Learning How to (and How Not to) Kill

On being a reporter and following the Jewish law against gossip.

If doing Shabbat is about learning how to make time holy, the rule against Lashon Hara is about making speech holy.

Lashon Hara translates to evil tongue. Halacha (Jewish law) rules against gossip — against speaking true but hurtful things about a person, trying to damage their reputation. It is not a random side law (like, fine, we all technically know not to gossip), but a central part of living a good Jewish life. Committing Lashon Hara is a major sin.

In Genesis, God speaks the world into existence. Speech is an action; words make reality. In Jewish law, negative speech done outside of absolute necessity is actually worse than stealing from someone, since a theft can be repaired. Someone can be made whole, but speech can never be undone.

I think the quickest Lashon Hara test, though he didn’t call it that, comes from Bernard Meltzer, a longtime popular radio host with an advice show called “What's Your Problem?” (lived 1916 – 1998):

“Before you speak, ask yourself if what you are going to say is true, is kind, is necessary, is helpful. If the answer is no, maybe what you are about to say should be left unsaid.”

The tricky part here is perhaps obvious: I’m a reporter. How could I possibly follow this rule? My role in the world is to write about people accurately and clearly, not to do press releases or puff pieces. My job is sometimes explicitly to expose people doing terrible things and spread that news.

Wrestling with that conundrum for the last two years has profoundly changed how I see my work and my role in the world.

***

I started as a journalist thinking I would be a mirror. I wanted to erase myself as much as possible and just reflect the scene, people, foibles, the funniness of our condition. I love people, and I love our antics. Anything truthful was fair game. Anything my eye fell on went in the story.

That instinct then met the internet.

I’ve made my way up as a reporter in the time of social media and most-read lists. I know what will make a piece pop to the top of that list as soon as I write it down in my notebook. No one has ever pressured me to get clicks, but I’ve been praised all my career with euphemisms like “really knowing my audience.” I can see on the site when my story is above someone else’s. I like it when it is. And I love the warm embrace of the social media scrum.

One easy path toward the top of the list and toward that embrace is communal outrage. Toss something (someone) into that maw, and it’s like fireworks. I have mastered that game. For a couple years, that desire for attention — to feel the crack of my byline hitting the conversation — propelled me more than almost anything else. I began to see myself less as a mirror and more as a weapon. I learned how to weaponize charm, which everyone does, but I do exceptionally well. I would call some stories kills. Resisting virality when you know exactly how to get it is like resisting a cigarette (I love smoking but do not smoke). When I wanted another viral story, I would talk about needing a hit.

Stirring outrage can be good. It can very well be the right thing to do. I won an award for working on an investigation series into predators using social video games to groom children. I’m glad that series made people mad.

But it’s extremely hard to control this tool. I would other times thrust a massive spotlight onto a person who would suffer from it and for no good reason. As an intern at the Chronicle, I got a man fired because he talked to me for a story, and some part of me knew it would happen. The story was a completely silly one, about private women’s clubs in the city, and he was a sweet and gentle man. I still feel sick when I think about him. And I think about him a lot.

In becoming increasingly driven by the pleasure of attention and conflict, I was sharpening my cruelest edges. The roar of Twitter on my side meant the kill was justified and good. I was using the tools that had been gifted to me — my love of people, my ability to write — but pursuing only attention, which is just the affection of the mob.

I do not want to cultivate sociopathy in myself. And cultivating sociopathy was exactly what I was doing.

Part of what changed was meeting Bari. I fell in love with someone who had been on the other side of pens like mine.

***

This is a quote I think about a lot:

“Tradition is a set of solutions for which we have forgotten the problems. Throw away the solution and you get the problem back.”

It comes from, of all places, a 1982 science fiction novel called “Courtship Rite” by a writer named Donald Kingsbury.

I was wrestling with something for which there is already a solution, tucked away in tradition: the law of Lashon Hara.

Converting involves realizing that I don’t want to reinvent the wheel. It’s about the humility of knowing the limits of my mind and my lifetime. I cannot think up better rituals around birth or death than Judaism has carved out over these thousands of years. I cannot invent a better mode of welcoming a teenager into adulthood. There are moments when I knowingly and happily buck tradition — I’m a lesbian, after all, but I know that when I do buck traditions, I bring new challenges into my life, new questions I’ll have to answer and work through. Ideally, I can hew close to tradition in other parts of my life, if nothing else than to save myself the time and energy.

And so we come back to Lashon Hara. Judaism already worked out what I was spending years feeling fraught about. It is simple. You just ask:

Is it true? Is is kind? Is it necessary? Is it helpful?

First I followed it in my social life. It made me a little less fun at dinner parties. But like Shabbat, it felt good almost instantly. I didn’t miss the sour taste in my mouth from saying something nasty. I still backslide, but working on it makes me realize how often I use gossip to fill time and to avoid more complicated topics, or bond quickly with someone new. And just as Shabbat elevates rest and time, Lashon Hara elevates speech and socializing. So even when I’m at dinner, having wine, chatting away, I can still be deepening my Judaism.

Then I started applying it to my work. Those two questions started coming into my head: If it is true but unkind, is it necessary? Is it helpful?

Of course not everyone will agree on what’s necessary and what’s helpful. I think my reporting over the summer on small businesses suffering during the riots was both necessary and helpful, but someone else will say the opposite. (Actually a lot of people have said that!)

The point is that my work should serve a greater god than attention and applause. The point is that words can do violence to someone’s life, and the situation damn well better call for it. It better be in the public interest. I still feel just as much of a fire to rip through the world with my writing. But it better be in the service of something more than my own ego.

It’s meant probably a few million lost page views over the last couple years. Fewer viral stories. It’s meant pausing for a second as I write in my notebook and thinking — what will these words do to this person? And often it means putting my pen down and listening a little longer.

It is not, in practice, such a radical shift.

I still investigate and do stories that anger or horrify people. I still write pieces that make people laugh. I want to capture the world and all our human emotions. But I want to cultivate my empathy not my cruelty. I am trying to go back to being closer to the mirror than the knife.

And so I ask myself:

Is it true? Is it necessary?


A heavy essay this week, but it felt really good to write.

For tzedakah this week, back to the old Joint Distribution Council, the leading Jewish humanitarian organization. I have them on auto-pay so a contribution goes through every month. Highly recommend.

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For Jewish Learning, what else but our Rabbi Soloveichik’s lecture on Queen Esther. (Yes, we’re just going to go through his whole series. No, he does not know I’m completely obsessed with him.) [Fixed the link! Accidentally put in his Queen Shlomzion lecture before.]

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