Watching the watchdogs: How US media weaponised campus protests coverage

Mainstream media has joined US power elites in demonising pro-Palestinian encampments on campuses.

Pro-Palestinian student protesters link arms as Chicago police officers prepare to begin arrests at the Art Institute of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois, on May 4, 2024 [Alex Wroblewski/EPA]

A great, novel experiment in political physics is under way in the United States, as the unstoppable moral force of youth-led protests against Israel’s genocidal war in Gaza runs into the immovable object of the American power elite’s support for it.

In this clash, two critical forces have been weaponised: the US mainstream media that heavily disseminates Israeli propaganda and shapes many local, state and national policies, and the scourge of anti-Semitism that has been unfairly used to demonise and silence Palestinians and shift attention away from the US-enabled Israeli genocide in Gaza.

Since Israel launched its assault on Gaza, President Joe Biden’s steadfast support for it has galvanised young Americans and pushed them to mobilise.

They have formed decisive coalitions with Muslim and Arab Americans, Jewish, Black, Hispanic and Native communities, labour unions and churches. They have given notice that if the US continues to support the war, they will abandon Democratic candidates in the November elections, which would likely be fatal for the party.

The American power elite largely ignored the initial criticisms of the young and the marginalised, until student encampments started springing up at universities across the country three weeks ago. The students demanded an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, a halt to US government financial and military aid to Israel, and the divestment of university investments from military industries that enable the Israeli genocide.

The mainstream media’s coverage of the campus encampments and the violence against them has exposed it as a central actor in the power elite that sustains Israel’s war and simultaneously tries to silence Palestinians and criminalise anyone who supports them.

As I closely followed US media outlets in recent weeks, I was shocked to see reporters, commentators and hosts use the exact same words and phrases that Biden and US and Israeli officials have used to smear the protesters. The mainstream media gives the impression of circling the wagons with Israeli and American officialdom to prevent at all costs an open, honest, comprehensive and contextualised public discussion on Israel’s behaviour while trying instead to focus public attention on spurious accusations.

The mainstream media has widely condemned students and accused them of using “hate speech and hate symbols” (in the words of the US president), endorsing terrorism, advocating for Israel’s destruction, resorting to anti-Semitic slurs and threatening and frightening Jewish students. Everywhere they look in the student protest encampments, the media oracles have seen “terrorists” in training, “anti-Semites” at work, “Jew-haters” being groomed, universities collapsing, and “Nazi mobs” in the making.

Prominent TV hosts have unleashed passionate, vicious diatribes against the students who have camped out to demand an end to America’s role in Israel’s genocide against Gaza, and peace and justice for all in Palestine.

MSNBC’s Morning Joe show – reportedly a Biden favourite – is one glaring example of systematically biased TV programming that sometimes veers into incitement against the student protests and the university administrators. One of its hosts, Joe Scarborough, has claimed that students want “to wipe out all Jews”, “they are Hamas on college campuses”, and they are “not helping those of us who want to fight fascism in America”. His co-host Mika Brzezinski has said that the campus protests “look like January 6”, referring to the riot by Donald Trump supporters on Capitol Hill in January 2021.

Such unsubstantiated allegations against the protesters are common to varying degrees across all the major networks, including ABC, CNN and NBC.

Most of the “expert” analysts I have heard on mainstream TV in the last few weeks commenting on the protests have been former US government or security officials, or people close to the Israeli viewpoint, including former Israeli officials. They have also offered variations on the themes of terrorism, radicalisation and anti-Semitism.

Except for some interviews I have seen on MSNBC, networks have avoided inviting Palestinians and knowledgeable Americans who could explain the actual meaning of expressions that the media and officialdom find offensive or threatening, and could address the actual nature and extent of the fears of those Jews who sincerely worry about how the protests impact them.

Unsurprisingly, most media outlets have covered US officials’ statements against peaceful protesters on campuses without much scrutiny as well.

This was apparent, for example, when Republican Speaker of the House Mike Johnson and heads of several key congressional committees gave a press conference on April 30 where they threatened universities for allegedly allowing anti-Semitism to thrive on campus.

“We will not allow anti-Semitism to thrive on campus, and we will hold these universities accountable for their failure to protect Jewish students on campus,” Johnson said.

By reporting the many accusations against the protesters without seriously questioning or verifying them, the mainstream media itself appears to adopt the conflation of anti-Semitism with valid criticism of Israeli policies, which many scholars have warned is a dangerous practice. Israeli policies that warrant criticism include patently illegal ones that contravene international law, like expanding settlements, laying siege to Palestinian territories, and carrying out the genocidal attack on Gaza.

While mainstream media has struggled with its biases in covering the campus protests, there have been reports and commentaries by serious and knowledgeable people who actually have spent time among the defiant students, understood their motivations and their cause, and have not been beholden to domestic or foreign lobbies. Everyone I encountered – in person at universities or in the more honest, independent and progressive media outlets that do not see their job as supporting the power elites’ war-making frenzies – has reported calm, harmonious, often joyous gatherings of many faiths, aiming for a common goal of equal justice for all.

The alignment of mainstream media with the American political elites’ stance and all the exaggeration, misinterpretation, hysteria, lies and hallucination is unprecedented. It begs the question, why American officials and media leaders who traditionally parroted the Israeli line and simply ignored Palestinian voices are all up in arms now? Why would a gentle old man like Biden knowingly transform the Arabic word “intifada” (uprising) into what he calls “tragic and dangerous hate speech”?

I suspect this fanatical rhetoric reflects the power elite’s fear of being challenged in the domestic political arena for the first time ever by an issue related to Palestinian rights that also exposes and opposes Israel’s military extremism and genocide. They fear the growing coalition of Americans who are not afraid to challenge the falsehoods and distortions of staunch Israel supporters or ignore biased media offerings. They should worry, as a CNN poll last week suggested that 81 percent of Americans aged 18-35 disapprove of the American-backed Israeli war policy in Gaza.

Many young protesters have spoken of the US-enabled genocide in Gaza as “the moral issue of our age”. They feel they cannot stay silent in the face of Israeli-made starvation and American-made bombs ravaging Gaza.

But when this principled stance is distorted by the US mainstream media into an “anti-Semitic” and “pro-terrorist” frenzy, then it becomes clear that the commitment to truth-telling in large swaths of the media is far weaker than their desire to be close to the imperial seats of war-making power in the US and the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.