Monday, February 24, 2003

Book Burning and Other Publishing Sins

Books should not be banned or burned, although some certainly deserve to be and although many have sinned against the environment by causing trees to be cut down for no useful purpose. The argument against book burning is invariably couched in constitutional rather than utilitarian terms. Of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, the most protected and therefore the one nearest to being an absolute is freedom of the press, which in practical terms means that there cannot be prior censorship of publications.

A published book that is banned is a book that is getting tons of free advertisement. As forbidden fruit, it is likely to attract more interest and readers than it would get if it were left alone. Likely, much of this increased attention comes from the inside of the circle that is most affected by the ban. Simply put, it’s poor strategy to label any writing as treife.

Contrary to the impression that some have, “One People, Two Worlds” – the dialogue between two Rabbis, one Reform and the other Orthodox – was not banned. It was, however, severely criticized by rabbinical leaders, as it deserved to be. It has some standing as a gimmick of the sort that has become popular in publishing. But as a serious discussion of Judaism and contemporary Jewish life, it is entirely bogus because the Reform movement and the Orthodox do not constitute one people. Individual Reform Jews do, but not all that many; the movement does not.

To maintain otherwise is to be in denial, to cling to a convenient fiction and to believe that intermarriage, patrilineality, snap conversions, homosexual unions and the wholesale abandonment of tradition, observance and belief have not exacted a terrible toll and destroyed the concept of one-ness.

The protected status of publishing extends beyond what the constitution directly provides. Those who control what is printed or conveyed by other media have the power to choose what the public reads and sees and what it does not read and see. We regard censorship as wrongful, while, in fact, many editorial decisions border on censorship, as when materials submitted for publication or broadcasting are edited and their meaning is distorted, not because of style or space considerations but because of their content.

I recognize, of course, that editorial decisions must take into account relevancy, the public interest in what is being submitted and the constant competition for space in the print media and for time in the broadcast media. There obviously is no obligation to publish all letters that are sent in or all articles that are drafted, even by writers who have been asked to submit their material. Hidden censorship – it’s hidden because readers or viewers are blind to what has transpired – occurs when the decision not to publish or broadcast is predicated on ideology or personal likes. A good example of this form of censorship and also of mega-hypocrisy was provided recently by the New York Times when it suppressed articles submitted by regular columnists that deviated from the newspaper’s attitude toward the Masters Golf Club’s refusal to admit women.

Since editors exercise discretion by deciding what they will not publish, they are directly accountable for what they do publish, without cowardly hiding behind the First Amendment. There is no constitutional obligation to publish or air material that is tawdry or cruel or rumors that are dressed up as news. The expanding media tendency to indulge in sensationalism and half-truths is explained – it certainly cannot be justified – as giving readers and viewers what they want to read or see and hear. When I taught constitutional law, there was no obligation for the media to pander. I doubt that this has changed.

Even the feeble explanation that economic pressures require the media to lower their standards cannot be employed when hateful material is published. Few of us would defend on First Amendment grounds a newspaper that publishes anti-Semitic or racist writing.

When serious wrongs are committed by the media, they are scarcely counteracted by letters to the editor or discrete correction notices and certainly not by litigation. Little comfort can be taken from Justice Holmes’ famous statement about a marketplace of ideas. There is no such marketplace and the metaphor is blind to social and psychological reality. Far more likely, a Gresham’s law is at work and the bad that is communicated by the media drives out the good.

Some publishing wrongs border on the bizarre. I am shocked by last week’s back-page column in this newspaper by a writer for The New Republic who extolled in rhapsodic language the autobiographical sketch of a young woman who converted from Judaism to Christianity. Whatever the merits of the work, we need not be told in American Jewry’s leading newspaper - and this is a community newspaper – that “there is something electrifying” about the book and that it is “profoundly moving, profoundly spiritually nourishing.”

At a time when our community is trying to resist the well-financed activities of Jews for Jesus and other missionary activity aimed at Jews, we do not need to read the following in the Jewish Week: “While her move from Judaism to Christianity might be far from what you might wish for your daughter, I believe that Winner’s ferocity of spirit, scrupulous self-consciousness and her devotional faith – compel a different response.”

I do not intend these words as criticism of the article; they are meant to protest against the decision to publish it.

Newspapers have power and power always corrupts, to one extent or another. Since newspapers have nearly absolute power, Lord Acton’s famous statement certainly applies to them. We read a great deal about media responsibility. Strangely, the more we read or hear about the subject, the less responsibility there is.