Image: Israeli Arabs Clash With Police
Israeli police beat an Israeli Arab demonstrator during a clash this week in front of the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv. Some would prefer such images be suppressed.
By MSNBC

Hate mail is the herpes of Internet journalism. Avoiding it isn’t hard: just be a sheep. Make sure your work reflects the popular opinion, no matter how ignorant, dangerous or bland that position might be. Of course, hate mail also can be viewed as an indication of impact. When I receive mail from, say, 200 people calling me a left-wing pinko commie and another 200 denouncing my fascist, right-wing blood-thirst, I figure I’m getting it about right. But like herpes, hate mail also is prone to painful flare-ups, and nothing brings out the inflammation like the Middle East.

PROOF THAT the hate mail virus is in an active phase isn’t hard to find. The ire being directed upon journalists who have integrity and guts enough to expose their e-mail addresses to the audience is overwhelming, indiscriminate and counter-productive. These virtual threats pale beside the actual attacks on journalists in the field, of course, such as the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, or the Israeli army’s use of bullets and stun grenades to intimidate reporters covering the conflict in the West Bank.

But even a virtual attack has its consequences. In a recent column, “Ink answered with a call for blood,” Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz examines the mounting tide of angry responses hurled at journalists who are covering the Mideast conflict. And increasingly, journalists around the world who once offered a “two-way street” to readers are taking their e-mail names off their stories or simply directing mail into a dead-end alias that is rarely answered.

The net result: “big media” retreats into its ivory tower and the genuine dialog the Internet fostered between press and public is destroyed.

HATE MAIL ERUPTION

For five years now, ever since I began writing Brave New World, it has been my pleasure to put up with the occasional imbecile in order to engage in a dialogue with readers who have genuine concerns and opinions. Many of them strongly disagreed with positions I took during those years, and most expressed surprise when they received a response that attempted to address their concerns. Over time, truly hateful stuff flowed in. In one case, the threat was so specific I took my family’s listing out of the phone book. But such mail was sporadic enough to ignore.

As regular readers of this column will know, the hate mail flares up in times of high tension. In the mid-1990s, it came from Serbs, white supremacists and Clinton haters. In subsequent news cycles, they were replaced by angry Chinese, Indonesians and leftist Europeans. An IRA splinter group once put my photo on its Web site with a not-so-subtle suggestion to American sympathizers about limiting my remaining time on this planet.

But again, for every curse word or outright death threat, there have been hundreds of legitimate and provocative e-mails from readers. In a career that has taken me from covering the Pinellas Park, Fla., sewage abatement board to covering American foreign policy at the BBC World Service, this sudden reconnection with individual news consumers was fascinating. It improved my journalism, it kept me honest, and over time more than 10,000 people showed their appreciation by joining the column’s e-mail notification list. They are students, homemakers, professors, generals, diplomats and senior government officials from the world over.

DOUBLE JEOPARDY

I began to notice a change after Sept. 11, however. Foolishly, I revealed that I had lost friends and family in the World Trade Center attack. Heartfelt sympathy flowed in. But so did this:

“osama is hero of islam and i show one day i will be same as osama bin ladenfxxx usa fxxx usa i fxxx you sisteri fxxx you familyok now i am seventeen years old17years old when after 1year i will be fight with usagod will help us and the fight is islam and crishan and hindouyou hoar for jewsokbicth

A few days later, I got this one:

We see right through you, Mr. Moron, you Jew-hating Nazi. Sharon will sweep the Arab filth out of Israel no matter what lackeys like you say. watch your back.

Hate from both sides wouldn’t have bothered me particularly. And it is not as though the genuine, thoughtful and constructively critical e-mails stopped. In fact, I got more of them, as well. But Sept. 11 changed the ratio of real-to-hate mail, and it got even worse when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict flared. By New Year’s Day, hundreds of diatribes daily were flowing into my e-mail account.

I soon came to understand why.

Just before the New Year, a pro-Israel Internet site called denounced a Newsweek magazine story on its Web site. The story, which profiled Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon, was deemed unfair. As part of a content-sharing agreement MSNBC.com has with Newsweek, the article appeared on Newsweek’s Web site, www.newsweek.msnbc.com, which under the terms of the deal is hosted under the MSNBC.com domain. MSNBC.com has no editorial control whatsoever over its partner’s content, and vice versa.

“HonestReporting.com” describes itself as “a fast-action Web site dedicated to ensuring that Israel receives fair media coverage.” In fact, it is one of a whole new category of Web sites catering to both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that do what Washington lobbying groups have been doing for decades: general prefabricated mailing campaigns in an effort to sway opinion.

With little regard for the “honesty” in its title, the Web site urged its zealous readership to e-mail thousands of ready-made complaints to Newsweek and MSNBC.com. A large majority simply took the Web site’s word for what had happened and “spammed” both sites with angry e-mail. Many contained the word “anti-Semite” and some were outright threats.

Efforts to explain to HonestReporting.com that Newsweek is a separate entity from MSNBC.com were not successful. (In fact, they deliberately distorted the facts again in an “update” on their site and falsely claimed that I responded to them with obscenities.)

CROCODILE TEARS?

Why should the public care that a journalist’s words have been taken out of context? It probably shouldn’t. The media does it all the time, truth be told, and who cries for the public?

But throwing around the label “anti-Semite” is a very different issue. Like other explosive charges at various points in American history - charges like “racist,” “communist,” or “Whig,” for instance - the charge of anti-Semitism today is being used to persecute any journalist who dares to write or broadcast critically about the Sharon government’s policies. When I raised this concern with HonestReporting.com, they brushed it off as the work of a few bad apples among their subscribers (1,254 of them, to be precise). But in an “update” to the Newsweek-MSNBC case that appears on their site, they said:

“HonestReporting does not believe that Moran is an anti-Semite, and never implied it. ... But certainly there is something more than meets the eye. Moran responded to HonestReporting with such vile hatred and filthy language, that he must be feeling guilty about something. I always learned that in a debate, the one who gets angry first is usually wrong.”

Hmm. If getting angry about being called an anti-Semite is wrong, then I’m guilty. But I find that a rather flimsy standard for making such judgments.

E-mail campaigns like this proliferated quickly. Beginning in January, pro-Palestinian groups such as have joined the fray, as have conservative and “progressive” groups around the world.

THAT’S PROGRESS?

In the past, such mass mailings generally were directed at members of Congress or the White House. An interest group seeking a particular outcome in an upcoming vote in Congress would mail to its members a form letter and stamped, pre-addressed envelopes. This time-honored method of pressure politics generally got the response it deserved, which means that “form letters” were largely ignored unless the politician wanted to vote that way anyway, in which case he or she would cite the “mailbags flooding the office” and notify the AP reporter that covered the state delegation.

The Internet has taken this tactic to new extremes. Unfortunately, the same brand of zealots who made Internet bulletin boards and chat rooms into forums for racism and slander in years past now have set their sights on the free flow of ideas generally.

Their goal, of course, is for columns like mine to be quashed by their vitriol. Happily, that will not happen, thanks to MSNBC.com’s dedication to the First Amendment. But even virtual hate has consequences. My inbox has become so clogged with hate messages that I have now changed my e-mail address, directing readers now to an account I’ll look at only occasionally. E-mail isn’t a luxury in the modern media, it is a vital tool of the trade we need to communicate and I can no longer afford to have hate-mongers take up valuable bandwidth. So go ahead, click away. Thanks to the zealots, it won’t matter anyway. I won’t be spending that much time reading the mail anymore.

Copyright MSNBC 2002

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