Thursday, August 23, 2007

Netwerk vs GeenStijl

An entertaining fight tonight: Old Dutch media vs. New Dutch media. The television program "Netwerk" (=60 Minutes clone) put out an 'expose' (French accent on that e) about the website "GeenStijl," basically accusing them of ... something.

For one, Netwerk 'revealed' that GeenStijl has had several civil complaints filed against it for alleged racism in its comments forum. One complaint was filed by an Amsterdam (district) city council member that GeenStijl routinely refers to as "Jabba the Hut."

No surprise there: the name GeenStijl name means something like "No Style." The site bills itself as the "Vaccuum cleaner of the Internet. You suck? We suck back."

I wish the site could be translated into English, but a lot of it is untranslatable, both culturally and linguistically.

The site's makers are fighting several ongoing lawsuits, including one for allegedly publishing peoples' addresses, which is apparently against Dutch privacy laws. (though addresses are also often available in the phone book...)

I don't want to open the can of worms about whether GeenStijl's comments section actually does have problems: debate and lawsuits abound in every corner of the English speaking internet about how liable websites are for comments, especially comments that are _ in theory _ moderated, as GeenStijl's are.

But I do want to point out: GeenStijl is on my links list. That doesn't necessarily mean I support them or think they're a force for good; it's because I think there's no way around the fact that they're interesting, and as indispensable as the NOS (=Dutch BBC) if one wants to keep tabs on what's happening in the Netherlands.

There's no easy comparison to GeenStijl that I can think of in the U.S. (maybe "Fark", but not really). A lot of it is kind of juvenile 'gotcha' stuff (see 'MORE' at bottom), and their readers are, disproportionately, young men.

But to some extent, they are a news site and at times they clean the clock of the rest of the Dutch media.

The classic example is that, as far as I know, they were first to publish the full name and photo of Mohammed Bouyeri, the religious fanatic who murdered Theo van Gogh in 2004.

I also think they're STILL the only, or one of the only Dutch publications to print his full name.

Come again?

Yes, "Old" Dutch media edit the names of convicts down to first name, last initial. So while the rest of the world knows the killer's full name, Dutch think of him as "Mohammed B." Imagine if American textbooks discussed the importance of Lee Harvey O., or John Wilkes B. to U.S. history...

The Netherlands manages to rank #1 globally for press freedom almost every year, something which makes me want to claw out my eyeballs.

Police here will NEVER confirm the name of a criminal suspect, even when it can be proved by other means (so say a soccer coach is arrested on suspicion of pedophilia, and his perp walk is captured on live TV. No confirmation of the name from Dutch cops).

Courts won't release a suspect's full name, even after he's convicted (on the theory that a murderer deserves to live a normal life once he's released, and not have people he's just met prejudiced against him). In court documents, only initials are used, and sometimes they are changed to make them even more anonymous.

Dutch judges and prosecutors routinely refuse to give their first names. Recently, the Justice Ministry mooted the idea of ceasing to release their last names too, on the theory that doing so left them vulnerable to reprisals from criminals.

So imagine the bailiff announcing a case: 'all rise for the case of suspect X.Y. The honorable Judge Judge presiding. Representing the prosecution, Mr. Prosecutor. Representing the defense, Mr. Koppe.'

(an inside joke: Victor Koppe represents about 1/2 of all high profile Dutch criminal defendants at any one time).

If the freaking prosecutors and judges of a country admit they're afraid to disclose their names in public, then you know its government has no idea how to deal with organized crime. As a defendant, you might as well be facing a panel of men wearing hoods and masks. But I digress.

The "Old" Dutch media is completely willing to play along by any rule authorities throw their way. GeenStijl, on the other hand, uses a mix of common sense and uh, recklessness, in deciding how far to go. So as their name suggests, they cross the lines of good taste sometimes. A lot actually. It keeps things interesting.

I personally believe in treating everybody with respect; but would support to the ends of the earth the right of media, or ANYBODY, to criticize and parody public figures, which is a lot of what GeenStijl does.

Politicians usually know better than to get into a pissing match with a skunk. But not so Dutch ones, especially local politicians (see 'MORE').

And other public figures _ people who have "thrust themselves into the spotlight" as we would say in the U.S., often go ballistic when they get some bad press from the site. And of course it all makes for good reading.

GeenStijl's reaction to Netwerk was predictable, and similar to what they did when they got a "censure" from the Netherlands Union of Journalists (to which they don't belong): they put up a photo of a woman's backside with the words "Kiss My Ass" written on her thong bikini.

Then they provided a full transcription of their conversation with a reporter from Netwerk; on the show tonight, the presenter said that GeenStijl had declined comment on their story, which, judging by the transcript, isn't exactly true.

A classic GeenStijl moment to give an idea of the other kinds of stuff they do:

They did a writeup on this photo of two guys who stole (sorry I mean "found") a cell phone, and took a picture of themselves with it, not realizing its owner had it set up to post photos automatically to his Flickr feed.
Hilarity ensued.
The two honest finders quickly returned the phone.

The other thing that's cool about GeenStijl is that they're Internet savvy enough to give spot commentary on things that are obvious to half the population, but old media aren't brave enough to say.

For instance, a politician in Groningen was adding fake compliments to her official city website _ then tried to deny it, claiming someone was 'spoofing' her IP address.

GeenStijl pointed out that would have had to been done by a rather unique hacker, hell-bent on covertly dishing out praise to a little-known politico...

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