With the steady decline of traditional newspapers, emerging Internet news sites are poised to assume a more prominent role in delivering news to the computer-savvy public. While providing instant accessibility to an array of news reports and diverse commentary, Internet journalism — though still in its infancy — has shown itself to have serious shortcomings with regard to accuracy and overall reliability. Often limited in staff, Internet news sites tend to depend on wire services and freelance reporters to provide content. Additionally, opening up their electronic pages to nearly instantaneous audience participation requires editorial diligence to avoid manipulation by zealous posters who frequently violate not only minimal norms of civility but offer “talk-backs” full of bogus factual assertions. The needed oversight is often insufficient or missing entirely.
Among the leaders in the burgeoning Internet news trend is the Huffington Post, which in just four years of operation boasts 6 million unique visitors per month. Its founder, Arianna Huffington, touts the site’s responsiveness to the interests and priorities of its readers. With over 800 contributing writers, Huffington contends “we embrace journalistic values like accuracy, fact checking, and correct punctuation and grammar.”
Among its most popular features are the talk-back threads attached to every article, allowing registered readers to have their say. In a May 15, 2007 interview with David Weinberger of Wired.com, Huffington stated,
We don’t have the resources to moderate all the comments on the news site. But on the blog site, since we don’t pay our bloggers, the least we can offer to people like you is that you’re not going to get trolls on your post with ad hominem attacks.We are going to moderate the comments. Critical comments will appear, but no ad hominem attacks. No foul language, no comments that are just posted there to disrupt the debate.
CAMERA’s analysis of several Huffington articles and their corresponding comment threads dealing with Israel indicates that the Huffington Post is not living up to its founder’s enunciated standards. These articles generated a torrent of unsubstantiated accusations and ad-hominem (attacking the person, not the argument) attacks by what appears to be a dedicated crowd of anti-Israel commenters who seem to be on permanent alert for articles dealing with Israel. These commenters dominate the talk-back threads, using them as a forum for promoting polarizing sentiments. Name-calling and personal attacks against commenters who dissent with their views appear all too often. Accusations against Jews and Israel, popular among political fringe groups, routinely are given voice. By opening the floodgates to readership response without providing sufficient editorial oversight, the Huffington Post has allowed — and possibly encouraged — commenters to disseminate falsehoods and express their prejudices.
Controversy over the Huffington Post’s treatment of news related to Israel is not new. CAMERA reviewed copies of comment threads appearing on the site as far back as 2006 containing crude and often vile slanders against Jews and Israel. For example, a series of comments on one thread dated March 2, 2008 began with the charge “the murdering Zionist is still too blood thirsty. They are in the middle of a genocide and they are not going to stop… they consider non-jews as sub-humans.” This was followed by another commenter who asserted “I think the Zionazis need to be set back 60 years…it seems its in their blood to steal and pillage countries everywhere they go.” A third commenter suggested poisoning the water supply in Israel.
In another example, outspoken pro-Israel advocate, and one-time Post blogger, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz denounced the Huffington Post for applying a double standard after it refused to publish his column supporting Israel because it contained criticisms of discredited anti-Israel academic Norman Finkelstein. Dershowitz, a highly visible defender of free expression for even the most reprehensible views, concluded,
I have read dozens of ad hominem attacks against right wingers on your blog. Methinks thou has a double standard! I will post it elswhere [sic] where a real marketplace of ideas exists. (Fortune Magazine, Oct. 29, 2007)
CAMERA sought to investigate the interaction between the Huffington Post’s news coverage and blogger submissions and the ugly sentiments stirred up in the talk-back threads. A sampling of the coverage and comment threads relating to Israel published in March and early April 2009 reflected a wide range of viewpoints, some supportive of Israel others quite negative. The Huffington Post carries an abundance of news and opinion columns that view Jewish political activity with suspicion or emphasize negative stories relating to Israel.
For example, an article on March 10, 2009, “Chas Freeman Out: Intel Chair Withdraws,” discussing the controversial appointment and resignation of Charles Freeman as chairman of the National Intelligence Council, named only Congressional opponents with recognizably Jewish-sounding names. The implication was that Jews were the sole or primary opponents of his appointment. Though untrue, this was consonant with Freeman’s own allegation that he was a victim of the “Israel lobby” — not of his own dubious statements about and relationships with China and Saudi Arabia.
In contrast, other news sources, such as Newsweek, discussed how numerous Congressional leaders opposed Freeman’s appointment for reasons unrelated to his stance on Israel. For example, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi strongly objected to Freeman’s ties to and statements about China. While the Huffington Post article did acknowledge that all seven Republican members of the influential Senate Select Committee on Intelligence opposed Freeman, it did not provide their names. This group of Senators consisted of Chris Bond, Orrin Hatch, Olympia Snowe, Saxby Chambliss, Richard Burr, Tom Coburn, James Risch. There is not a Jewish name — or Jewish-sounding name — among them.
The Huffington Post article gave much of its space to Freeman’s own statement blaming the Jewish lobby and then in a separate piece, published his statement in full.
A news story on April 2, 2009, reporting on the murder of a Jewish teenager by an axe-wielding Palestinian, devoted much of its space to describing how the settlement in which this teenager lived was a reputed haven for Jewish extremists. This shifted the focus and tone of the article away from the&nbs p;savage attack on the child.
The piece employs harsher terminology to describe Israelis who had committed no murder than was used to describe Palestinians who committed murder. The following passage is indicative:
Avinoam Maymon, a 45-year-old resident of the extremist settlement, said he tried to stop the assailant after the attack, violently struggling with him for a minute or two.
“He tried to kill me. I grabbed his hand and took the ax and he escaped,” he told The Associated Press. He said the attacker fled to a neighboring “murderous village.”
The correspondent labeled the town that the murdered boy lived in as extremist. This contrasts with his use of quotation marks to surround the settler’s description of the village from which the killer came from as “murderous.” CAMERA found no examples of Huffington Post articles labeling the towns and cities that spawn Palestinian suicide bombers as extremist.
The article describes the terrorist group claiming responsibility for the attack, “Martyrs of Imad Mughniyeh,” as a “militant group.”
Mughniyeh, an internationally condemned terrorist mastermind, was behind numerous bombings against civilians and military targets, including U.S. Marines serving as peacekeepers in Lebanon. He was formally accused by Argentine prosecutors of orchestrating the bombing of the Jewish community center in Argentina that killed 86 Argentinian civilians – both Jewish and non-Jewish – in 1994. So a group, whose openly stated purpose is to kill civilians, and is named after an arch-terrorist, is characterized as militant, while an entire Jewish community whose child was murdered, is labeled as extremist.
It is the talkback threads, however, that reveal the most egregious shortcomings of this rising Internet newspaper. Winding through the lengthy threads that follow most pieces dealing with Israel, one encounters comment after comment reviling Israel. At times the animosity towards Israel and Jews spills over into implicit threats. The minority of commenters who challenge such ugly sentiments by offering factual or reasoned arguments often encounter derision or are accused of being either agents of Israeli PR or a nefarious Jewish lobby. The vitriol from one commenter spurs a similar sentiment in the next commenter. Soon the repetitive reciting of myths about Jewish influence and other irrational expressions of prejudice overwhelm any attempt at reasoned debate.
The talk-back thread that followed the story of the murdered Jewish child discussed above included numerous comments castigating Israel, despite the fact that the story at hand involved no controversial Israeli action.
The thread following the article on the Charles Freeman imbroglio on March 10, 2009 also offers an example of how irrational and hateful sentiment predominates. [Note the spelling and punctuation errors are not CAMERA’s.]
“Its time we excised the AIPAC cancer from the American body politic,” wrote one commenter.
A second commenter shared that sentiment, writing, “Aren’t people tired of Israel’s power? Makes you wonder why the Jews have been kicked out of so many countries.”
A third commenter who, predictably, denied he was anti-Semitic, launched into a generalized tirade against Jews:
As long as we continue to allow Israel to run this country there will always be upheaval and wars. Murder, jealously and greed have been the trademarks of Israel from the beginning of time. I’m not anti-semetic, I’m just being truthful. It’s all right there in the Old Testament of the Bible. They truly believe that everything should be rightfully theirs, the chosen ones. I pray that Obama gets more people to stand up against the AIPAC lobbyists.
When a few commenters argued against Freeman by pointing to his own statements as proof that he was unsuited for the appointment, these comments seemed to have an effect similar to waving a red flag in front of a bull. In most cases, what followed was heightened rage and ad-hominem attacks.
For example, when a commenter wrote,
Freeman’s vitriolic rant against the “Israel Lobby” merely confirms the inappropriateness of this vicious shill for any government intelligence position….
the immediate response was,
How much are you getting paid to post for the Israeli lobby? … Whatever animosity that’s being directed toward Israel now is due to ISRAEL’S own lawlessness and brutality, as well as its well-documented stranglehold (money/threats/intimidation) on our government’s Middle East policies! I, for one, resent the fact that our leaders in Congress are FORCED to comply with a foreign government’s wishes, or they face political and personal destruction by the “lobby”!
When another commenter brought up the fact that
Mr. Freeman was on the board of CHINESE OIL COMPANIES and his ‘think tank’ was being financed by SAUDI ARABIA…
the next entry responded with,
You appear to be in love with Israel perhaps due to some financial benefits or just being living in Tel Avive. Or perhaps you have no clue of what is really going on!
A commenter tried to show Freeman’s judgement was flawed by repeating a statement attributed to Freeman suggesting China showed too much restraint in Tiananmen square. This was met by another commenter’s response, “would you please dry up and blow away.”
This derision soon gave way to freeflowing invective among posters against the Jewish state and Jews.
And you think Israel wants peace in the region?
No, All Power, land, resource, water, etc. Just like they do in the US and Europe.
AlPAC controls the US MSM, the US government, Congress and the US Senat..
In NO WAY anti-semite here. I am anti-zionist and am BLOODY SICK AND TIRED of America being pushed around by this lobby. We get NOTHING from Israel in return.
No hate thread would be complete without the obligatory fake quote from an Israeli leader. Here a commenter offered up a fake Ariel Sharon quote, “we own America and America knows it.”
And so it continued, page after page, 1038 entries in all from a single article. A tally of 236 sequential entries from a portion of the comment thread following the article on Freeman’s resignation found that 73 percent condemned Israel or Jews. Most often this took the form of accusing Jews of controlling the government and being disloyal. About 19 percent applauded Freeman’s resignation and 8 percent were neutral. The most common topics raised by Israel’s critics in this sample of 236 entries are listed as follows:
55 contended that AIPAC or the “Jewish Lobby” control the US government.
35 raised the charge of dual loyalty by Jewish members of Congress.
11 focused on alleged Jewish control of the media..
14 fixated on allegations of Israeli brutality.
9 expressed outrage over disproportionate aid to Israel.
5 extolled Saudi Arabia as an excellent ally in comparison to Israel.
A number expressed support for any or all of the above.
And finally, 24 were more generalized anti-Semitic rants lacking any specificity.
Only a small portion of these responses offered coherent arguments in favor of Freeman’s appointment or critical of those opposed it. As indicated above, the most commonly expressed sentiment in the comments was a belief in excessive and corrosive Jewish influence in America.
A Huffington article appearing on April 1, 2009, titled “Anti-Semitism without Anti-Semites,” discussed the phenomenon of using anti-Zionism as a cover for hostility towards Jews. The piece points to unbalanced criticism of Israel that singularly focuses on and magnifies alleged Israeli transgressions while ignoring far greater violations occurring around the world. Among the first to pipe in were several commenters protesting that anybody who criticizes Israel is labeled an anti-Semite. Each succeeding statement reviled Israel for allegedly committing atrocities or for its supposed right wing fanaticism, racism or religious supremacism.
Say one word against Israeli government policy and the ADL screams anti-semitism…Point out that zionist claims of superior ‘rights’ in the ‘Holy Land’ are just plain racist and you are called ANTISEMITE!
This was followed by a comment:
Funny, how the accusations of ‘Antisemitism’ coincide with Israel’s war atrocities.
And another wrote:
A PR, ‘damage control’ campaign that appears like clockwork to shift the focus away from Israel’s human rights abuses, and it’s slide down the slope of right wing fanaticism.
And yet another:
Sorry, but you’ve spent all the political capital there was to be had in the phrase “anti-Semitism.” There isn’t a PR strategy big enough for Israel to hide behind, now.
Such invective is not uncommon on the Internet. Nor for that matter is it uncommon in talk-back threads appearing on many news sites. But in light of Ms. Huffington’s lofty intentions, the Huffington Post serves as a particularly striking example of how a forum can be manipulated and overrun by a small but vocal portion of the public who seek to express bigoted and false accusations.
Nor does this seem to be occurring without the knowledge ofHuffington Post staff, who supposedly filter all incoming blog entries and decide which ones to allow. At the beginning of its comment thread is the statement,
Want to reply to a comment? Hint: Click “Reply” at the bottom of the comment; after being approved your comment will appear directly underneath the comment you replied to.
There is also readily visible in many threads a large number of “pending” responses, indicating an active filtering process. The Huffington Post also publishes a page explaining itscomment policy. The policy statement reads:
We only delete those comments that are abusive, off-topic, use excessive foul language, or include ad hominem attacks. We pre-moderate comments on our blog posts and post-moderate comments on news stories.
Huffington’sTerms of Service statement goes further stating that any commenter agrees to not:
publish falsehoods or misrepresentations that could damage THP or any third party; (iii) submit material that is unlawful, obscene, defamatory, libelous, threatening, pornographic, harassing, hateful, racially or ethnically offensive…
Apparently, accusing pro-Israel posters of being agents of a nefarious Jewish lobby or Israeli government does not qualify as ad-hominem. And disseminating theories about evil Jewish influence and Jewish blood lust are not deemed abusive or off-topic.
Outside of its coverage of Israel, the Huffington Post articles and opinion columns reflect liberal-left sentiment. But many of the views expressed on comment threads relating to Israel are not liberal or left in any meaningful way. They reflect, rather, a deep paranoia over Jewish influence and an obsession with age-old canards about Jews that has long been standard rhetoric of far-right reactionaries but increasingly strikes a responsive chord among the radical left.
The articles reviewed in this sampling suggest some among the Huffington Post’s readership are allowed to direct their vitriol at Israel and its supporters despite the site’s declared editing policy. That leaves one of two possibilities:
1. Huffington Post staff intentionally allow expressions of virulent anti-Israel sentiment, including more generalized resentment of Jews..
2. The Huffington Post’s readership is so permeated with prejudice and hostility towards Israel and its supporters that the posted comments are simply an accurate reflection of its readership. Considering that American opinion polls have for decades shown strong public support for Israel and opposition to extreme positions on either side, this should raise concerns about the make-up of Huffington’s readership.
Whatever the explanation, the prevalence of bigoted comments should raise questions for Arianna Huffington who seeks to establish a serious and credible journalistic reputation for her site.
As the inexorable shift from traditional print media to on-line newspapers gathers momentum, members of the public may also increasingly choose sites they see as ethical, accountable and reputable and may shun those associated with shoddy coverage, bias and bigotry. The choice for the Huffington Post is whether to build its appeal on the basis of the former or drift in the direction of the latter.