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Which 10 'Commandments' Do You Mean?

By Ben L. Kaufman · March 1st, 2006 · Media, Myself & I
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The author(s) of the biblical covenant at Sinai must be weeping over the mountain of fervent hypocrisy burying their effort. Among those most enthusiastically wielding shovels are some Christian clergy and laity.

Not content with advocacy in their pulpits and homes, they want the ancient Israelite code displayed in civic spaces. This pious campaign rivals "Missing White Woman" for its Phoenix-like quality as a news story.

Frustrated by the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, activists are willing to hide their god's word amid other historic documents. They say the code should be displayed as the foundation of civil laws they sometimes flout. And make no mistake, they are telling people of every faith and none that their monotheism is the American Way of Life (AWOL) and going AWOL is the only way.

It hardly ended with fiascos in Adams County, Ohio, and the Alabama Supreme Court rotunda. The U.S. Supreme Court (5-4) last year ordered Kentuckians to remove recently hung copies of the King James Version of the 10 Commandments from Pulaski and McCreary county courthouses. However, activists are pushing their cause in the Kentucky Legislature, noting court approval (5-4) of a much older multi-document Texas display. To explain such efforts, journalists must move beyond the obfuscations of conventional language.

Start with nomenclature. We're talking about what others call the "10 Commandments." The presumably authoritative Hebrew Scripture does not call them that. The Hebrew best translates "10 words." They're not listed in Christian Scripture.

Which religion's version is to be exhibited? Different faiths and denominations number the verses in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 differently. That choice establishes a particular version in our public places.

We have Jewish, Catholic and Protestant English-language Bibles. Which translation will government establish as official?

Consider the controversial "commandment" against killing; the best English translation of the Hebrew verb is "murder." Again, word choice establishes a religious or denominational preference that reporters and editors should probe rather than adopt.

God(s) willing, legislators will realize how damaging it can be to associate the Decalogue (Greek for "10 words") with government. Biblical admonitions against idolatry, theft, envy and adultery already are in sufficient disrepute.

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Curmudgeon notes:
· My second favorite public radio moment: Sylvia Poggioli's "Oh shit!" when a major technical glitch intruded on her report from the opening of the Torino Olympics, on All Things Considered on WVXU (91.7 FM). Seems everything went dead except her mic.

· Proof again that a small, talented staff in Flyover Land can play in the big time. The Toledo Blade is a finalist for the annual $25,000 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting from the Harvard Shorenstein Center on the Press. Others are The New York Times, The Washington Post and Copley News Service. Blade journalists are Joshua Boak, James Drew, Steve Eder, Christopher D. Kirkpatrick, Jim Tankersley and Mike Wilkinson. Their probe of Ohio's investment in rare coins led to a GOP scandal, conviction of Republican Gov. Bob Taft and indictment of the donor/dealer.

· Look for the infamous Danish caricatures of Muhammad on the Internet; most American news media won't show us the offending drawings. Fear, timidity, good taste, news judgment -- pick one.

· Anyone has the right in this country to publish insulting, demeaning or blasphemous cartoons. Hurt feelings are a very low price for our freedoms of speech, press and religious expression. The question should be, what ought we to publish?

· Consider how other democracies diminish free speech. Austria, which bars blasphemy and overlooks republication there of the Danish cartoons, convicts writer David Irving of denying the Holocaust in two speeches. Then England suspends London Mayor Ken Livingstone, saying he was "offensive" and disgraced his office by likening a Jewish reporter to a Nazi camp guard.

· Most local news media blew off the response by the Cincinnati office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations to caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. It's part of a national educational campaign called "Explore the Life of Muhammad." Zeinab Schwen, chair of the CAIR-Cincinnati board, said initially that only Channel 19 did a thoughtful story on the campaign and offer of a free book or DVD on Muhammad. Three days later The Enquirer carried its story deep inside the local section.

· Dumping daily stock tables saved money but cost Enquirer business reporters their separate daily section. Coincidentally, a few business reporters -- among the Enquirer's savviest -- were reassigned to suburban and Kentucky bureaus. If that yields better local business reporting, good. If, instead, we get lots of soft, happy and promotional suburban business stories at the expense of smart regional reporting, it's a mistake to be rectified.

· Conceal/carry advocates in Kentucky want to block reporters' access to their identities, insisting we can trust local officials to deny licenses to loonies and criminals. Isn't mistrust of the government a foundation of Second Amendment fervor, asks Enquirer editorial writer Tony Lang.

· Why are news media ignoring development battles in Clifton? It's more than a former funeral home. Taxpayers are relocating Dixmyth Avenue to suit Good Samaritan Hospital. A private builder wants to move the public library, demolish some homes and build condos in the Gaslight District. The brouhaha invites reporters to examine how Clifton Town Meeting and other community councils respond when faced with controversial development plans. (Full disclosure: I live in Clifton.)

· Will reporters writing about oil company profits, shared by millions of individual stockholders and pension funds, also tell us that these profit percentages are far below those posted by America's mostly monopoly newspapers?



Ben L. Kaufman teaches journalism ethics at Northern Kentucky University.
 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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