One important Jewish concept is that the deeds of the ancestors are a portent to the descendents. This concept isn't just about learning morals from Torah stories the way we read Aesop's fables. Rather, the actions of our forefathers created spiritual realities that ripple through time. These ripples manifest themselves today.

How is this concept manifest in current events in the Holy Land? Where does the Torah portend that reporters frequently promote a distorted, imbalanced view of the Arab-Israel conflict? When media headlines trumpet the Israeli"massacre in Jenin," what spiritual ripple might this have emanated from?

The kernel of the media bias we see today is reflected in the report of the spies.

The kernel of the media bias we see today is reflected in the report of the spies.

As described in Numbers (chapters 13-14), the Jewish people left Mount Sinai poised to enter the Holy Land. God permitted Moses to send 12 spies -- one prince from each tribe -- to scout the land and report back.

When the spies returned, they gave a negative report, saying that the land was "unconquerable." This demoralized the people, and in turn led to national hysteria. Two of the spies, Caleb and Joshua, unsuccessfully tried to sway the people back.

As punishment for believing the report, God condemned the nation to wander and die in the wilderness. A new generation would enter the land 40 years later.

Violations of Objectivity

On one hand, there is no comparing he spies to the media of today. The spies were among the greatest Jewish leaders, and they made a very subtle error. On some unconscious level, they feared that entering the land would lead to their demotion as tribal leaders.

On the other hand, we can use the example of the spies' report to see a subtle lack of objectivity. Let's examine this in light of seven common violations of media objectivity.

  1. Misleading definitions and terminology can inject bias into a report by implying an accepted"fact." The spies told the people,"We were like grasshoppers in our eyes..." (Numbers 13:33). It's one thing for a person to describe himself as simply small, but the spies deliberately used the comparison of grasshoppers. This was intended to create a negative association that, objectively, did not exist.

  2. Imbalanced reporting presents only one side of the story to create a negative effect. The spies told the people,"Amalek dwells in the area of the south, the Hittite, the Jebusite and the Emorite dwell on the mountain; and the Canaanite dwells by the sea..." (Numbers 13:29). Listing off the individual Canaanite nations, rather than describing them collectively by the generic term"Canaanites" created a sense of fear among the Jews. Further, Amalek needed no mention since their land wasn't part of Israel anyway.

    The spies made no mention of Jewish holy sites that would have surely aroused a desire to enter the land.
  3. 3. Selective omission allows reporters to control what information is made available and what isn't. The spies made no mention is made of Jewish holy sites that would have surely aroused a desire to enter the land -- such as the Tomb of the Patriarchs, Mount Moriah, Beth El and Rachel's Tomb.

  4. Using true facts to draw false conclusions. The commentaries explain that God helped the spies escape notice by causing many Canaanites to die. They were too busy with funerals to pay attention to spies. Yet the spies drew the wrong conclusion and told the Jewish people,"The land devours its inhabitants." (Rashi - Numbers 13:32)

    Further, the spies note that the cities are"fortified," hoping to create the image of large, fearful militaries. But as the Talmud notes, fortified cities actually prove the opposite, since the weaker a community is, the more fortification it requires.

  5. Distorting facts. The spies brought back large fruit to"prove" how bizarre and dangerously powerful the land is (Rashi - Numbers 13:23). The fruit of the land wasn't bizarre, rather miraculously special.

  6. Lack of context. The Land of Israel was already promised by God to the Jewish people. God reiterated this point to Moses before permitting the mission (13:2), but the spies made it sound as if a successful conquest depended on practical factors.

  7. Opinions disguised as news. The spies told the nation,"The people are powerful" (13:28), and shortly afterward said,"We cannot ascend... it is too strong for us" (13:31). These were not factual statements, but opinions clearly beyond the scope of their mission.

The people knew all this; anyone could've refuted the spies. The Jewish women, for example, rejected the report and entered the land with the next generation. What does this say about the way we relate to bias today?

Biblical Hasbara

The Torah notes what might be the first Jewish "hasbara" (public relations) effort, as Joshua and Caleb tried to sway the people against believing the report. They said:

The land that we passed through to spy it out -- the land is very very good. If God desires us, He will bring us to this land and give it to us, a land that flows of milk and honey. But do not rebel against God. You should not fear the people of the land, for they are our bread. Their protection has departed from them; God is with us. Do not fear them. (Numbers 14:7-9)

It's possible that Joshua and Caleb's spin control addressed the specific issues of giants, fortified cities, funerals, bizarre looking fruit, holy sites and Canaanite geography without the benefit of PowerPoint presentations, glossy info packets and full-page ads. But the Torah doesn't note any point-by-point refutations. Quibbling over the details is a distraction from the bigger point: God promised us the land. And with God's help, anything is possible.

Today, the consequences of biased reporting are surprisingly similar, as many Jews fear coming to Israel.

This first case of biased reporting, even a subtle error by these great men, led to severe consequences: 40 years of wandering, and an entire generation that failed to enter the land. Beyond that, this day of "crying for nothing" set spiritual realities into motion. On the same calendar day, the Ninth of Av, great tragedies would befall the Jewish people -- including the destruction of the First and Second Temples, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand which sparked World War One and massive slaughter in its wake.

Today, the consequences of biased reporting are surprisingly similar. Many Jews fear coming to Israel. Other Jews don't want to be associated with an Israel they perceive as checkpoints and incursions. And the constant barrage of headlines is wearing out others who do speak up for Israel at the office or school. Surely, the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe is linked to the more overtly biased coverage.

In reporting the conflict today, the media has its own reasons. It could be a desire to help the underdog, or a result of Arab intimidation, or in some cases even latent anti-Semitism.

If reporters would challenge their beliefs, they might find Palestinian claims untenable. But the truth isn't always popular, and breaking ranks isn't easy. Once we have a pre-conceived idea about something, it becomes difficult to objectively evaluate our beliefs and ask: Is this piece of information true? How do I know its true?

In the meantime, we'll be on the alert for bias reports from the holy land.