Fluffery, puffery, and sockpuppetry

Fluffery, puffery, and sockpuppetry

How do we get "news" today? Newspapers deliver a great deal of it to us with each edition, but is what is being delivered properly called "news"?

If one is to judge by what passes for news in the Jewish media, the answer is a very loud no. Jewish newspapers today seem far more interested in "look who’s Jewish" stories (such as interviewing Angelina Jolie’s Jewish ob-gyn) than they are about, say, the ever-rising cost of Jewish living.

Jewish newspapers, however, merely reflect the trend in the mainstream media away from substance towards fluff. Articles on the dumbest things, especially when unhealthily sprinkled with heavy doses of lashon ha-ra (bad speech; telling us things about other people we have no business knowing about), get better play than "hard news" stories. Jewish newspapers are just following the big boys.

On the television front, things are even worse for people seeking information about the important issues.

A recent survey by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found, for example, that if you watched 300 consecutive minutes of cable news on any given day during ‘007 (which actually translates to less than ’00 minutes because of commercial interruptions, station breaks, and the like), you would have seen one minute and ‘5 seconds about the environment; one minute and ” seconds about education; one minute about science and technology; three minutes and 34 seconds about the economy; and three minutes and 46 seconds about health and health care. On the other hand, you would have seen ‘6 minutes or more of crime stories; 1’ minutes of accidents and disasters; and at least 10 minutes of celebrity and entertainment news.

The broadcast networks are no better. For example, they devoted 3 percent of their airtime in the first 10 weeks of ‘008 to the Iraq war.

And then there is the Blogosphere. There are bloggers who are well-informed, maintain high standards, and sign their names to what they write. Then there are the bloggers who hide behind the anonymity of screen names to say anything they want in any way they want. No one is there to edit them or to check their excesses.

It would be easy to dismiss the rants, raves, and rumors but for three things: the speed at which they travel on the Internet; the fact that ‘net surfers believe what they read; and the fact that the mainstream media too often report blog entries as if they are holy writ. If an item is salacious enough or smells of scandal, wire services will carry it, newspapers will print it, and broadcasters will air it. The routine professional checks — such as finding three independent sources of confirmation — do not exist when the item is from the Blogosphere.

Who are these people who wield such potential power to misinform? The disaffected, for the most part, often are the bloggers of record. They have axes to grind, or points to prove. Few consider themselves bound by the normal principles of journalistic ethics.

Most have a cadre of hangers-on who add their comments to the bloggers’ own. Often, these hangers-on are actually shills, either for the official blogger or the blogger’s latest target. These people are called sockpuppets. A sockpuppet, as defined by The New York Times, is someone who assumes "a fake online identity to praise, defend, or create the illusion of support for one’s self, allies, or company."

Sockpuppets not only help make a blog look important ("look at all that chatter; this guy must be on to something"), they are also a tool of the trade for public relations firms, according to articles in BusinessWeek and elsewhere and to my son, an executive at a Jewish-owned and -oriented PR firm that uses sockpuppetry with abandon. Even governments engage in sockpuppetry, including the State of Israel, as do political campaigns (The New York Times traced anti-Robert Menendez postings to a senior official of Tom Kean Jr.’s Senate bid). These sockpuppets are unleashed to counter negative blogs and build positive buzz for a client by posting phony entries. Sockpuppetry is so standard that some PR firms openly advertise for such people. Nevertheless, it is a deceptive tactic and, at times, a mean-spirited one.

If you are Jewish, it is also involves several violations of Jewish law. For example, it is g’neivat da-at (theft of knowledge) to hide one’s affiliation if it is relative to an issue; doing so also violates the Torah prohibition of putting a stumbling block before the blind. Then there are such matters as lashon ha-ra and motzi shem ra (spreading untruths about someone else). God did not give us the knowledge to create the Internet in order for it to become a way to subvert His laws of proper conduct.

The Jewish media violate the same laws, albeit for somewhat different reasons. Not reporting on information that is vital to the community is itself a form of g’neivat da-at, as well as a stumbling block, because the less information we have, the less able are we to deal with the problems that need solving. And articles that focus on "look who’s Jewish" personalities almost always violate lashon ha-ra and often enough also violate motzi shem ra.

Jewish media must not operate this way; Jewish P.R. firms must not operate this way; Jewish bloggers must not operate this way. Halacha does not stop at the keyboard. Internet anonymity does not provide a heter (in essence, a free pass) for sinning.

A little less than a month from now, Jewish bloggers will gather in Jerusalem for their first-ever international convention. Not on the agenda — but what should top it — is a clear statement that Jewish law is sacrosanct even on the information superhighway.

As for the Jewish media, they need to re-examine their priorities and we, the readers, listeners, and viewers, need to let them know that we have had it with "fluff and puff" journalism; we want them to focus on the issues that really matter.