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J’accuse NPR

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An old friend of mine from college who now works in DC as a journalist was a budding investigative writer back then as well. He was only a Sophomore, but had already been threatened with university expulsion for having written an expose on the way in which university officials had purposely “hushed up” a rash of young women who had been spied on, threatened and sexually assaulted. I asked him why he was willing to go to such lengths, even at the risk of expulsion. He said to me, “Scott, everything in our society must be transparent. It is the only way democracy works. As long as anyone in power can do things in secret, no one can truly trust the system. (And this was a decade before the World Wide Web!)

His passion for truth and transparency has remained with me my whole adult life. And it comes back to me a bit hauntingly today as I read about how National Public Radio is choosing to not post their most recent cover of Charlie Hebdo magazine.

On NPR’s website, their statement as to the rationale for not posting this image includes:

“Photos showing just a few of the magazine’s covers could lead viewers to mistakenly conclude that Charlie Hebdo is only a bit edgier than other satirical publications. But a comprehensive display of Charlie Hebdo‘s work would require posting images that go well beyond most news organizations’ standards regarding offensive material. At NPR, the policy on “potentially offensive language” applies to the images posted online as well. It begins by stating that “as a responsible broadcaster, NPR has always set a high bar on use of language that may be offensive to our audience.”

Had NPR made the claim that they are not willing to post this image on their website due to their need to protect their employees and staff, it still wouldn’t have been acceptable by journalistic standards but it would least have been something I could chew on. But to claim that NPR will not post this image because it would give the public an incorrect understanding as to the degree of offense in which Charlie Hebdo engages as a matter of course is both cowardly and patently misleading.

As a lifelong supporter of NPR who has undergone his share of critique from members of the Jewish community who are regularly upset by their perception of NPR’s anti-Israel bias, as someone who has been listening to NPR in every city in which he has ever lived since high school,” I am truly offended by NPR’s decision – as a listener, as a supporter and as a Rabbi.

And as a Rabbi, I am a student of Torah and the great history of Rabbinic interpretation that is the grand inheritance not only of the Jewish people but of all people who claim a branch of the “Abrahamic faith.” While I know the rabbinic interpretations are not a significant part of Christian and Muslim tradition, I would like to suggest very strongly that Jews, Christians and Muslims look closely at perhaps, the most important theological claim of all.

As we know, the Hebrew Bible states in the second of “The Ten Commandments,” Al taaseh lecha fesel, “Thou shalt not make a graven image….” The text goes on to include a prohibition of creating a physical likeness of any and all aspects of creation, but most importantly, of God. The broad understanding of this commandment about much more than a commandment against the kind of idol-making common in the Ancient Near East. No, this command is actually the most important philosophical argument against fundamentalism that can be found in the Hebrew Bible. For it is not saying that any and all symbols of any and all things are always and forever unkosher. Rather it is saying something much more profound: We must not ever create an image of something or someone and insist that it is the only kosher representation possible! The Hebrew text is so instructive for it challenges us to not become so overly committed to one symbol, one idea, one understanding, one conception that at best we are willing to build impenetrable walls to protect it and at worst, we are willing to kill for it. Lo taaseh lecha fesel, the commandment is much more accurately defined this way: Do not make of YOURSELF a graven image! Do not be so certain of yours or your people’s interpretation of God that you are willing to destroy God’s image through deceit, violence and murder in order to “protect it.”

J’accuse NPR! You of all journalistic leaders should know better! “Offense” is not an editorial evaluation for the best of what journalism can and must do. Jews, Christians, Muslims, people of all faiths, people of no faith – none of us can ever act as if we have cornered the market on truth. And when a world journalistic leader like NPR allows itself to make a decision based upon the concern for “offense,” particularly when the image in question carries a message that is actually the most tender “olive branch” one could imagine following the bloody murder of 12 human beings with whom you worked, the world is in need of checking itself. We need to return to the essence of a democratic society – transparency for the sake of the assurance that the symbols we believe in stand for what they claim.

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