Clicking on banner ads keeps JWR alive
Jewish World Review Feb. 18, 2000 / 12 Adar I, 5760

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
JWR's Pundits
World Editorial
Cartoon Showcase

Mallard Fillmore

Michael Barone
Mona Charen
Linda Chavez
David Corn
Ann Coulter
Greg Crosby
Larry Elder
Don Feder
Suzanne Fields
Paul Greenberg
Bob Greene
Betsy Hart
Nat Hentoff
David Horowitz
Arianna Huffington
Marianne Jennings
Michael Kelly
Mort Kondracke
Ch. Krauthammer
Lawrence Kudlow
Dr. Laura
David Limbaugh
Michelle Malkin
Jackie Mason
Chris Matthews
Michael Medved
Kathleen Parker
Debbie Schlussel
Sam Schulman
Roger Simon
Tony Snow
Thomas Sowell
Cal Thomas
Jonathan S. Tobin
Ben Wattenberg
George Will
Bruce Williams
Walter Williams
Mort Zuckerman

Consumer Reports
Weekly Standard



A Long Tradition of Scandalmongering

Our current leaders have got nothing on America's founding fathers -- ISRAELIS WHO WISH to ban violent speech and Americans who are fed up with yellow journalism should remember the Aurora and the Sedition Act. It was Koheles, son of David, who first informed us that "There is nothing new beneath the sun" in Ecclesiastes 1:9. This would be an apt motto for those interested in political scandals both in Israel and the United States.

Most people I know are ambivalent about scandalmongering. They are, on the one hand, disgusted by those who traffic in tales about the high and mighty. Yet, they find themselves drawn to the juicy details whenever they get the chance.

Thus, in a week when Israel's latest scandals are still sorting themselves out and American presidential candidates are whining about who went "negative" first, it's reassuring to remember that there are plenty of precedents for our current dilemmas. Precedents, I might add, that include the peccadillos of some of America's founding fathers.

Though scandalmongering is as old as the human race itself, its place in American newspapers dates back to a little more than 200 years ago to two rags edited and printed not that far from where I am in Philadelphia. Their names were Porcupine's Gazette and the Aurora.

Living as we do in an era in which scandals seem to define the political discourse of both the United States and the State of Israel, the lessons to be learned from the mud slung in the 1790s by the Federalist party's Porcupine and the anti-Federalist Aurora can be highly instructive for readers and citizens today.

That's what inspired New York Times columnist and author William Safire to write his latest historical novel Scandalmonger. He was here in the birthplace of American yellow journalism last week to speak to the World Affairs Council about his new book. Like his previous novel, Freedom, Scandalmonger is a delight for history lovers. Personally, I'm a sucker for a novel with footnotes (Safire has voluminous notes at the end of his book where he details exactly where history ends and fiction begins).

Scandalmonger tells of how the hired flacks for America's two early political parties dug up the sordid tales of illicit affairs carried on by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. The stories were then published in party newspapers to damage their political careers.

It is impossible to read this book without thoughts of Bill Clinton and Monica intervening. But the most interesting parallel is not in the misdeeds of the great men. Rather, it is the way the objects of scandalmongering reacted to the mud-slingers.

In no small measure, the garbage flung at Federalist hero Hamilton led to the enactment of what Safire rightly calls the "worst law" ever passed in American history: the Alien and Sedition Act of 1798, which made it a crime to insult a public official. That's a measure Hillary Clinton may have envied when she blamed her husband's troubles on a "vast right-wing conspiracy."

Purchasing this book
-- linked in 6th paragraph --
helps fund JWR
This law resulted in the jailing of the editor of the pro-Jefferson Aurora, James Calendar, for spreading the truth about Hamilton's affair as well as his unfounded suspicions of financial wrongdoing by the man on the $10 bill. Calendar served time in prison and was pardoned by President Jefferson after he was swept into office by the revulsion against the Federalist repression of free speech. However, when Jefferson refused to give Calendar a patronage post, the editor turned on his former publisher and wrote the first public account of Jefferson's affair with his slave Sally Hemmings, which was confirmed in recent years by DNA tests of Hemmings' descendants.

While we have no shortage of scandals here, I think the comparison to another democracy still in its youth is even more telling.

Israel is currently beset with a host of allegations of financial misdeeds and campaign-finance violations against its current president, as well as its current and past prime ministers. The pending charges against President Ezer Weizman, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak do not revolve around sex, and that has lessened public interest in the details.

In each case, the focus of the investigation rails against the press for bringing the matter to the attention of the public. Yet, the same public figures who don't like being pilloried have, in the recent past, delighted in the similar misfortunes of their political rivals.

Thus, the same Barak loyalists who scoff at the seriousness of the charges against the prime minister's campaign were speaking of similar allegations against Netanyahu imperiling "the rule of law" in Israel. And those who defend Weizman called critics of the conviction of former Shas party head Aryeh Deri a threat to democracy.

Even more telling is the Israeli government's indiscriminate use of the charge "sedition" to prosecute unpopular demonstrators and its repeated attempts to close down the right-wing, counter-cultural radio station Arutz Sheva. In the aftermath of Yitzhak Rabin's tragic assassination, all too many Israelis seemed to be willing to ban unpopular or inflammatory speech.

As with many Americans in the 1790s, some Israelis seem to think that freedom of speech is a fine thing as long as it is confined to nice people who agree with them. But, when it is used to criticize the ideas and the leaders they hold sacred, they are uninterested in protecting it. That's a slippery slope that came very close to plunging the young American republic into chaos. What, then, do we do about scandalmongers?

Jewish religious tradition takes a dim view of yellow journalism. The Torah tells us, "You shall not go about as a talebearer" (Leviticus 19:16). Other citations, such as the prohibition against shaming a Jew, are balanced by precepts such as the religious duty to rebuke a fellow Jew for improper behavior.

But when one considers the obligation, "You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor," the second clause to Leviticus 19:16, one can see a paradigm for journalism emerging. Moreover, the prohibition against leaving obstacles or hindrances on public or private property (so as to prevent injury to the public) demonstrates a clear and present need for reliable forums of public information.

According to Safire, "the solution" to the problem of a muckraking press "is worse than the problem." Restrictions on the press undermine democracy. Israelis who wish to ban violent speech and Americans who are fed up with yellow journalism should remember the Aurora and the Sedition Act. Responsible journalists are chastened by the example of James Calendar's tale-bearing. But that cannot deter those charged with bringing truth to the public from doing our jobs.

After all, the real scandal in the coverage of Clinton and Monica was how a tawdry sex story overshadowed and ultimately overwhelmed coverage of more important wrongdoing, such as the foreign money raised by the 1996 Clinton campaign. That's a precedent that my Israeli colleagues would do well to avoid in the coming year.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

Jonathan Tobin Archives


© 2000, Jonathan Tobin