BEERSHEBA, Israel (JTA) — Or a lunatic, extremist or just someone whose opinion you would dismiss were you really to know him.
Like the famous 1993 New Yorker cartoon, where one dog explains to the other that “On the Internet, nobody knows you are a dog,” we are inundated today with information from sources we know nothing about. So though it is unlikely that the blog or column that you are reading actually was written by a dog, it is more than possible that it was written by someone with a personal or political agenda.
Over the past two decades, the media have undergone a massive evolution with the introduction of new technologies. From the onset of cable TV with its nonstop 24-hour news networks, to the rise of the Internet, we have become inundated with an ever increasing number of “news” sources, some more credible than others.
For whatever reason, when the written word appears on the computer screen, readers check their critical thinking skills at the keyboard. We teach our children to be wary of “friends” who approach them online, while we willingly believe “facts” written by people about whom we know nothing.
Online bloggers have become arbiters of truth. Suddenly these random commentators, who often write nothing more than unsubstantiated remarks and nearly libelous personal observations, have access to a wide public forum without any context.
When I was a young editor working at The Jerusalem Post, the legendary Alex Berlyne would walk around the newsroom repeating his golden rule of reporting: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Confirmation by a second source was the rule, not the exception. Journalists saw themselves as servants of the third estate committed to unraveling the truth and defending the greater public good.
No such standards apply to bloggers or, for that matter, columnists now appearing in your daily paper. Once segregated onto pages clearly labeled as opinion, these essays have become an inexpensive source of page filler and page views. News sites link to a range of writers under the banner that all opinions are equal without vetting credentials. And we, as consumers, rarely check the background of the writer, trusting that someone has done the legwork. But that simply isn’t so.
Recent events around the world remind us once again that in the open marketplace of ideas, the loudest voices are usually those of the most extreme points of view. Talk radio has become talk-back Internet, where one link simply leads to another. Without the moderating influence of editorial accountability, the blogosphere has become a place of black and white, with no room for the gray tones of a more complex reality.
This is particularly true in Israel, where bloggers are taking a cue from the country’s politicians and turning up the volume of the debate. Labels such as anti-Zionist and fascist are the new grenades being tossed around in a battle of the words that has turned cyberspace into a very dangerous place. More often than not, it turns out that those at the forefront of the battle are motivated by their own agenda, positioning extreme ideologies as an objective reality. Scratch a blogger behind the ears and you may discover his political affiliations are not what you expected.
This is where we as consumers have to learn to be wary. We have to sniff out the reliable commentators, research our sources carefully and become our own investigative journalists.
So the next time you read a blog or column citing seemingly shocking “facts,” check out the source. You may just find that the writer’s name is Rover.
(Faye Bittker is a former journalist who now works in media relations at an Israeli university.)