Friday, November 30, 2012

Humanity in 140 Characters or Less

Glued to the television, I watched news coverage of the battles in Gaza.  Exhausted from eighteen hours of return travel from a month in Israel, I grew increasingly frustrated by what I felt was bias in CNN’s coverage of the situation.  I watched as anchorpeople tolerated long-winded tirades by representatives of the Palestinian Authority without interruption or challenge to any points raised.  At the same time, they had no problem interrupting Israeli government officials or IDF spokespeople.  As night melted into day, my frustration heated up as I thought about my friends in Tel Aviv, Ashkelon and Beersheva living under a constant barrage of Hamas missiles intentionally aimed at civilians.

Anderson Cooper of CNN broke in to the coverage to report from a rooftop in Gaza that at least one person was shot dead and dragged through the streets behind a motorcycle.  Cooper reported that Hamas men on motorcycles were shouting, “God is Great” and that the man was a spy for Israel.  I could not believe my ears.  Perhaps I was so tired I missed his using the term “alleged,” but the first time I heard the report I was certain he stated categorically that the dead man was a spy for Israel.  Exasperated, I tweeted:

May just stop watching #CNN. Now @andersoncooper almost apologizing for #Hamas dragging a dead "Spy" for #Israel & yelling God is great! Oy.

I was shocked to discover that while standing on a Gaza rooftop, missiles flying toward my friends while IDF missiles struck military targets in Gaza, Anderson Cooper had time to read my tweet and, more surprising, had time to respond:

.@Rabbi_Sykes excuse me, but how am I apologizing for Hamas by reporting them dragging a body through the streets? That is deeply offensive

I took a few moments to let Mr. Cooper’s message sink in:  Was I oversensitive to his reporting?  Was his tone apologetic toward Hamas?  Did he leave out the word “alleged” with the word spy?  What was it that set me off and why did I use the term “apologizing?”  In retrospect, Mr. Cooper was right.  He was not apologizing for Hamas.  He was reporting what he saw and heard.

I was, however, bothered by Mr. Cooper leaving out the term “alleged,” and by his not just referring to the victim as a human being.  Reporting what Hamas members yelled about the murdered man while dragging his body behind a motorcycle was, in my opinion, unnecessary. I tweeted again:

@andersoncooper In this case, you are correct. "Apologizing" is an unfair term. My apologies.


@andersoncooper At same time, you know words matter. Your peers note victims were alleged spies. Makes a difference. Murdered nonetheless

I did not hear from Anderson Cooper again.

What happened next shocked me as much as getting a response from Anderson Cooper in the first place.  I was unaware that Mr. Cooper has a penchant for responding, at times harshly,  to tweets from certain people.  Moreover, I did not know that there were stories about this circulating on websites throughout the blogosphere.  Looking at his response to me,I did not think it was harsh.  It was direct. It actually made me reconsider what I had written.  However, Mr. Cooper’s fan base went ballistic.  I experienced a Twitter fusillade: over two hundred responses in just under a few minutes.  They ranged from the polite:

@Rabbi_Sykes @andersoncooper There was nothing said that suggests he's a Hamas apologist. It was a neutral statement.

To the insulting:

@Rabbi_Sykes where the hell do u get off?!? @andersoncooperis one of the bet reporters ever! You need to just shut up!!

To the offensive:

@andersoncooper I think its becoz u appear 2refer 2 Palestinians as humans- 4people like @Rabbi_Sykes they r subspecies & deserve 2die #Gaza

And hateful:

@andersoncooper @Rabbi_Sykes If this guy was a cause in killing my children, brothers and sisters and destroying my home I'd do the same!

In reflecting on my brief twitter encounter with Anderson Cooper, I distilled a few rules to live by. I refer to them as The Sykes Rules for Tweeting in General and Tweeting on Hot Topics with Celebrities.  Sharing them is a helpful reminder to me and I offer them in case of interest or need.  There is no great wisdom here, just personal learning:

1.  Never Tweet when tired and/or angry.

I am a careful listener but maybe I did miss something this time.  I am, however, certain that I was both tired from the travel and angry about the coverage of the situation in general.  I should not have sent the tweet.  I should have written it, gotten it out of my system and then deleted it; or, I should have been just a little more thoughtful about the message I wanted to send to Anderson Cooper and CNN.

2.  Discretion is the better part of valor.

It is difficult to make a nuanced statement on a complex topic like the situation in Gaza in 140 characters or less.  In the world of social media, a Facebook status can be a more appropriate place to share a thought or feeling, as it can be more detailed and complete.

3.  Remember, almost nobody reads past the second tweet in a conversation.

Looking over the twitter feed, it is clear that most people jumped from Mr. Cooper’s response to their own thoughts or the thoughts of others.  Very few actually noted that I DID apologize to Anderson Cooper.  Most either jumped directly onto the Anderson Cooper support bandwagon or onto the hateful, anti-Semitic bandwagon.

Moreover, my first tweet was included in articles on websites that I would never want to appear in, such as Perez Hilton to cite just one example, and they clearly never read past the initial exchange either (Rebecca said I’m lucky he didn’t include my photo with his visual commentary), which leads me to the next rule:

4.  Once you put your thoughts out there, you have NO control over what happens to them, how they are understood or where they end up. Post responsibly and let it go.

5.  If you make a mistake, apologize publicly.

Despite rule #3, if you are wrong, even slightly, take responsibility and do the right thing: apologize.

6.  Don’t bother engaging with “true believers.” They will not hear you.

The responses from Hamas apologists, anti-Semites, haters of Israel were numerous. I engaged with a few of them.  One wanted to argue about whether or not I thought God was great, as I indicated a problem believing that a great God would want any person shot in the head and dragged through the streets behind a motorcycle.  He had a hard time with that. One or two tweets in, I remembered: there is no convincing a “true believer” to think differently. I was wasting my time.

7.  Do engage with people that respond in a civil, thoughtful fashion.

I now follow one aspiring journalist who pointed out the absence of any apology in Mr. Cooper’s broadcast in a polite and thoughtful way; one friend of Israel who was being pushed by a supposed “expert” in bullying to avoid engaging with me because I was “bullying” Anderson Cooper; and one person who wants to visit Israel but is scared because of the constant turmoil in the Middle East, to name just a few.

8.  Remember, it doesn’t cost anything extra to be polite and nice.

I was bombarded with tweets from people who were just nasty and made assumptions about my beliefs and about me.  In the limited number of cases where I did engage, I did so in a polite and civil way so I could go to sleep at night, secure in the knowledge that I behaved like a mensch.

9.  Don’t let rule #3 or #4  prevent you from holding journalists accountable for their words.

I never heard back from Anderson Cooper.  I did, however, watch his broadcast following our twitter exchange.  In the next segment, when showing the horrific video footage of the poor guy shot in the head and dragged through the streets, Anderson Cooper did state that the Hamas terrorists were chanting “God is Great” and that the man was “alleged” to be a spy. He was horrified and disgusted.  In the end, Mr. Cooper was right to call me out. At the same time, I could not help but feel that I made a small difference in how the story was reported the second time around. 

At the end of the day, however, the twitter conversation is beside the point.   Sadly, the man dragged behind the motorcycle is still dead, murdered brutally by Hamas.  A human being, he was deprived of any due process, any rights, any dignity.  His family and friends buried  him.  They mourn his death.   Others in Gaza are once again reminded by Hamas: this can happen to you, for any reason, at any time, just because we can.

And the world saw the brutality that is Hamas.

Unfortunately, I fear, not enough people are willing to pay attention.

May we all work hard to achieve Peace soon and in our day!

Shabbat Shalom.

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