Time for blogosphere to exercise discipline

BY VIC ALHADEFF

Sydney Morning Herald
December 28, 2011

Some months ago, Channel Nine’s A Current Affair featured a segment on the bid to erect an eruv in St Ives and the public debate that ensued.

As is standard practice for most media outlets, the program was uploaded onto A Current Affair’s website, inviting viewers to voice opinions. Many did. And one of those gems mischievously misquoted the former US President John Kennedy declaring that Hitler would go down as one of the greatest men in history and should be exhumed.

In the context of a story on a Jewish issue, that sentiment could have but one implication – Hitler was right.

The NSW Jewish Board of Deputies was alerted to the comment at 10.45pm. The board contacted A Current Affair, but no one was home. The post was removed at 9.20am the next day, by which time it had been up for 12 hours and read by hundreds.

Also on A Current Affair’s website in response to an earlier segment were these posts: “The bosh [Germans] didn’t finish the job”, “Quick, hide your babies. The Jews are going to drain their blood and bake bread!”, and “The Jews have to abide by the Australian way of life and respect that. Not good enough. Get out”.

A recent article on New Matilda prompted comments that called for boycotts of the “evilly pro-Zionist Murdoch media” and “the evilly anti-Semitic ALP (aka the Apartheid Labor Party, Apartheid Israel-supporting Labor Party)”. Furthermore, suggested the writer, “the racist Zionists and their supporters (such as Labor) should be sidelined from public life as have been like racists such as the Nazis, neo-Nazis, Apartheiders and KKK”.

And in response to an article I wrote on the ABC’s Unleashed about the Vatican’s reinstatement of a bishop who insisted there were no gas chambers in the Holocaust, a comment stated: “Let’s not be too hard on Vic. He can only see things with his own eyes. He is a pure-bred from a sad lineage … yet they still enjoy killing people.”

The ease with which such comments make their way into the public domain is untenable and unacceptable – not just for the Jewish community but for all who value a tolerant society.

The majority of mainstream media apply rigorous standards in regard to printing letters and allowing callers to talkback radio to be put to air.

Not when it comes to the online world, however. For many outlets, there seems to be a parallel universe at work that repeatedly – albeit unintentionally – allows deeply offensive comments to see the light of day.

Comments can’t be posted on mainstream media sites without a human accepting them and pressing a computer key. Most outlets assign staff to moderate comments and block those deemed unacceptable. In reality, however, comments continually make it to air that are highly objectionable.

Different parameters apply to Twitter and Facebook, whose raison d’etre is to enable people to commit thoughts to air without an intervening gatekeeper. Yet while the latter applies its own standards in regard to content and language, it too is accountable when it comes to such issues as vilification.

Some outlets are moving to remedy the problem. Two weeks ago, The New York Times introduced a pilot program for “trusted commenters”. Readers with a history of exemplary comments are offered this status and their submissions are automatically accepted.

And in a highly commendable initiative, Australia’s ninemsn, which has the digital rights to Channel Nine assets (including A Current Affair), intends to make it mandatory for those submitting comments to identify themselves – for news programs initially, and then for other sites.

This is a significant step towards discouraging those who take refuge in anonymity and is one which other outlets would do well to emulate. Self-regulation, both by media and internet service providers, is certainly the desirable way forward.

Clearly, there are no mainstream media in this country that are racist or anti-Semitic. Equally clearly, the standard of debate in the blogosphere is disturbingly lower than in the mainstream press, due overwhelmingly to lack of vigilance by media, rather than to any sinister motives.

Those who are inclined to act on racist sentiments are even more impelled to do so when they believe those sentiments are deemed acceptable. While the media landscape continues to expand, therefore, it is imperative for every outlet to apply the same discipline to every sector. Our society is otherwise at risk.

Vic Alhadeff is chief executive officer of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies.

Original article here.

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