Thursday, July 5, 2007

Who's afraid of lashon hara? *

Lashon hara is Hebrew for "evil tongue," which I imagine looks something like a serpent's. It is forbidden in Judaism not just to gossip, but to say anything that might hurt another person, even if true. That is why working in the Jewish media -- yes that is different than MSM -- demands a delicate dance. It seems secular newspapers, however, are concerned about lashon hara as well. (That is an over-generalization; journalists are very good at them.)

The hottest story in LA right now is the rockstar mayor's failed marriage. Though the LA Daily News recovered nicely this week by being the first to identify TV newscaster Mirthala Salinas as the vixen who sparked Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's divorce, the paper never published this story by Tony Castro, filed in mid-January, that revealed the mayor hadn't worn his wedding ring since at least September and hadn't been seen with his wife since before then.

Quite presciently, Castro wrote in that unpublished article, now on his blog, that "(h)istorically, the coverage of marital troubles in the marriages of Los Angeles politicians has made for queezy stomachs among local mainstream journalists."
The 2003 breakup of then Mayor James K. Hahn, for instance, received scant coverage and apparently was first reported in a dot-dash column of The Wave, a community weekly in South Los Angeles which had long been a Hahn family stronghold.

“If Los Angeles worked like New York City, competitive pressures already would have flushed out any gossip involving the mayor,” Jewish Journal senior editor Howard Blume wrote at the time in his publication.

“Why is it in Los Angeles that the personal life of actor Robert Blake looms more newsworthy than the mayor’s? Is it a reflection of Los Angeles’ civic culture that the mayor barely seems to qualify as a public figure?”
So breaking the news that Antonio's marriage was on the rocks fell to cowboy blogger/porn watchdog/Orthodox Jewish convert Luke Ford. (Yes, all those adjectives are accurate.) After Ford wrote on his blog Jan. 29 that the mayor and Corina Villaraigosa were separated, the mayor told an LA Times reporter at the Getty House that the blogger's claim was untrue. Corina, however, couldn't spare the time to appear at his defense, and Villaraigosa's ball of yarn began to unravel quite publicly.

Ford, who was profiled last month by Castro in the Daily News' porn series, is now enjoying the limelight. He got a mention on Slate, interviewed by CNN and a Q & A at LAist.

But what about lashon hara?

* I sent Ford this post and asked him how he balanced the interest of reporting with the gossip taboo. He sent back this synthesis of his thoughts, these related thoughts and this comment about when reporters have the right to rake muck:
Unlimited right to publish about public officials in the public performance of their duty.

If they do things in their private life that make them vulnerable to blackmail, conflicts of interest, perjury, etc, also fair game.

If someone is flagrant about violating social norms publicly (as Villaraigosa has been over the years with his serial philandering, much of it was Mirthala Salinas was pretty public), then I don't see a problem with reporting on it.

(Photo: LAObserved)

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