Seeking Truth Through Journalism—and Judaism

Seeking Truth Through Journalism—and Judaism

December 30, 2019 in Highlights, Winter Issue 2020
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Today, journalism is under attack on an unprecedented scale. It has always been the target of those who want to obfuscate facts and spread confusion. As philosopher Hannah Arendt warned us in a 1967 essay, “the result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth and truth be defamed as a lie, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world…is being destroyed.”

Arendt, among others, wanted to understand how the German people had been able to accept the lies of Hitler and his minions. This is a question that still echoes today. And the answer is sobering. Our brains are part of the problem. Studies show that they are wired to be more receptive to stories than facts: We choose stories first, then fit the facts to them. As Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels knew, stories are malleable: When they are reshaped, the dominant narratives of an era shift as well.

So how do we find truth in a world where leaders regularly lie, creating a factless free-for-all that undermines the wisdom we have worked so hard to attain? I believe good journalism is one of the best defenses against confusion. Contrary to contemporary opinion, journalism is more than the quintessential deadline-driven “first draft of history.” It’s a process, albeit an imperfect one, of trying to get at the truth. I’m the daughter of a physicist, and to some extent, the process is based on the same scientific methods I was raised on. Journalists shape questions and attempt to answer them with evidence, which must consist of multiple trustworthy sources or documents, reflecting the profession’s credo, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

Of course, truth was a fundamental human quest long before journalism evolved in the 19th century. Philosophy, law, history, art and science all seek truth. But journalism has the advantage—and great responsibility—of being able to scrutinize power and hold it accountable in a matter of days, weeks or months as opposed to years, decades or centuries. Its relentless pursuit of transparency is invaluable: History has shown that we can’t trust those in power, working unexamined, to tell the truth.

These days we hear constant criticism that journalists are not objective. I know many smart, thoughtful journalists who strive to be as impartial as possible and base their stories on the most verifiable facts they can find. That’s a big task, because we all have built-in biases—our world views are shaped by education and the communities around us. I would argue that at least one bias is a good one. Many journalists are sympathetic to the powerless—following in the tradition of Jacob Riis, whose stories and photographs revealed the miseries of New York City’s 19th-century tenement life, and of McClure’s Magazine, which took on plutocrats and government corruption in the progressive era of Teddy Roosevelt. We can argue about who is powerless—and we do—but as Jews we know this bias is preferable to the opposite one.

Which brings us to what Jewish tradition has to say about truth. One of its great truths—one that I rely on as a guide—is its recognition of intellectual diversity. The discussion doesn’t end with the words of God as expressed in the Torah, which often seem to contradict each other. As we see in the Talmud in the rabbinical era, truth often emerges through debate; we are even warned to be wary of anyone who claims to know the absolute truth.

This issue devotes many pages to the topic of truth. In “Jewish Word,” books and opinion editor Amy E. Schwartz discusses the Jewish take on truth and the meaning of the word emet, “truth,” in Hebrew. In the Jewish Political Voices Project (JPVP), two of our participants wrangle over the importance of truth in politics today. In the “Opinion Debate” section, former Israeli deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon and former Vermont governor Madeleine Kunin share their thoughts about whether or not Jews should support leaders who lie.

Other stories more subtly reflect questions of truth. Ellen Wexler profiles attorney Roberta Kaplan, who is using the American legal system to combat anti-Semitism. Special literary contributor Robert Siegel reviews two new books and a Netflix series that show how elusive evidence can be, even when needed to convict accused Nazi war criminals. In his opinion column, contributor Konstanty Gebert observes how changing views on religion in the public arena correlate with political shifts in Poland, Turkey and Israel. Critic-at-large Carlin Romano wonders how a new national museum in Ferrara will find the right balance of facts to retell 2,200 years of Italian Jewish history.

“Truth is the daughter of time,” says architect Daniel Libeskind, who was born in Lodz, Poland after World War II, in a recent interview with arts editor Diane M. Bolz about an exhibition he designed marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. “You can try to manipulate truth. You can try to suppress it.” But, he adds, “in the long run, truth always comes out.” Like Libeskind, we at Moment believe that the arc of history bends toward enlightened and conscious human behavior. That is why we keep striving for truth.

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