News media sucked into protest vortex by Marjorie Arons Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons Barron’s own blog.

You all know the cliche – “if it bleeds, it leads.” Local news, and increasingly national networks, promote stories off the police scanner. As a result, for decades, the perception of crime has exceeded the reality of crime across society. Naturally, if you’ve been mugged or a neighbor’s house broken into, crime is indeed a reality for the individuals affected. But the news media and some politicians feed off fear and are only too happy to exacerbate that anxiety when it puts ad revenue in corporate pockets or yields votes for right-wing candidates.

We often say that no news is good news, but, in the media business, good news is no news at all. Most college campuses have been quiet this spring. Which is why the news media have focused on the “violence” of student protests, which may refer to everything from vandalism and property damage to baton-wielding troopers breaking up campus encampments to physical confrontations between student and faculty protesters and counter-protesters defending Israel’s right to exist. So, while independent sources report that 97 percent of the Gaza protests have been peaceful, it is the turbulent scenes that have dominated news reports, especially where video is available and amplified on social media.

Lazy reporters and producers, too often pushed by business interests to present the extremes of any story, fail to deal with the complex underlying issues: Hamas’ stated goal to repeat its abhorrent October 7 assault until it eliminates all vestiges of the state of Israel, its refusal to turn over hostages they have held ever since October 7th, the reconstruction and administration of a post-war Gaza, the inexcusable second-class treatment of Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories and the steadfast refusal of Netanyahu and fanatical members of his coalition cabinet to countenance a two-state solution. Perhaps nowhere in the world is there a more crying need for nuanced analysis than in the Middle East.

You could argue that the reporters are simply telling what they see, that it’s the students who see the world in Manichean binary terms – the oppressors versus the oppressed, white versus black, corporate greed versus powerless victims. For many students, simplistic slogans are enough. Swept up in the moment, they see no reason to go beyond identifying with Palestinian victims, demonstrating for “justice,” demanding that colleges and universities (proxies for any authority figures in their lives) divest of stock in any companies doing business with Israel, threatening fellow students who happen to be Jewish, making them proxies for the Israeli government’s arguably disproportionate wartime behavior, and sliding ineluctably into ages-old anti-Semitism.

What the news media rarely probe are the complex roots of student behavior: the failure of educators to teach history or promote the humanities, the inability of higher education to foster critical thinking, the decades-long moral cowardice of administrators who have enabled cancel culture to thrive. One wonders to what extent their years of Covid social isolation have fostered anomie and reduced their social skills. Sadly, where teachable moments are happening – where teachers and administrators are succeeding in encouraging reasoned conversation and thoughtful listening – those are not the stories the news media are inclined to cover.

So, we’re all left with the impression that, if the young adults shown night after night screaming on the evening news or on social media represent the next generation, in whom reposes the future of our country, then we are truly going to hell in a handbasket. Remember 1968, when the perception of wanton violence helped election Richard Nixon.

It’s all too easy to want to hide out from the sturm und drang. But, alas, this is not the time to abdicate. Where we can join the conversation, we must. Not to flail at the “other” side with facts, though finding truth is important. But to raise questions and, above all, to listen to those with other views. To find common ground, no matter how slim a reed we are grasping for. It’s the challenge facing President Biden today, and effective communication has not been his strong suit. The situation is a hot mess. The screamers and the media covering them are not helping and could produce an outcome in November that will be a disaster for them and for the rest of us.

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