February 5, 2004
Question of Ethics
As both a Los Angeles city ethics commissioner and a Jewish community journalist, I was in a skeptical mood as I took a seat in the audience of a discussion on "Jewish Ethical Values in the Halls of Power: From the Board Room to the Council Chamber."
The Jan. 25 panel was part of a Jewish Federation's New Leaders Project program, dealing with subjects such as Jewish political power, economic justice, public education, law enforcement and civil rights and public transportation. The panelists were Rabbi Elliot Dorff of the University of Judaism, L.A. City Councilman Jack Weiss, Los Angeles Unified School District Board member Marlene Canter and Bruce Corwin, CEO of Metropolitan Theaters.
I was drawn to the ethics panel because I hang out at City Hall sometimes as a member of the Ethics Commission. And as an editor and reporter I have faced many ethical questions, despite the popular notion that "journalistic ethics" is an oxymoron.
I was skeptical because I have always found it difficult to translate religious values to intensely secular occupations, such as working for a newspaper, making laws at City Hall or running a business. The fact is that God doesn't offer much guidance to council members voting on whether to close an alley or a manufacturer worried about next year's line.
The decision that faced panelist Corwin, was much more difficult. Corwin, deeply involved in congregational life, had to decide whether to show Mel Gibson's film, "The Passion of the Christ" in his theaters.
The film, to be released on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 25, has been accused by critics of stimulating anti-Semitism by blaming Jews for the death of Jesus, much in the manner of the Passion plays of old.
Corwin said he learned ethics at home and in the synagogue. "My parents set a moral compass for my twin sister and me," he said. Judaism to Corwin starts in the synagogue and moves out to the community and other aspects of life.
That upbringing guided him when he had to decide whether to show the 1988 movie "Colors," about L.A. street gangs, in his Broadway theaters in Los Angeles. It was a major movie, directed by Dennis Hopper and starring Robert Duvall and Sean Penn. But the Broadway theaters had a young clientele and Corwin decided not to show the movie because he feared it would inflame the audiences to violence.
In 1988, Corwin wouldn't screen "The Last Temptation of Christ," a film, directed by Martin Scorsese that portrayed Jesus as a tormented everyman with sexual desires. Theaters that played the movie were hit by bomb threats and picketing by Christian groups. One woman recalled how she had to pass through a metal detector to see the film in Los Angeles.
Even so, said Corwin, his decision was "a mistake I will never make again." So Corwin will show "The Passion of the Christ." He said, "For us as owners of theaters to make a judgment not to show it is wrong. The public has a right to see it."
Canter and Weiss talked about another difficult decision: weighing the need for new schools in Los Angeles against the necessity of tearing down homes to make room for the campuses.
Canter noted that "we have not built a school in Los Angeles for 30 years" and, trying to catch up, the district has embarked on a huge construction program. Yet she is well aware of the damage caused by tearing down the house "of someone who is 80 and has lived in the same home for 50 years and walks to the drug store."
Weiss told of his efforts to work out a compromise in such a situation, balancing homeowners' concern for their property rights against obligations to the young. But "when it comes to schools," he said, "we ought to have a more commandment-based view than a rights-based view." As Weiss explained to me later, while he doesn't invoke religious values in decision making, he walks "folks thinking more about their responsibilities in society and not just their rights." Dorff concisely summed up the panel's views: "We have a duty to generations to come."
Nothing in the commandments, of course, provides specific guidance to Corwin, Weiss or Canter. Corwin knows he's going to take a lot of heat for showing that movie. A courageous act to one Jew is a sin to another, and the learned among us can each summon plenty of rabbinical backing.
Knowing that, I don't invoke "Jewish ethical values" in my work as an ethics commissioner or as a journalist. Cynicism prevents it. I have covered too many crooks who have used God as a character witness. And I know that God -- if God exists -- doesn't much care whether a political candidate violated city campaign laws by exceeding the spending limit. Bringing God into the kind of decisions I make is shifting my responsibilities on to the shoulder of Someone who should be worried about a bigger picture.
Like Corwin, my brother, Jeff, and I learned values from our mother and father. They taught a strict, if unspecific, code of honesty. But neither of them could conceive of the ethical questions that Jeff has faced as a criminal defense attorney or I have confronted as a journalist.
I left the session still a skeptic, aware that life has too many questions that can't be answered, even on the most enlightened panel on "Jewish Ethical Values in the Halls of Power."
Bill Boyarsky's column on Jews and civic life appears on the first Friday of each month. Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at email@example.com.