The Local News

Sermon delivered April 13, 2012 by Rabbi Barry H.D. Block

Years ago, at the Greene Family Camp, when I was in my early 20s, my job involved a lot of paper work, notes and legal pads and such.  Don’t ask me why I didn’t have a clipboard, but I didn’t; I walked around camp with a briefcase.  Literally.  Yes, I was often lampooned for that.  I continued to carry that briefcase, and successive new ones, long into my days as a rabbi.   Most importantly, I carried a date book – a Filofax, to be exact – which included my address book, which we now call “contacts.”  Had you told me I would eventually carry nothing but a phone, which would include my entire calendar and contacts, I would have called you crazy and sworn that I would never give up that Filofax.
Suffice it to say that Filofax is no more.
So I understand that technology changes the world and the way that we interact with it.
One such change, which does not seem to me to be for the better, involves the news.  Fewer and fewer of us get our news from a daily newspaper.  Obtaining the news from online sources is simply so much more convenient and faster.  Moreover, most of us prefer to access “news” that bolsters beliefs we already hold.  Witness the popularity of extremist talk radio and ideologically-charged cable networks.  Fox feels right to those of us who are conservative, and probably influences us to be more so.  Liberal media outlets are more comfortable for those of us who are already liberal, and likely lead us to be more extreme, too.
Newspapers are going out of business at an alarming rate.  Few newspapers have adapted well to the digital world, and the print media is still trying to figure out how to do business on the Internet profitably.  Newspapers are private, for-profit businesses, and some may say that their success and failure is not a moral, ethical, or religious concern.
Truth, though, is a profound religious concern, and newspapers are in the often-difficult business truth-telling.
How important is truth in Judaism?  In each service, when we complete the recitation of the shema with the words of v’ahavta, we conclude with the word emet, “true.”  The importance of truth is emphasized in a teaching by Mussar master Alan Morinis.  “Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach . . . was being considered to head a yeshiva in Jerusalem, so he was invited to deliver a lecture.  . . . Not long after he had begun, he was interrupted” by an audience member who challenged what the Rabbi had just taught.  Rabbi Shlomo considered the comment, and responded that the questioner was correct; Rabbi Shlomo had made a mistake.  He went home and told his wife it hadn’t gone well.  But then he got the job anyway.  Anybody with such a commitment to the truth, even at his own expense, was deemed worthy to head the academy.
The so-called “mainstream media” is often much maligned these days.  Newspapers, like all human institutions, are fallible.  But I know of no institution so committed to truth as the daily newspaper.  Journalists are held to professional standards.  Errors are corrected.  And unlike so many email forwards we receive, and so much out there on the Internet, the reporter’s name is on the article or column and the editors’ names are easily located in each daily edition.
Personally, I read two daily newspapers:  The San Antonio Express-News and the New York Times.  As much as I value the latter for national and international news, and especially for the various opinions articulated on its op-ed page, if I were forced to give up one of these papers I would stick with the Express-News.
Bashing our local paper is popular sport in San Antonio, and I’m sure that our city is not unique in this regard.  Fault isn’t hard to find.  For example, the paper has been shockingly unsophisticated in its coverage of the quest for a single, comprehensive local children’s hospital.
But the Express-News is not a “rag.”  Instead, our daily local newspaper is the best way to find out what is really happening in San Antonio.  It is the prime instrument that holds our government officials and public entities accountable.  And it consistently brings matters of legitimate public concern into print in thoughtful, cogent prose.
One prime example was seen on this morning’s Editorial page, though the issue is one the paper has made familiar to regular readers for years.  At the surface, the matter seems to be about an endangered species, golden-cheeked warblers.  The Torah, too, is concerned with the propagation of species, forbidding us to take both a mother and her young for food.  But even for those who dismiss environmental concerns, like it or not, these birds are protected by federal law.  In recent years, development on San Antonio’s northwest side has limited the birds’ habitat, to the extent that a high percentage of these endangered birds live in Camp Bullis, an installation of the United States Army.  The Army’s chain of command has made clear that its military mission at Camp Bullis is compromised, and may ultimately be more endangered than the warblers.  San Antonio could lose a major military installation, key to our economy.
Articles and opinion pieces about Camp Bullis and its golden-cheeked warblers don’t sell many newspapers.  But this is not a story you’re going to read much about on the Internet or that a local television newscast can cover with any meaningful depth.  The future of our city depends on our addressing issues like the long-term viability of Camp Bullis.  We need the Express-News to continue to call our attention to what otherwise might be an untold story.
County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson plays an important role in the growth and development of local transportation.  I know the Commissioner, and I think he’s a generally good guy.  Recently, the Express-News has attacked Adkisson, I think it fair to say, with the tenacity of a pit bull.  You see, we have a law in Texas that says that the public is entitled to know about an office holder’s work on a public issue.  Adkisson is an ally of Terri Hall, the well-known leader of the toll road opposition here.  Adkisson claims that emails sent from his personal account, even if they’re about public business, are none of the public business.  Admittedly, I know about the subtleties of this law only because of what I’ve read in the paper.  But the Commissioner’s claim is absurd:  If he’s conducting county business – our business, that is – on his private email account, then those emails are every bit as much our business as they would be if he’d used his county email.
Blessedly, I don’t have to drive out 281 past 1604 very often, but many of you do.  When I’ve had to do so, I for one have thought how nice it would be to have the option of getting on a toll road and avoiding that absolutely miserable traffic.  But wherever you stand on toll roads, if our employee, a County Commissioner, is in cahoots with an activist, we have a right to know the nature of their correspondence.
This story may sell a few newspapers, as the toll issue enflames passions.  However, the Express-News is expending untold sums to bring us the truth on the matter, not only by devoting reporters, column-inches, and opinion writers to the subject, but also in paying the lawyers who advocate for the public’s right to know.
By the way, I also read an online daily, Plaza de Armas, and I pick up the Current from time to time.  Competition is good in almost every arena, and the local news business is no exception.  The Express-News, too, needs to be held accountable.
Tonight, though, I would like for us to think about the kavod, the honor, due to the men and women who labor in the trenches at the Express-News.  They include three of our congregants:  Jonathan Gurwitz, Brian Chasnoff, and Michelle Koiden-Jaffe, as well as other men and women of varied backgrounds.  Too often, our local newspaper is maligned, and too often its integrity is groundlessly questioned.
Alan Morinis recounts a story told by Rabbi Bachya ibn Pakuda:  “Once a pious person was talking with his disciples.  As they passed a rotted dog’s carcass, his students [exclaimed], ‘How awful is [that] stench!’  [The pious one] responded:  ‘How white are its teeth!’”
Yes, we may be honest about errors or failings, which we may find in the Express-News and elsewhere.  But let us look for the proverbial “white teeth,” too.  Our local newspaper is a leading guardian of local integrity and the public trust.  Let us be grateful for the San Antonio Express-News, and let us honor those who toil in its often thankless vineyards.