Liberal media figures can’t stand to be perceived as unvirtuous. This makes concern-trolling an effective strategy to move them with. It’s why liberal-left capitalist media overwhelmingly broke for Warren over Sanders, after corporate media tarred the Sanders platform as irredeemably sexist (his stronger plans and greater support from young working-class women notwithstanding.) It’s how CBS, NPR, and the NYT drained energy from the George Floyd uprisings, by making liberal supporters self-conscious they might be “outside agitators,” or “bad protestors.” Now, it’s how corporate media is trying to undermine support for Palestine.
“I’m telling you guys, pay attention to how the discourse has shifted in just a few days. We went from largescale, effusive outpouring of support for Palestine to fear-mongering about a pogrom. This is so clearly calculated and deliberate,” graduate student Keyvan tweeted. Keyvan’s right. Shortly after cell phone videos disproved Israel’s victimhood myth for good, a new media narrative emerged: that of the “antisemitic incident” that’s nebulously a “result of the conflict.”
It only took one document. On May 20, the Anti-Defamation League put out a press release arguing there was an “uptick in antisemitic incidents related to middle east violence.” This press release’s methodology is poor and the source is politically motivated. But corporate media laundered it into news stories, regardless. Outlets as large as CNN, NBC, PBS, and the Washington Post cite the same four incidents as evidence that antisemitism’s “spreading like wildfire across America” due to the “conflict in the middle east.”
The first incident was that someone with a Freedom for Palestine flag broke a synagogue window in Skokie, Illinois. The second was that some pro-Palestine protesters might’ve yelled “Dirty Jew” at some L.A. restaurant-goers, and then punched a diner after he attacked them with a metal bar. The third video grainily shows a man later revealed to be Jewish on the ground getting kicked and hit with a crutch. We don’t know what transpired between him and the pro-Palestine protesters beforehand, but he told the media he was on his way to a pro-Israel (read: pro-war crime) rally. The fourth incident was that someone threw a rock through a glass synagogue door in Tuscon, Arizona. No one knows who threw it, but various media outlets chalk it up to Palestine regardless.
Am I glad people are vandalizing synagogues? No. Do I enjoy watching people are fighting in the streets? Of course not. But none of these incidents compare to airstrikes that level buildings. Mari Cohen at Jewish Currents proved what should’ve been obvious to any skeptical reporter: this “wave” is barely a trickle. Most of these are political fights rather than attempted pogroms. News stories about “dangerously escalating attacks” are an attempt to scare liberals into thinking that supporting Palestine will make them antisemitic.
I’m not surprised that an imperial power’s invoking the language of persecution as a PR strategy. But I’m interested in how easily liberal media buys it.
On May 23, CBS News reporter Wesley Lowrey gave the ADL an assist. He tweeted that he’d “talked with progressive Jewish friends who were struggling with how to simultaneously voice their support for Palestinian people and also their fear amid the rise in antisemitic violence here and elsewhere.” Lowrey got rightfully dogpiled for testing a narrative that equated antisemitism with antizionism. He later deleted the tweet. But it made me wonder: how do people who’re so easily duped rise so high in media?
On some level, I think it’s because the media selects for them. Chomsky and Herman identified how the industry inculcates groupthink in 1988. “Most biased choices in the media arise from the preselection of right-thinking people, internalized preconceptions, and the adaptation of personnel to the constraints of ownership, organization, market, and political power,” they wrote in Manufacturing Consent. “Censorship is usually self-censorship.” That was and remains true. But certain things have changed since the Berlin Wall came down.
Back in the 90s, being “right-thinking” had more to do with Cold War patriotism. Reporters were expected to internalize Reagan’s “‘miracle of the market’: the belief that markets are assumed to be benevolent and even democratic.” This went hand-in-hand with the ascendance of pro-business reporters like Andrea Mitchell, Brian Williams, and Wolf Blitzer. After 2008, being “right-thinking” shifted. Now, I think it has more to do with social mores than markets.
If you’re a modern liberal journalist, you’re expected to be open-minded and compassionate. You believe that democracy is the instrument through which you’ll enact social change. You document, you uncover, you reveal. You listen. Someone sends you evidence of injustice and you post it. After that, it’s the voters’ job to fix it. The idea that our government is evil and that it’s your job to exhort people to act against it is anathema to your career. Even if that same career brings you face-to-face with right-wing synagogue shootings and government-run concentration camps.
The dissonance can madden you, so you double down on nurturing “empathy” as a way to change politics. You make your Faustian bargains and try to diversify elite school hiring pipelines. But the business model remains the same. And too much “empathy” precludes you from ever establishing stakes and taking a position.
It’s easy to say “My heart goes out to everyone suffering from violence.” It’s much riskier to declare “I’m not focusing on non-deadly political violence in America when my taxes are funding massacres in Gaza.” (This is my position, for what it’s worth.) Professional repercussions curdle image-consciousness into paranoia. If you’re a normal citizen and someone disingenuously accuses you of being an antisemite, you can calmly say “actually, I’m not,” and move on with your life. If you’re a reporter, you can be fired for doing that.
Reflexively deferring to the language and posture of grievance is a great way to avoid practicing discernment. That brings me to my other theory. Liberal media bought the ADL’s narrative so quickly because they want to believe it. It absolves them of having to hop on TV and call for the U.S. to pull out of an evil occupation. Any reporter who can manage contradictions and prioritize moral concerns becomes a threat to that strategic disavowal.
On some level, I suspect that’s the real reason the AP fired Emily Wilder. It wasn’t just that they perceived her to be “biased.” Everyone they hire from the Ivy League is. It’s that, unlike many reporters, she has moral convictions that extend beyond career progression. And unlike Lowrey, she’s too smart to be tricked into equivocating.