There used to be “readers’ letters.” Now we have “talkbacks.” Readers’
letters are edited for content; the people writing them identify themselves and
are accountable for what they say.
In talkbacks, the writers are often
anonymous, have few limits on what they write and can almost never be held
accountable, no matter how terrible the slander they spew.
readers’ letters, which land up neatly folded in the bird cage the next morning,
talkbacks linger on forever in the electro-sphere, constantly coming back to
haunt you, no matter how preposterous, ridiculous or slanderous, never to be
eradicated no matter how hard one may try.
Talkbacks are a product of the
age before newspapers knew what to do about the Internet. The thinking was that
one of the ways to create reader loyalty was to use the new medium to create a
dialogue with readers and allow them to share their thoughts on subjects of
What has been created, in fact, is a monstrous beast that
allows people who call themselves “Toughjew” and “Spongwoggler” to respond with
their crazy views to whatever one writes and, through the newspaper’s site,
reach tens of thousands of people under the de facto legitimacy of the masthead
that carries them.
Thus, for example, the following comments posted on
this newspaper’s site, living in perpetuity on the Internet, in response to a
piece I wrote on the Lt.-Col. Shalom Eisner case last week, supporting his
dismissal: “What uniform did Hirsch Goodman wear?” “How dare this moron attempt
to lecture a true soldier like Col Eisner on how he should have conducted
himself?” “On that day the JP became a credible newspaper. They miss him
as much as I miss my piles which were surgically removed.” “sick, twisted biased
opinion. Why are you still alive?” “You are guilty of all the aggression,
vitriole, insults and pathetic drivel.” “Look in the mirror. Time to
These are some of the more intelligent. But the point is that
before talkbacks came along, at least there was some semblance of sanity to the
responses to what is written in the paper and the paper seemed to exercise at
least some modicum of control over what goes out in its name.
inviolate charter of journalism is respect for the power of the profession and
the need to tread very carefully when dealing with someone’s name or
reputation. Once tarred, no matter how many times cleansed, the stigma
Talkbacks that go out on newspapers’ websites make a
mockery of that. They often make yellow journalism look pristine in comparison.
So destructive have these become that Wikipedia now has an entry for the
phenomenon called “flaming,” defined as “hostile and insulting interaction
between internet users and the use of profanity.” Flaming has, in turn, given
birth to “flamers,” who, we are told, “are specifically motivated to incite
flaming,” while “trolls,” the lowest species on the flaming ladder, are defined
as “less professional flamers.” All this is well and good and I have no problems
with either new media or new phenomena, but when these, even by affiliation, go
out in the name of branded titles we have a problem.
Another casualty of
all this is the seriousness of the subjects under debate. The chief of staff of
the Israeli army decides to kick Eisner out of the ranks; I support the decision
and, by implication, get called a Nazi and a sick, biased, pathetic, twisted moron by people who can’t even spell my name
I WRITE this because two sirens have sounded over our country
in recent days, one in memory of the Holocaust; the other in honor of the
soldiers and victims of terror who have fallen so Israel can live.
has allowed this country to overcome, survive and thrive has been a basic
decency in the way we overcome our differences and remain within normative
parameters of discussion that make even heated debate palatable.
should not be thrown by the wayside just because technology allows
Newspapers and responsible publications must find ways of
extinguishing the flamers and stopping the trolls from showing their ugly faces.
While it is true that no one is forced to read these diatribes, it makes a lot
more sense not to provide them with a platform in the first place.
is not a call for censorship, nor am I saying it because I take issue with those
who take issue with me. It is a call for responsibility and accountability and
for the established media to apply the same criterion to the posts they publish
in their electronic versions as they apply to good old readers’ letters in
print. Otherwise we all risk being dragged down into the gutter.
democracy is the only key to its future. Tolerance and unity, without stymying
diversity, are at the heart of democracy. It is when people start screaming
“Nazi” at one another and calling them morons for agreeing with the chief of
staff of the Israel Defense Forces that we should stop and think what type of
flames we want to light this Independence Day.
The writer is a senior
research associate at the Institute for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University
and an author. His most recent book The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival, won the
2011 National Jewish Book Award in the history category.