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Those who monitor media coverage have long struggled with the key question at the heart of their endeavor. Faced with slanted news stories—such as the many on Israel in the mainstream media—it is easier to point out mistakes, distortions and lack of context than it is to prove why this is happening.
Americans paying attention this week were provided with an explanation for one instance of bias in coverage of an election campaign. After Pennsylvania Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman debated his Republican opponent, Dr. Mehmet Oz, the reactions to what had to be the most bizarre such encounter in living memory were mixed.
In a hyper-partisan era, and in an election that might decide control of the Senate, it was to be expected that Democrats and Republicans would react to the nationally televised debate by saying their candidate was better, no matter what either man said. Many people may claim always to vote for the best candidate, but politics is a team sport. And ours has become a tribal culture war.
What couldn’t be ignored, however, was the fact that Fetterman, who’d had a stroke shortly before winning the Democratic nomination in May, was clearly incapable of understanding many of the questions or articulating a coherent response. This was in spite of the fact that he was aided by a closed-captioning system.
It was a painful spectacle and should inspire sympathy for his plight. One can only hope that he is eventually able to completely recover.
That those journalists who identify with the Democrats would spin his performance as either acceptable or of no importance was also to be expected. Some claimed, disingenuously, that noticing or drawing conclusions from the debate is “ableist” or—even more risibly—somehow an act of discrimination against the disabled.
But the post-debate spin shouldn’t concern those who worry about the collapse of the media’s credibility. Rather, it is the fact that a number of prominent liberal reporters interviewed Fetterman in the months since his stroke and then assured the public that he was fine.
Only one journalist, NBC News reporter Dasha Burns, dissented. Hers was the sole on-camera interview that Fetterman gave prior to the debate, as his team assumed her outlet was friendly. But she later noted that when his closed-captioning device was not turned on, Fetterman couldn’t understand the conversation.
In response, team blue journalists performed a gang tackle on Burns, denouncing her as insensitive or as somehow bolstering the Republicans. Atlantic and Vogue contributor Molly Jong-Fast called Burns’s comments “B.S.”
New York Magazine’s Rebecca Traister and Kara Swisher, of Vox and New York Magazine, agreed, arguing that Fetterman was just fine and claims to the contrary must be proof of journalistic misconduct. Even “Today Show” host Savannah Guthrie, an NBC colleague of Burns’s, seemed to attack her credibility.
Armed with such testimonials, Gisele Fetterman, the candidate’s wife, not only demanded that NBC apologize, but said there should be “consequences” for Burns.
Until the debate, their defense of Fetterman might have seemed credible. But no longer.
Anyone who watched the dismal spectacle now knows who told the truth about Fetterman and who didn’t. Burns was following the ethical standards of her profession and, regardless of her personal views about the election, gave the public important information.
As for Jong-Fast, Traister and Swisher, there’s no nice way to characterize their claims. They lied.
Their motives, like Fetterman’s wife’s, are not a mystery. The same goes for all those who seconded their objections to Burns’s reporting. They want the Democrats to maintain control of the Senate. This means Fetterman must win. They were prepared to cover up or falsify the facts about his health in order to advance his candidacy.
The conclusion to be drawn about this incident transcends the arguments between the parties and candidates over the issues. You don’t have to favor Oz to understand that this was a case of journalists sacrificing the truth in order to advance a political agenda.
It is just one example of a trend that has become commonplace in legacy media outlets.
As former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer wrote in his new book, Suppression, Deception, Snobbery and Bias: Why the Press Gets So Much Wrong—And Just Doesn’t Care, the problem isn’t ignorance or error. It lies in a partisan press that always slants the news in one direction.
Other examples abound. The New York Times provided a glaring one earlier this month in a story about the untruths that President Joe Biden routinely utters. The point of the article was to argue that Biden’s falsehoods should be regarded as merely benign grandfatherly tall tales, rather than vicious lies like those that it claims are told by former President Donald Trump.
The idea that some lies are okay while others are not, because one man should be thought of as decent and the other not, is so transparently biased and absurd that it’s a wonder even the woke activists who edit the nation’s leading newspaper thought the piece promoting it worthy of publication.
Of course, while Trump is guilty of saying a great many things that aren’t true—exaggerations and hyperbolic insults that he and his followers might excuse as efforts to illustrate a point—Biden’s personal history of serial fabulism and mendacious smears, which dates back to his early life, is also a matter of record.
The point here isn’t that anything both men say should be taken with a shovelful of salt. It’s that the blatant double standards by which the so-called paper of record reports the news means no one should take anything it reports at face value.
It also contributes to a situation in which people on both sides of the political aisle ignore arguments from their opponents, and—as another Times article pointed out—leads to Democrats and Republicans thinking that democracy is in peril. They just disagree about who is at fault.
There are lots of reasons for this landscape. But to deny the responsibility of the media, and the way so many journalists lie for partisan reasons, is not only to fly in the face of the facts; it exhibits a failure to understand how and why our politics and our society are so broken.
This atmosphere helps explain, at least in part, the rise of anti-Semitism and how it is being tolerated on both ends of the political spectrum. It reflects an over-the-top partisanship in a society in which few are willing to condemn political allies, even when they are guilty of blatant hate-speech.
The same pattern applies to coverage of Israel and the Middle East. Though ignorance of the history of the region might seem to be at the root of the slant—since many editors and reporters simply don’t know, for instance, that peace between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs might have been possible had the latter not consistently rejected any and all compromises throughout the century of the conflict—even relatively recent events are often ignored, buttressing a narrative about oppression of the Palestinians.
Furthermore, many reporters, influenced by Palestinian propaganda and anti-Semitic talking points, deliberately distort the way the conflict is depicted. This helps create fertile ground for prejudice. It also paves the way for developments like the recent U.N. Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry report, which traffics in blatant anti-Semitism and falsely accuses Israel of being an “apartheid state.”
The consequences, both in the United States and abroad, of a broken media that can’t be trusted do not merely affect the world of journalism. When members of the press lie to advance a cause, they are not simply spreading misinformation; they are also creating an environment in which democracy fails and anti-Semitism advances.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.