BY LOUIS A. DAY
Whether one subscribes to the historicism of the Hebrew Bible or views it as a collection of stories (originating in an oral account) to justify the Hebrews’ exceptionalism in a rather chaotic moral universe reigned over by an omnipotent God, there is little dispute about the impact of this collection of writings on the ethical foundations of Western civilization. What is striking, however, is how these ethical precepts are applicable to the study and practice of professional ethics, including journalism.
This article includes a brief examination of some of the best known stories of the Old Testament and how they reflect values and concepts that continue to resonate in our post-modern society, with particular emphasis on their relevance to the ethical foundations of journalism. For ease of digestion, I have chosen to group the stories according to common values rather than chronologically.
Skepticism, Transparency, and the Right to Know
According to the Genesis account, God created the first human, commonly referred to as Adam, and provided him with luxurious accommodations in the Garden of Eden. His creator gave Adam one command: “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.”1 God gave no explanation for this command. His warning is probably a test of obedience, but it also arouses the reader’s curiosity. If Adam were an intelligent being, why would God wish to deprive humanity of the knowledge of good and evil, which distinguishes us from other species and is, after all, the engine of moral progress? His command seems to invite disobedience.
God then provided Adam with a mate (Eve), who was also bound by the divine command. A serpent conveniently made an appearance and queries Eve on what God told them. She confirmed the edict against eating from the tree of knowledge, but the serpent assured her they would not die. He provided the explanation that God did not: “You will surely not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”2 In other words, only God possessed moral knowledge, and like any sovereign God was not into power-sharing. But the serpent persuaded the pair to challenge this divine authority by eating from the tree. The couple paid a price in banishment from the garden, but the serpent had won their obedience by providing answers that the sovereign would not. Journalists share common ground with the first humans in challenging sovereign authority and seeking answers. The earliest citizens’ “right to know” seemed to be at stake in the creation story, and it remains a part of the social contract in modern democracies.
God’s call of Abram (whose name was later changed to the more familiar Abraham) marked the beginning of a special relationship between God and the Hebrew people. In exchange for Abram’s leaving his land and taking his family into a foreign territory, God promised Abram and his people that he would make them into a great nation and bestow blessings upon them.
This covenant is tested in the famous account of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.3 God decrees the two cities entirely wicked and beyond redemption and decides to destroy them, but he lets Abraham in on his plan. Abraham responds with indignation and engages his creator in what appears to be a perfectly reasonable discourse: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” Abraham asks incredulously. “What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it?”4 An argumentative Abraham demanded answers from The Divine Sovereign.
God tells Abraham that if he finds 50 righteous people in the City of Sodom he will spare the entire city. Abraham then decides to push the envelope and reduces the proposed number of innocents to 45. Once again the Lord agrees to spare Sodom if 45 innocent residents can be found. Abraham continues his negotiation until the number reaches ten. However, not having found ten innocent souls in Sodom and Gomorrah, God destroys the cities.5 It challenges credulity to believe there were no innocent citizens—Abraham’s skepticism is palpable—but undoubtedly the sins of the majority had corrupted the entire community. One lesson that arises from this story is that, even if we assume that humans are basically good, the moral depravity of a few can easily spread to the larger group if left unchecked or unacknowledged. Journalism, for example, can survive the ethical sins of a few errant reporters,but if they are not held accountable by their colleagues, and if such practices become the norm, credibility of the profession suffers.
The Book of Job is among the most challenging books of the Old Testament. It is also a testament to the human need to challenge authority and demand answers. William Safire, one of America’s most influential political columnists, has even referred to Job as “the first dissident.”6
The Book of Job, whose authorship is uncertain and whose central character may well be mythological, opens with an exceedingly flattering depiction of Job. Job, we are told, “was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil.”7 He possessed extraordinary wealth, lived a charmed life, was blessed with a healthy family of seven sons and three daughters, and was unalterably loyal to God.
Job’s piety is soon challenged by Satan, a member of the heavenly court, who is skeptical of man’s innate goodness. God offers up Job for Satan’s consideration, but Satan mocks God and accuses him of naiveté. God’s blameless and loyal servant is obedient only because of his good fortune, Satan tells him. “But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”8 God accepts the challenge and authorizes his antagonist to inflict, at his discretion, any calamity on Job and his family with the exception of physically harming the unsuspecting citizen of Uz. Of course, Job is not a party to this cosmic challenge and indeed is completely unaware that he is a pawn in this rather perverse struggle.
Satan is merciless in his attempt to lure Job into blasphemy. He destroys his home, slaughters his children and livestock, and inflicts his victim with painful sores.9 Three of Job’s friends suggest that he is being punished because of some wrong he has presumably committed,10 the implication being that the wicked are punished while the righteous are rewarded. Job’s fourth visitor, however, does not blame Job and argues that both the righteous and wicked suffer and that calamities often befall virtuous individuals. This might appear to be unjust, but there is a message embedded here: Ethical deportment should be its own reward rather than a means to extract some concession from other parties as the result of good works. In other words, constant attention to the moral virtues builds character, a lesson handed down to us from Aristotle.
Nevertheless, Job summons every means at his disposal to hold God accountable for his troubles. While his friends speculate on the possible causes of Job’s troubles, Job demands answers from God—evidence of his wrongdoing—but despite an appearance by God, who angrily condemns Job’s complaining, the Sovereign never provides an answer.11 This entreaty for accountability resonates with those entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring an uncorrupted flow of truthful political information within the modern democratic polis and demanding answers from those in authority. It is the press that fills that role in modern democracies.
The Need for Moral Guideposts
Unfortunately, the need for moral knowledge is not resolved in the Garden of Eden, as evidenced in the account of the Bible’s first murder. In the familiar story of Cain and Abel (the sons of Adam and Eve), Cain perceives that Abel is God’s favorite and, in a fit of jealousy, kills his brother. When God asks the whereabouts of Abel—perhaps a rhetorical question hoping Cain would confess—Cain replies with the famous and often quoted rejoinder: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”12
So how should a just God have responded? On the one hand, God could have forgiven Cain on the grounds that there was no rule against murder at this stage of human development. At the other extreme would have been capital punishment. In the interest of justice (at least from the perspective of the modern reader) God responded to the fratricidal Cain’s dissembling in an interesting fashion—he sent him into exile. This was terrifying enough for Cain who feared death at the hands of murderous savages, so God placed a mark on Cain to protect him from would-be assassins. God chose the middle ground, perhaps an early example of the Aristotelian Golden Mean. We find a modern analogue in the journalistic principles of balance and proportionality in covering stories that might cause embarrassment to the subjects of news coverage. The SPJ Code, for example, admonishes journalists to treat “members of the public as human beings deserving of respect” and to “(b)alance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort.”
Later, God decided, despite the absence of any clear-cut ethical guidelines, that the entire human race was morally bankrupt and vowed to destroy his creation, which he did by flooding the earth. As reported in one of the most famous stories in Genesis, only Noah and his family and an ark full of animals survived. When the waters receded, a suitably repentant God promised never to destroy “all living creatures again,” but in return required an accounting from each man “for the life of his fellow man.” “Whosoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed,” pledged the Lord, “for in the image of God has God made man.”13 This is arguably the first ethical principle in the Old Testament. The requirement for accountability is manifest in this Divine command, a concept with which any ethical journalist would agree. NBC News anchor Brian Williams learned this the hard way when the network suspended him for misrepresenting an experience in covering the Iraq war.
We also see a subtle evolution from the somewhat arbitrary sovereign of the Garden of Eden and the Cain story to a divinity who recognizes that ethical due process requires the promulgation of rules in advance and publicizing them to the affected parties. Of course, the iconic example of ethical codification in the Old Testament is the Ten Commandments.14 The Decalogue is not the product of political compromise between Yaweh and Moses (or the Hebrews as a social/political entity), but is unequivocal in its rejection of moral relativism. The first ten commandments are only the beginning as God then proceeds to codify several hundred moral mandates to guide his chosen people.15
This notion of rule codification and publicity are principles that reside at the core of professional codes today. The SPJ Code, for example, is a clear statement of the ethical values that animate the practice of journalism, and this code is widely disseminated in a variety of venues.
The Need for Corroboration and Verification
The Pew Research Journalism Project describes the “essence” of professional journalism as a “discipline of verification” that “separates journalism from other modes of communication, such as propaganda, fiction or entertainment.”16 Hearsay evidence, as is true in our criminal justice system, is inadequate for journalistic truth. Such rumors must be substantiated, a principle validated among the stories of the Old Testament. Turning again to the account of Sodom and Gomorrah, according to the Genesis account God hears rumors of the wickedness that pervades the cities’ residents, and embarks upon a fact-finding mission to confirm the rumors. He is not satisfied with hearsay evidence; he must see for himself.17 “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous,” lamented the Hebrew God, “that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”18
Seeking out multiple witnesses is also fundamental to the verification standard. But in doing so journalists are following a principle codified thousands of years ago in the Book of Deuteronomy. “One witness is not enough to convict a man accused of any crime or offense he may have committed,” Moses advises the Israelites. “A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.”19 Based upon this ancient precept, the belief that multiple sources better ensures the accuracy of news stories is an article of faith in journalism.
The Ends-Means Justification as a Solution to Ethical Dilemmas
Abraham’s continuing loyalty to God, despite the destruction of the cities, was rewarded with the escape of his son-in-law, Lot, and Lot’s wife and two daughters. However, Lot’s wife looked back and was turned to a pillar of salt. That left Lot and his daughters with no obvious means to preserve their family line. The daughters then plotted to get their father drunk so that he would have sex with them and produce offspring.20
To modern sensibilities this rape of Lot by his daughters might smack of the worst kind of incest, which today would clearly be a cultural taboo. But from an ethical perspective, one could argue that the perpetuation of the Abrahamic lineage was more important than sexual decorum. It does assume a utilitarian cast. Rule-breaking was justified to propagate life. Thus, putting aside the offensiveness of incest to our modern sensibilities, the ends justified the means. The ends-means justification is a common approach in professional ethics. Journalists, for example, often defend their decisions based upon the “greater good” to be served by publication even at the risk of harming those affected adversely by this publicity. This utilitarian calculus is also taught in journalism ethics programs as one among several theoretical approaches to ethical decision-making.
A classic case of the means-ends moral dilemma occurred while the Hebrews were in captivity in Egypt in the years leading up to the birth of Moses. A newly enthroned Egyptian king was disturbed by the high birth rate among the Hebrews, fearing that they would soon outnumber their captors. He then ordered the Hebrew midwives to kill all male babies while allowing the females to live. However, the midwives, fearful of God’s wrath, let the male babies live, telling the Pharaoh, when he demanded an explanation, that “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.”21 Some commentators have justified this bit of deception on the grounds that murder is worse than lying, that lying can be justified when a more important moral principle is at stake.22
However, neither the story of Lot nor of the Hebrew midwives is designed to promote pure situational ethics. In both cases the ends (perpetuation of and respect for life) were justified by some higher moral principle, A case in point is a journalist who must use deception (thus violating sacred values of truth and honesty) to uncover corruption at the highest levels of government or corporate America. Such investigations in the public interest are unlikely to erode significantly the public’s trust in professional journalists.
Ethical Formalism and Virtue
The classical prophets—Jeremiah, Hosea, Ezekiel, among others—were the civic and political activists of the Old Testament. They were a thorn in the side of the priests who were the spiritual and moral leaders of the Hebrew people. The priests counseled their followers that adherence to the more than 600 commandments of the Hebrew law would constitute a form of moral perfection. The prophets challenged this view of moral virtue, noting that mere adherence to a formal set of regulations did not make one a virtuous member of society. “Right” has a meaning, they argued, apart from what the majority says it means.23 Their particular focus was on the perpetual disparity between rich and poor and the fact that wealthy Hebrews, despite their apparent obedience to Hebrew law, turned a blind eye on the injustices suffered by the economically disinherited. And they were not afraid to challenge political authority, namely the Hebrew priests. Legal scholar David Dow refers to the prophets as the “judicial activists” of ancient Hebrew culture because they were not afraid to search outside the formal texts for principles that would produce a more virtuous and just community.24
Ethical journalists might identify with the concerns of the ancient prophets. The prophets rejected formalistic, rule-based ethical decision-making and focused (as Aristotle would do generations later) on virtuous behavior in building a just community. News media, market-driven and threatened by relentless competitive pressures, have succumbed to the temptation to give the public what it wants (or what a journalistic organization believes that the public wants), while sometimes ignoring the real needs of the community. News is event and process-oriented, but the moral dimensions of the great and enduring stories of our time are seldom explored,25 and when they are, the references are fleeting. Investigative journalists who believe in civic activism on behalf of social justice and challenging political leaders to live up to the promises of the Democratic enterprise should feel a kinship with the ancient prophets of the Old Testament.
The scribes of the Old Testament of the Bible were not mere chroniclers of an oral narrative bequeathed to them by the ancient Hebrews. Their stories, whether historical or allegorical, are a cornerstone of the moral environment of Western Civilization. And since professional ethics are often at least a partial reflection of social ethics, then we can assume, without too much exaggeration, that the Old Testament has something to say about the foundations of journalism ethics in modern society.
2 Genesis, 3:4-5.
3 Ibid., 18.
4 Ibid., 18:23.
5 Ibid., 18: 23-33.
6 See William Safire, The First Dissident: The Book of Job In Today’s Politics. New York: Random House, Inc. 1992.
7 Job 1:1.
8 Ibid., 1:11.
9 Ibid., 1:13-19.
10 Ibid., 2:11-14:22.
11 Ibid., 23:1-41:6.
12 Genesis, 4:9.
13 Ibid., 9:5-6.
14 Deuteronomy, 5:6-21.
15 E.g., see Deuteronomy, 11-30; Leviticus, 1-27.
16 “Principles of Journalism,” Online report of the Pew Research Journalism Project, p 1, at www.jourrnalism.org/resources/principles-of-journalism, downloaded 9/11/2014.
17 Alan Dershowitz, The Genesis of Justice. New York: Warner Books, 2000, p. 83.
18 Genesis, 18:20-21.
19 Deuteronomy, 19:15.
20 Genesis, 19:31-32.
21 Exodus, 1:15-19.
22 Annotation to Exodus 1:19-20 in The Quest Study Bible.
23 David R. Dow, America’s Prophets: How Judicial Activism Makes America Great.” Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009, p. 10.
24 See Ibid.
25 E.g ., see James S. Ettema and Theodore L. Glasser, Custodians of Conscience: Investigative Journalism and Public Virtue. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.