By Sam Sokol
Facts don’t have a political, religious, or social orientation. They just are. They exist, and by existing they do not have any innate moral status. Facts can support or demolish ideologies, faiths, and weltanschauungs, yes, but they do not possess independent ideological affiliation in and of themselves.
Obvious . . . no?
Not really. Whenever I report on a story, I seek, to the best of my ability, to impart facts. There is an event going on, people have differing takes on it, and I report what happened and how people reacted. Sometimes I investigate. People hide facts and I try to ferret them out. However, very often when I do this people complain that I have taken sides.
In the course of my work, I have been threatened with lawsuits and with worse. I have upset multiple sides on issues on which I have reported and learned one valuable lesson: the more people you upset, the closer you may be to the truth.
People frequently like the facts that fit their agenda, and when you throw a monkey wrench into their beliefs by reporting facts that disagree with their way of looking at the world or quote people with whom they disagree, they complain that you have lost your objectivity.
That simply isn’t true. There seems to be, in some circles, a misconception about what a journalist is. We report facts. We report what is happening. We do not, if we are professional in our conduct, promote viewpoints.
I have personally reported stories where I disagreed fundamentally with what was being done but have not inserted my views. I like to think that from my newswriting you cannot tell my ideology.
My favorite stories are the ones where those on both sides of the issue complain about my objectivity. It means that I reported facts that neither side liked, and I can look back at the article in question and reminisce fondly about my objectivity. “See,” I tell myself, “each side thought I was for the other and in reality I was for neither.”
My objectivity was recently called into question in a letter to one of the papers for which I write. I laughed it off but subsequently realized that it points to the aforementioned misconceptions about what I do.
It’s ironic; speaking to different people, I have been told that I am too left-wing, too right-wing, too secular, and too pro-religion. And in each case, I have been told to be more objective. If this is the feedback I am getting, I can proudly say that I have been objective.
I am going to write a terrible segue . . . watch for it . . . Here it comes:
Sometimes I envy humor writers like Dave Barry. He’s one of my heroes—a Pulitzer Prize winner whose entire oeuvre is built upon being as subjective as possible. I would like to write subjectively sometimes. Not in my serious news articles, but maybe the occasional humor piece.
Maybe I could write something about Bet Shemesh.
I live in a weird community. Outside my house are stickers on every flagpole calling on chareidi soldiers to leave town. The other day I walked down the street to the bus stop only to see a chassid and his burka-clad wife waiting for the bus. I took a picture of her. She turned away. I wondered why. If you wear something as attention-grabbing as a full-on burka in Bet Shemesh, people will look at you. You aren’t being modest.
The other day I was on the bus (so-called mehadrin). I was in the front. A woman came up to me and said she wanted to sit. I told her to feel free. She said I didn’t understand. It is not modest for her to sit next to me. I would have to move.
“Ma’am,” I replied, “if you want to sit next to me feel free. If you believe in separate seating, then I believe that the local extremists have decreed that the back of the bus is the place for women.”
She didn’t get the joke.
A few weeks later, a chassid pushed a friend of mine out of his seat next to me as he was sitting down. Asked why, he replied that the only other seat was behind a woman and that halachically it would be forbidden for him to sit there. He didn’t see a problem with my friend sitting behind her.
There are a lot of normal, hardworking Modern Orthodox and chareidi people in my town. But they are always drowned out in the public’s perceptions of Bet Shemesh by the extremists.
I’m sure that there is humor in there somewhere, but it’s hard to find.
Maybe I will write a Dave Barry-style column. But first I have to find a burka and go undercover . . . v