by Rabbi Steven Pruzansky
The world is awash in gossip, slander, endless accusations, the intentional dissemination of rumors and innuendo, and reckless disregard for propriety, the norms of justice and the proper redress for wrongs, imagined or otherwise. Trial by media is the new normal. Trial by judges or juries that require the adduction of evidence and witnesses and proof beyond a reasonable doubt or even by the preponderance of evidence is passé, old-fashioned and behind the times. They are certainly less effective in destroying the lives and reputations of the targets whose guilt might not be proven in a conventional manner. For all the sanctimonious talk about progress and modernity, one might wonder whether or not duels were a more civilized form of resolving disputes than this is. Note: I am not calling for the re-institution of duels.
Jewish law is quite clear and in marked contrast to the perverse culture that surrounds us. One is not only prohibited from believing lashon hara (defined as any statement, even true, that tends to disparage the reputation of the subject) but one is also obligated to justify or interpret favorably even criminal or unseemly actions that we view with our own eyes – much less those we hear about from others. Jewish leaders, from the time of Moshe until today, have often been subject to cruel and despicable slander. All, obviously, were baseless, and all were intended to denigrate and marginalize them and reduce their influence in Jewish life.
The smear has become routine in public discourse and the saga of Judge Roy Moore is just the latest example. I have no truck with Judge Moore and no idea whether or not the accusations of vile misconduct against him are true. I will make two predictions (always risky but nonetheless): he will not become the Senator from Alabama and the day after he drops out or loses the election his accusers will disappear from the public eye never to be heard from again. For even his most vociferous (and even sincere) opponents must concede that the sole purpose of these accusations is not to find justice for the alleged victims but rather to achieve some petty, partisan political goal. But this is nothing new.
Recently, the acclaimed investigative journalist Sharyl Attkisson wrote a book entitled “The Smear: How Shady Political Operatives and Fake News Control What You See, What You Think and How You Vote.” It is an enlightening and frightening tale of the extent to which modern politics has become a game of money and power but a game that is fueled by lies, falsehoods, accusations, allegations, rumors, innuendo, and anything that can manipulate the gullible public in providing money or votes for a particular candidate or leave them disgruntled enough that they simply do not vote for the candidate to whom they would naturally incline. (After all, despite the protests to the contrary about the importance of voting, any candidate would rather have you stay home and not vote than go out and vote for the opponent.) Hence, politics has become a bi-partisan sport of character assassination and simply….lies.
This has always existed to some extent but it has reached new levels with the capacity to reach massive numbers of people in mere seconds and the rigorous scientific study of words, phrases, images and particular charges that sway particular voters. Campaigns have become nothing more than the steady drip of innuendo that, like the kikayon of the prophet Yonah, make a brief splash and then disappear overnight. Her book is filled with numerous examples, and even admissions of the players that this is the game they play. Remember last summer when the news blared that Melania Trump came here as an illegal immigrant and worked without a visa, and candidate Donald Trump was lambasted for his hypocrisy in marrying such a person? Maybe you do, maybe you don’t – but it was all fabricated, simply made up, all her papers were in order. It’s the exposure of this “breaking news!” that mattered to the disseminators – the instinctive impression on the listeners – and not whether the charge was false or FALSE. It was actually TOTALLY FALSE. That is just one of dozens of examples she cites.
So too – in my lame attempt to be bi-partisan – the persistent allegation that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and not in the United States. Very interesting, but few noted that such (even if true) would not have disqualified him to run for the presidency as long as his mother was an American citizen. This was born out by the 2016 election when a handful of diehards pointed out that Ted Cruz was, in fact, born in Canada. Indeed, but he remained eligible because his mother was an American citizen. From a Constitutional perspective, it matters not whether you were born in Canada or Kenya. But that too was fake news, designed to tarnish the candidate rather than educate the public.
Attkisson traces the birth of the modern smear movement to the “borking” (yes, it became a verb) of Judge Robert Bork whose nomination to the Supreme Court was rejected by Congress because of tendentious and repugnant accusations raised against him. But it has risen to a whole new level. Do not think for a moment that modern journalists pound the pavement and wear out their shoes trying to uncover dirt on candidates; that might have happened long ago. Today, most journalists are partisans (many reporters and columnists coordinate their writings with the campaigns they support!) and they are fed opposition research by those campaigns and do little background investigation about them. The slightly ethical will at least try to interview the accusers; the less ethical will just publish accusations that have already been disseminated on the internet, on the grounds that if it is on the internet it is already newsworthy. As consumers of news, we are fed narratives that have no connection to truth and myths that shape or reinforce our voting patterns. The examples are legion and I recommend the book. She quotes the Nazi propagandist Goebbels: “It would be possible to prove, with sufficient repetition and a psychological understanding of the people concerned, that a square is in fact a circle.” And, as Jews learned all too well, “A lie told once remains a lie but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.”
Donald Trump was a master at deflecting the dirt thrown at him by flinging dirt at his accusers and his opponents. He did this during the campaign, and now as well. Allegations against him of Russian “collusion” are simply turned against Hillary Clinton and her Russian “collusion.” (Full disclosure: I have met and spoken with Russians more than 100 times in the last year, almost all in shul. Nevertheless…) Obviously, Trump was successful in navigating this swamp, but the swamp has only deepened.
How does it work? Attkisson defines a smear in this way: “In simple terms, it’s an effort to manipulate opinion by promulgating an overblown, scandalous, and damaging narrative. The goal is often to destroy ideas by ruining the people who are most effective at communicating them…The smear business is interminable and eminently profitable…Imagine trying to focus on your job or family while professional smear artists engage in a 24/7 operation to discredit and controversialize you. To them, it’s second nature. They’ve perfected their techniques. They maintain a constant pressure. Their slander alienates your bosses, clients, colleagues, and the general public. They isolate you from your support system. Eventually, your own family and friends start to wonder about you. You feel the icy chill of distancing from those you consider closest.”
And right from Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals: “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.” For sure, such tactics have seeped into the Jewish world as well, and the agendas that are hostile to Torah do not hesitate to “controversialize” their adversaries or to lie, distort and malign in order to achieve their goals.
For the world, Sharyl Attkisson concludes with this synopsis: “For now, one thing you can count on is that most every image that crosses your path has been put there for a reason. Nothing happens by accident. What you need to ask yourself isn’t so much 'Is it true, but Who wants me to believe it—and why?'”
But Jews have to ask even more potent questions: how seriously do we take the Torah and its admonitions against lashon hara? How do we ostracize purveyors of lashon harain our community and in the media? How do we erase from our minds the negative images that lashon hara imprints? How do we protect the innocent and potential victims against possible abusers without drenching ourselves in lashon hara? And how do we inculcate in the religious public that civil disputes are the province of Bet Din and criminal accusations are the province of the secular court system – and not the media, in either case?
Life with smears is the inevitable consequence of trial by media and the inundation of our world with lashon hara. We should rise above both and set an admirable example for the rest of society.