the law or do not pay taxes.
One cannot argue that the government robs citizens by taxing them and infringes on their rights by punishing them when they violate the law because all citizens have agreed to waive some of their rights to have a government, for without a government, society would crumble and every man would swallow his neighbor alive.
Citizens who are harmed by the strong arm of the government resent it, but they don’t question its authority. They agree that it’s better to have a government than the chaos that is liable to prevail without one; in doing so, they give the government the right to legislate and collect taxes.
Similarly, society as a whole has agreed that in order to maintain a liberal democratic government, it is necessary to have a free press that will protect citizens from those in power who are capable of harming them. Although victims of the media almost always feel they have been wronged, they still agree that a free press is necessary.
Thus, any person who decides to enter public life implicitly agrees to expose himself to media criticism as part of the rules society has set.
Even in a state governed by halacha, it is mutar and even a mitzvah to maintain a free and investigative media – even if journalists do not fulfill their role out of good motives – provided the condemnation touches on individuals whose activities have a public impact and the criticism concerns an aspect related to their public influence.
It is still worthwhile to clarify whether, and how, a G-d-fearing person can engage in such a free and critical media according to halacha. I will discuss that at another time.