Every year the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) holds a panel discussion on the just-concluded term of the U.S. Supreme Court. Broadcast live from the National Constitution Center, this year’s panel — consisting of legal experts Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, Frederick Lawrence and Dahlia Lithwick — reviewed the 2016-17 term, which ended in June. They covered topics ranging from free speech and transgender rights to an analysis of the court’s newest member, Justice Gorsuch. They also discussed an issue of particular interest to the Jewish community: the separation of church and state, raised by a Supreme Court case with potentially far-reaching implications. [Read more…]
How many Jewish heroes of the Revolutionary War (or earlier) can you identify? You probably know that Haym Salomon was a key figure in financing the Revolution. Did you know that Francis Salvador was the first Jew to die in the American Revolution, on August 1, 1776, following the signing of the Declaration of Independence? You might know that Philadelphian Rebecca Gratz founded the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society and other relief organizations. Did you know that her family was prominent among revolutionaries here? We also have colonial recipes. [Read more…]
A vigorous free press is central to our Republic. If any part of the government fails in its duty or oversteps legal bounds, we expect the news media to alert all of us to the facts, and bring judges, legislators, police, private citizens and organizations into action to remedy the problem. Without the news media, minorities and the less fortunate in our society would be the first to suffer inequality and ultimately loss of freedom.
But how does this work in an age when facts and “alternate facts” appear together, seemingly indistinguishable, in the new media that people are tuned to? The National Constitution Center on Independence Mall in Philadelphia took up the question under the heading, “Defining Truth in Modern Politics.”
With this very hot topic, the Constitution Center presented a very tepid discussion. Three journalists, including Susan Glasser, Politico columnist and weekly podcast host, Glenn Kessler, fact checker for the Washington Post, and Brian Stelter, host of the CNN program Reliable Sources, responded to questions from Tom Donnelly, senior fellow at the Center, in a program on May Day.
The panelists agreed that the media are under attack, notably from President Trump with his charges that they publish “fake news.” Kessler contrasted the situation today and 30 years ago and said that at the time, the New York Times, Washington Post and other respected newspapers, Newsweek and Time magazine, and a few respected broadcasters (think Walter Cronkite), laid down the facts. Battles centered on the opinions that could be drawn from those facts, but not the underlying truths.
But that is no longer the model in our internet age. Today, millions of Americans draw their news from the Internet, talk radio and similar sources. Some sources still practice traditional investigative journalism to produce real facts. But others freely run with rumors, false claims and propaganda — untested assertions, if they are surprising and eye-catching, get retweeted and repeated until they appear to be established facts.
Kessler, the fact checker, noted that the scope of his activity does not include opinions, just facts. Within that delimited area, he can handle only those claims that can be readily checked from available sources. That leaves out a great deal.
Stelter traced the current battle over “fake news.” It began with allegations by newsmen that then presidential candidate Donald Trump was spewing false information. The example given was Trump’s campaign claim that he would cut prescription medicine costs and save Medicare $300 billion per year, when in fact the total bill that Medicare pays for prescription medicines is closer to $70 billion. Stelter considered that perhaps Trump tried to recover from the blunder by accusing the news media of publishing “fake news.”Adding to the problem, the panelists noted the tendency for people to read and listen to only those news outlets that agree with their political preferences. The media play to this element by segregating themselves on the political spectrum. The panelists had no suggestion as to how to move people out of their “bubbles,” except to recommend it.
The panel’s prognosis is not optimistic: they recognize that the traditional media face a breakdown in their business plan built around people paying for information. Stelter suggested that in 10 years there might be more daily newspapers, such as a Sunday edition sold at a substantially higher price than today.
The panelists urged us to recognize the difference in quality of different information sources. But Kessler pointed out the limited independent fact checking that can happen in our system, constrained by time and the difficult economic issues facing traditional newspapers. So, although acknowledging the problem, this panel had few specifics to offer to correct it. Neither did they express any thought that it will right itself.
We can do better.
Generating fake news, including disinformation so extreme as to be unbelievable, is a technique for getting attention and coverage in the respectable press. A transparent falsehood may attract disproportionate press attention, bringing coverage and publicity to the faker. The professional media ought to be very cautious not to give such prominent attention to fakery as to make it a successful strategy for those seeking publicity.
The most immediate remedy against fake news should be found among journalists. Responsible journalists must speak out against fake news, not just to each other but in loud unmistakable voices to the world. Even this panel on truth in publishing showed no interest in specifying which journalists and media need reformation.
From a mistaken sense of obligation to be even-handed, the media treat those who propound fake news as if they are respectable sources. In this complicated age, the journalists and news media need to step up to the task. If they are going to report faulty or unvalidated material, a disclaimer is needed. The prominence given the material must be reconsidered in light of the tendency for listeners to choose to believe too much.
Longer term, putting civics back into elementary and high school curricula could be very useful. Education to prepare students for life on a planet of the electronic media should include training in finding the indicia of authenticity and the opposite. The evils of crowdspeak also need to be emphasized and taught from actual cases.
We might also need rating agencies. In a society that ranks innumerable services, including entertainment programs, books, movies, appliances, repair services, and so many others, applying our penchant for quality of the media is a logical next step.
The government should not rate the news media, because of considerations of freedom of speech and the press under the First Amendment. Any effort in that direction would be a serious threat to the independence of the news media.
But ratings do not need to be done by government. Taking a page from the financial markets, bonds are sold in the billions of dollars to buyers who do not initiate independent evaluations of the quality of each instrument. Bond rating agencies are private entities that evaluate the quality of the issuer and the confidence that the commitment in the bond will be fulfilled.
News media could be evaluated on their careful, thorough practices applied to a story before it is published. The media have accepted standards of care to apply before releasing an article. There are also accepted forms of language, when a decision is made to publish, that disclose uncertainties or limitations that may remain in an article.
The National Constitution Center presents an ongoing program of talks on topics related to the Bill of Rights, listed at constitutioncenter.org/debate.
Watch Brian Stelter admit to accidentally spreading “fake news:”
MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger is an organization that has been fighting hunger for over three decades. Originally, Mazon operated by providing funds to local food relief agencies, but now, it is solely an advocacy organization. Mazon advocates on hunger issues at all levels of government and provides grants to support the advocacy capacity of food distribution organizations and other anti-hunger groups throughout the United States and Israel. The grants — 179 of them this past year — fund advocacy efforts that benefit people of all faiths and backgrounds.In between busily preparing for Passover and responding to fast-paced government developments, Rabbi Erin Glazer, senior engagement officer of MAZON in Washington, D.C., took the time to answer a number of questions about the organization during a phone interview. Glazer served as rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, New Jersey, and gained her legislative experience at the National Council of Jewish Women and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. [Read more…]
This year, above all others, we should turn our thoughts and deeds to the millions of refugees fleeing from war and violence, a reincarnation of our great-grandparents fleeing from pogroms, conscription into the army of the czar and abject poverty. HIAS, our agency for resettlement of refugees in the United States, has prepared a Hagaddah supplement with striking photos and drawings of what it means to be a refugee today.
When the Democrats launched a filibuster against the confirmation of Judge Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, some claimed that it was only nasty revenge for the refusal of the Republicans in 2016 to vote, or even hold hearings, on the nomination of Judge Merrick Garland. The comparison is not apt.
Judges Gorsuch and Garland are both highly gifted members of the U.S. Courts of Appeals, judicial offices second in rank only to the justices of the Supreme Court. There the similarity ends. [Read more…]
With its new ban, the Transportation Safety Administration has adapted to the Trump Administration too easily. “Intelligence showing that the Islamic State is developing a bomb hidden in portable electronics spurred the United States and Britain on Tuesday to bar passengers from airports in a total of 10 Muslim-majority countries from carrying laptop computers, iPads and other devices larger than a cellphone aboard direct inbound flights, two senior American counter terrorism officials said,” according to the New York Times.
We need to take a long breath and think about what is happening. Laptop computers and tablet readers might pose a danger to air travel. But singling out ten Muslim-majority Middle East nations is not our way, and is not logical.
The Legal Intelligencer reports that lawyers from the firms Langer, Grogan & Diver and Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg teamed up with HIAS and the American Civil Liberties Union to form two groups. One group went to the airport to try to help those who were detained, unable to enter the country. A second group went to work on court papers, assisted by lawyers from the immigration law firms of Landau, Hess, Simon & Choi and Green and Spiegel.
By Sunday, this volunteer effort succeeded in ending the detentions. Fully resolving the issues, however, will require substantial litigation, in which these lawyers will play a significant role.
Despite the cold, over 100 people came to Congregation Adath Jeshurun (AJ) in Elkins Park on a Sunday morning to hear Trudy Rubin speak about foreign policy, including the politics and prospects for the Middle East. Rubin is the well known “Worldview” columnist for “The Inquirer” and is syndicated in other newspapers across the nation. The event was sponsored by the AJ Adult Education Committee.
Coming just two days after President Trump’s travel ban on Muslim countries, Rubin had much to say. The travel ban, she pointed out, does not reach the countries from which the largest number and worst terrorists have come to the United States. (Editor: By far, the majority of U.S terrorist attacks are perpetrated by Americans!) Neither does it take into account its possible destabilizing effects. For example, she noted that Jordan is an important ally of the U.S. But it is also host to one hundred thousand Syrian refugees, and is unable to afford to house or feed them or find them jobs. The American ban sets a precedent that is bad for the situation in Jordan. The government of Jordan holds a tenuous grasp on the situation, and our action endangers it. [Read more…]
For those of us immersed in social media, there is an endless assault on our senses by happenings large and small.
The president-elect sends a Twitter message criticizing the leader of a local union of the United Steelworkers for doing a “terrible job” and sending American jobs abroad. The tweet goes viral, and the union leader receives random threats from people on the basis of no known facts whatsoever.
A baseless charge linking Hillary Clinton to sex crimes is tweeted by a retired army officer, now in line to be the national security adviser in the new administration. The tweet is part of a deluge of fake news that reaches a particularly susceptible reader in North Carolina, who goes out and shoots up a pizza parlor to “investigate” the charge.
Being lampooned on social media is particularly harmful because there is no effective redress. Even if you find the source, there is no way to reverse the damage. The hundreds or thousands of viewers are beyond reach. Social media also offers an enticing immediacy and anonymity. Retweeting takes just a few keystrokes. One need not know the original author nor have any independent opinion of the worth of the message.
However, it would be wrong to single out Twitter in this regard. Moving at a slightly slower pace, but still beating out all news media, is Facebook. And not far behind is talk radio, a continuing stream of facts, fiction and innuendo.
We can’t help but respect movie stars, politicians and even friends and neighbors who achieve high numbers of “followers.” But we know that the path to achieving those inordinately large numbers is often just flavored or off-flavor gossip.
In Jewish law, gossip is a serious sin. Lashon ha-ra, the evil tongue, is a temptation we must resist. Yet in an age of social media, gossip is always too easy, too nearby and seemingly too impersonal.
Devout Jews perceive the injunction of lashon ha-ra to include two obligations: First, not to speak evil or gossip about others. And second, not to listen to gossip, because it is understood that the listener is an enabler and hence an inextricable part of the sin. So upon hearing gossip, a Jew should cover his ears, at one time a familiar motion.
Is there a similar defense while tapping on a cell phone, clicking at a computer or listening to your car radio? If not, we need to invent one. Perhaps there should be a special button on our electronics to mute evil gossip. Until that button is invented, however, we need to observe the mitzvah of “lashon ha-ra” and strike an electronic pose comparable to covering our ears.