What stifled debate?

Perhaps 'British Medical Journal' could learn from Facebook and Motrin.

bmj 88 (photo credit: )
bmj 88
(photo credit: )
Last November, a group of mothers launched a campaign against pharmaceutical company Motrin over a commercial implying that "baby-wearing" - carrying a baby in a sling - was trendy and painful. Countless offended mothers joined the campaign on blogs, Internet message boards and even on YouTube. Motrin quickly backed down, yanked the ad, and apologized. More recently, consumer advocacy Web site The Consumerist revealed that Facebook surreptitiously changed its terms of service, prompting tens of thousands of people to protest across the Internet. Like Motrin, Facebook reversed the change and promised to seek public input in the future. In a third case, some 2,000 HonestReporting readers complained about an article in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) that stated that as of 2004, "the Israeli army, with utter impunity, has killed more unarmed Palestinian civilians since September 2000 than the number of people who died on September 11, 2001." HonestReporting noted that those figures would be correct only if all Palestinian casualties were unarmed civilians. In reality, however, most were terrorists. But the BMJ did not move to correct the contentious error, which directly challenges Israel's moral standing. Instead, in a series of articles published last week, it accused HonestReporting of carrying out an "orchestrated campaign" against the publication and promised to ignore such campaigns in the future. In one of the featured articles, Karl Sabbagh took the issue one step further, claiming the flood of e-mails was meant to bully BMJ editors. "The ultimate goal of some of the groups that lobby for Israel or against Palestine is apparently the suppression of views they disagree with," he wrote. No one accused the Motrin-moms of stifling the company's free speech and no one suggested Facebook's critics were trying to hijack the service. But accusations that Israel's advocates suppress dissent or stifle debate over the Middle East have increased in recent years, particularly since the publication of The Israel Lobby by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, who devote a whole chapter to the issue. In many cases, including the BMJ, the accusation is nothing more than a smoke screen to avoid dealing with the real issues. As Sabbagh's article demonstrates, it is far easier to discredit the source of a complaint than to deal with its substance. According to Sabbagh, many e-mails received on the heels of HonestReporting's report repeat information from HonestReporting's Web site, some almost exactly. Others failed to demonstrate sufficient evidence that they had read the original article. Finally, he writes, about a third were abusive to either the editor or the publication. THIS NUANCED ANALYSIS of the e-mails touches on many areas. The only thing Sabbagh doesn't cover is the actual complaint from HonestReporting and the many people who agreed with it - that the original article inflated Palestinian civilian casualty figures. (The issue was raised by Jonathan Freedland in one of the other articles on the topic. He calls the claim in the original BMJ article "a clear error.") By ignoring the mistake or implying that no mistake was made, Sabbagh seeks to recast the situation to imply the e-mails are intended to intimidate. "If straying into the Israel-Palestinian conflict provokes such a large and hostile reaction, not to mention strident allegations that important details are wrong," he writes, "then the temptation is quietly to avoid the topic in future." HonestReporting makes no effort to prevent people from expressing themselves. But it does hold people accountable for their statements. This is how democratic discourse is advanced in a free society. If people disagree with HonestReporting, they are free to say so. But a blanket dismissal of all alleged "campaigns," regardless of their merit, blunts debate. In addition, HonestReporting is promoting, not stifling, debate by getting the public involved in the issue. The organization monitors the media for bias against Israel, then publishes its findings on its Web site. Those who agree are often directed to an e-mail address to lodge their complaint. This is basic grassroots activism. HonestReporting has no control over how many people, if any, choose to write. Indeed, people like Sabbagh, who accuse HonestReporting of stifling debate, are actually the ones seeking to suppress the voices of its readers - the people who express themselves through e-mails to editors. Considering the flood of negative media coverage Israel receives, there is no evidence that these complaints have had the effect Sabbagh describes. As the cases of Motrin and Facebook demonstrate, people will not keep silent. They will respond by the thousands when they feel wronged. Israel's supporters are no different. And as the Internet continues to grow as a forum for mass discussion, the real losers are those who view on-line debate with contempt and dig in their heels. Perhaps the British Medical Journal could learn a lesson from Motrin and Facebook. The writer is social media editor at HonestReporting.