After months of anti-Israel protests on college campuses across the United States—some of which ended in law-enforcement interventions, destruction of property, arrests, and canceled commencements—mainstream media are still confused, or misguided, or worse, when it comes to covering the story.

Two approaches have emerged, both illustrative of broader failings in the profession. The first embraces and romanticizes the protests as part of a long and admirable trend of student activism, often tapping into highly selective memories of 1960s-era youth culture. The second approach also views the protests as positive, in a way that allows journalists to ignore and minimize the violent and anti-Semitic words and deeds of many of those in encampments and on quads. Just as many journalists offered a falsified portrait of the George Floyd Summer protests of 2020—as captured by the infamous CNN chyron, “Fiery but mostly peaceful,” that ran live under images of protesters setting fire to buildings—the tone of many reports this spring might be described as “Genocidal, but mostly peaceful.”

American journalists learned over the past decade to redefine violence as speech (“mostly peaceful” arson) and speech as violence (Tom Cotton’s “unsafe” op-ed about calling in the National Guard). Now acceptable protest has been expanded to include . . . just about anything, including the occupation of buildings and destruction of property. “People understand that ‘occupying buildings on campus’ is, like, one of the most common forms of student protest for decades and not some devious new ploy devised by professional anarchist plotters, right?” said Chris Hayes of MSNBC. He went on to argue, bizarrely, that “college activism has long been part of a college education,” as if trespassing and barricading and holding janitors hostage is akin to Freshman Comp.

The Washington Post also made a serious effort to downplay the radicalism of the protesters by portraying them as victims of a right-wing vendetta. “They Criticized Israel. This Twitter Account Upended Their Lives,” read a typical headline. In the story, Pranshu Verma described the social-media account StopAntisemitism as a group that “has flagged hundreds of people who have criticized Israel’s actions in Gaza” and, as a result, lost their jobs. As Jill Filipovic noted in the Atlantic, however, “that’s not actually an accurate description of the reality that the Post is reporting.” One of the women who was fired had said “radical solidarity with Palestine means . . . not apologizing for Hamas,” while another was filmed tearing down hostage posters and claiming that the hostages were being held not by Hamas but by Israel. Still another, whom the Post described as calling Israelis “pigs,” in fact said: “Israelis are pigs. Savages. Very very bad people. Irredeemable excrement,” adding, “May they rot in hell.” These are people who—as their employers rationally came to understand—were not colleagues with whom others might be comfortable working.

Many journalists clearly sympathize with the protesters and believe that their forms of expression are within the range of acceptable resistance. But their efforts to downplay the radical stances of the protesters would be comical if it wasn’t also so clearly a violation of the journalistic norms we are constantly informed are so crucial to a healthy democracy and supposedly under threat only from the bad guys on the other side of the aisle.

Lydia Polgreen of the New York Times described the often-violent words of protesters in her newsletter and on the paper’s Matter of Opinion podcast as follows: “They are peaceful if boisterous expressions of moral outrage” by “a bunch of kids hanging out, chanting various slogans, none of which seemed particularly outré to me.” Her colleague Michelle Cottle agreed, pooh-poohing the idea that the protesters promoted anti-Semitism. “I don’t think this is a question that you can ultimately solve in some kind of objective way,” she said. “There’s not a kind of anti-Semitism detector that’s just going to ding and tell you, yes, this is anti-Semitic, therefore, it’s out of bounds. Or no, it’s not, therefore, it’s OK. All of these things are in the eye of the beholder.” Indeed, two Harvard professors, writing in the explicitly anti-Zionist Jewish Currents, invoked Gramsci to argue that claims of anti-Semitism were false and evidence of a “moral panic.”

Oh? Columbia University undergraduate Khymani James was one of the leaders of the protests on that campus. He posted a video of himself taken during a disciplinary hearing back in January saying it’s fine to kill people with whom he disagrees. “Be grateful that I’m not just going out and murdering Zionists,” he said. Nor was this James’s first turn in the spotlight. He received a glowing profile from the Boston Globe in 2021 while still a high-school student. The puff piece showed James in a Black Lives Matter T-shirt with the headline, “‘Speak Your Truth’: How One Student Leader’s Confrontational Approach Reflects Generational Shift in Fighting Injustice.” In the course of the piece, he is quoted saying, simply, “Of course I hate white people.”

It is no “moral panic” to report that Students for Justice in Palestine, the major student group on campus behind these protests, praised Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel as a “historic win” against “the Zionist enemy,” or that students at protests on elite campuses such as Yale and Princeton and Stanford have proudly displayed Hamas and Hezbollah flags and other terrorist regalia. Nor to note, as the Anti-Defamation League reported and many social-media accounts confirmed, that a Columbia protestor said, “Never forget the 7th of October . . . the 7th of October is about to be every f—king day for you. You ready?” If Michelle Cottle thinks judgments of such actions are “in the eye of the beholder,” her eye does not know how to behold.

What this soft-pedaling of the horrors being spewed on campus has produced is a disastrously incurious media. Consider the question of how the college protests are organized and funded. The encampments that mysteriously sprang up like mushrooms on campuses in a matter of days across the country, with matching Coleman tents, were funded by big-name Democratic donors with last names like Rockefeller, Pritzker, and Soros. A Politico piece declared it “surprising” that “Biden’s biggest donors” are backing the protesters. “Two of the organizers supporting the protests at Columbia University and on other campuses are Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow. Both are supported by the Tides Foundation, which is seeded by Democratic megadonor George Soros and was previously supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It in turn supports numerous small nonprofits that work for social change.”

Politico’s article came out months after the protests began. It is a telling example of mainstream media’s ideological monoculture that journalists who delayed even asking such questions then found themselves surprised that left-wing dark money was funding radical protests on campus.

This willful blindness to the beliefs of the protesters they are covering also poses a challenge when trying to describe them. Some outlets, like the Associated Press, describe student activists as “antiwar protesters.” Others refer to them as “pro-Palestinian,” when the correct description would be “anti-Israel” and, in many cases, simply anti-Semitic. Not surprisingly, such reporters also end up uncritically repeating Hamas propaganda. The Post quoted a Barnard student who had been arrested for participating in Columbia’s encampment. “There’s these big mainstream media outlets that are making it breaking news that Columbia canceled in-person classes, but not breaking news that mass graves were discovered in Gaza,” she proclaimed. The Post reporter felt no need to mention that the claim about mass graves had been thoroughly debunked. Perhaps the reporter didn’t know. Perhaps her editor didn’t know. Perhaps no one at the paper knew. Perhaps they chose not to know.

Or perhaps they knew, and they wanted the lie to stand unmolested.

Photo: AP Photo/Josh Reynolds

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