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February 21, 2018 10:39 am

New York Times Reader Comments Call Israel ‘Barbaric,’ Blame Jews for Antisemitism

avatar by Ira Stoll

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The headquarters of The New York Times. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The New York Times’ persistent problem with antisemitic or virulently anti-Israel reader comments is flaring yet again.

The latest platform is a Times news article from Washington that appeared under the online headline, “In Pursuit of Peace, Trump Generates Rare Friction With Netanyahu.” It drew the Times’ hordes of anti-Israel commenters out of the woodwork.

Typical was the “Readers’ Pick” comment by Jayme Vasconcellos of Eugene, Oregon. He wrote, “I do wish the NYT would quit overblowing each fainthearted American attempt to appear fair on this issue. Fact: no US president can buck the financial or media empires in his own country that have no interest in peace.” The idea that bloodthirsty financial and media empires are more powerful than the elected president and are blocking peace is the sort of far-fetched conspiracy that has animated American antisemites for years. It’s the stuff of Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent. It attracted thumbs-up “recommend” votes from 12 Times readers.

A commenter using the name “Westsider” wrote, “All Netanyahu and his supporters want is $5 Billion plus from American taxpayers and stealing more land from Israel’s neighbors. According to Netanyahu and his Israel, no neighboring country has the right to defend itself from the barbaric country that attacks its neighbors with fabricated excuses at every opportunity.” That description of Israel as “barbaric” attracted thumbs-up “recommend” votes from 10 Times readers.

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Another comment, with 31 upvotes, likened Israel to Apartheid-era South Africa. Yet another, addressed to a rare pro-Israel commenter, declared, “you moved into their homes, you treated them like dirt, you proclaimed your own goodness and holiness as you bulldozed their homes, and you gave your government to the most insufferably arrogant and cruel people imaginable.”

“Westsider” replied to a pro-Israel commenter by claiming, “Anti-semitism is a byproduct of your behavior. Looking for reasons, you should collectively look in the mirror.”

You have to wonder whether the Times would allow comments claiming that racism is a “byproduct” of black behavior, or that homophobia is a byproduct of gay behavior, or that sexism is a byproduct of female behavior. Yet, somehow, blaming the Jews for the world’s hatred of Jews is not only deemed fit to print (or at least to publish online) by the Times, it even wins thumbs-up “recommend” upvotes from two Times readers.

The context here is crucial. In August, the New York Times awarded a gold ribbon and “Times Pick” status to a comment claiming that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “likes to control the US Congress,” describing American supporters of Israel as a disloyal “fifth column” and calling the Israeli leader a “parasitic thug.” After The Algemeiner published an article critical of the Times decision to highlight the comment, the Times deleted the comment and said the gold ribbon had been an inadvertent mistake.

Then, about ten days later, the Times again awarded a gold ribbon and “NYT Pick” label to a comment that read in part, “It also remains to be seen whether American Zionists have learned to stop prioritizing ‘good for Israel’ over ‘good for America.’” That comment earned “thumbs up” upvotes from at least 444 Times readers.

This all comes from a newspaper whose columnists, editorials, and news articles have repeatedly criticized President Trump and members of his administration for failing to disavow racism or antisemitism with sufficient speed or vehemence, and for eroding standards of civility. The Times editorialized against a vote for Donald Trump for president in part for what it described as Trump’s “crude generalizations about nations and religions.” Yet the newspaper turns its comments section over to precisely such crude generalizations about Israel.

It all raises certain questions. What public service, if any, does the Times think it is providing by providing a platform for these sort of insults and conspiracy theories? Who precisely are the people in charge of approving or moderating these comments? Are the comments reviewed by New York-based New York Times employees before publication? Or is the editing of the comments section outsourced or offshored to low-paid, poorly trained contractors? These would all be fine questions for the Times Public Editor to address, but the newspaper eliminated that position and terminated the editor who was doing the job.

In 2017, the Times announced it would use “a machine learning algorithm” from a “technology incubator that’s part of Alphabet, Google’s parent company,” to automate some of the comment moderation. The newspaper said its method “builds on” the Coral Project, which is partially funded by Pierre Omidyar. No disrespect to algorithms, machine learning, Alphabet, or Omidyar, but this may be one of those situations where if the Times does want to improve its performance (an open question in itself), some actual human journalists may have to rise to the challenge and apply judgment and standards.

More of Ira Stoll’s media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.

The opinions presented by Algemeiner bloggers are solely theirs and do not represent those of The Algemeiner, its publishers or editors. If you would like to share your views with a blog post on The Algemeiner, please be in touch through our Contact page.

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