Think back, for a moment, to the early days of the Obama administration. Journalists were ebullient because their very favorite politician had triumphed in the presidential election, and their political party had won sweeping victories at the polls. Conservatives were licking their wounds and regrouping, trying to regain an identity in the political wilderness. The GOP ended up scoring auspicious victories in 2009, presaging their historic 2010 romp, part of which was fueled by intense and focused energy among the conservative grassroots. Much of that energy was, for a time, centered around the Tea Party movement, which demanded a restoration of fiscal responsibility and Constitutional governance. The ‘news’ media, eager to protect Obama and discredit his opposition, covered the Tea Party as negatively as possible. The ruling party, including the IRS took note, and followed suit with their own forms of abuse and harassment. It was a team effort.
When supporters of a fringe, mostly left-wing cult figure showed up at rallies with placards depicting Obama as Hitler, the cameras flocked to them. Look at these crazies. When grown men would show up in Revolutionary War-era garb, in keeping with the ‘Tea Party’ theme, they often received disproportionate screen time. Aren’t these weirdo cosplayers ridiculous? When a single utterance or syllable was deemed out of line or inflammatory, that pull quote was hyped and attributed to the larger group. When Democrats claimed, without evidence, that Tea Party crowds shouted racial epithets at them, the press ran with it. Nancy Pelosi wept phony tears about how scary and dangerous it all was, garnering favorable attention from her many journalist allies. When there was no overtly offensive or problematic material to work with, ubiquitous, insidious “dogwhistles” were identified. It turned out journalists’ ears were highly attuned to these allegedly hidden, disparaging racial messages about Obama.
The overall thrust of the coverage was that the Tea Party was a hotbed of bigotry, with outright racism and even violent impulses simmering just beneath the surface. Of course, most of the actual violence attributed to the movement was either exposed as a hoax, or was disproportionately perpetrated by leftists, but that didn’t get in the way of the Larger Narrative, in service of broader Political Truths. The ‘news’ media was on a seek-and-destroy smear mission against Obama’s critics, and that agenda colored virtually all of the coverage. Others have written about the dramatic differences between press treatment of the Tea Party and the contemporaneous ‘Occupy’ movement. The former applied for permits, picked up rubbish after rallies, and waved American flags. The latter’s participants defecated on police cars, respected no rules or laws, and occasionally committed assaults — sexual and otherwise. Guess whose overall media coverage was a lot more hostile?
Our current moment is worse. Massive pro-Hamas hate rallies have erupted in major US cities and across American campuses. Identifying gravely offensive signs and chants does not require any sleuthing or cherry-picking. Just eyes and ears. This ‘pro-Palestine’ movement’s go-to slogans include explicit references to killing Jews (“Intifada”), calls for the elimination of the Jewish state (“from the river to the sea”), and crowing about Palestinian “liberation” being achieved by “any means necessary,” an endorsement of the October 7th terrorist massacre of Jewish civilians in Israel. Morally-inverted Nazi imagery is everywhere. A popular trend among this crowd is ripping down and defacing posters of the hundreds of hostages still being held by Hamas. They endlessly traffic in mind-bending misinformation, conspiratorial lunacy, outright bigotry, and aggressive dehumanization of Jews.
Their hate parades are widely suppressed, euphemized, and airbrushed by the same ‘news’ media that perceived “dogwhistles” and imminent violence around every corner, circa 2010. They deny, justify, defend, or celebrate Hamas’ Jew butchery. Some call for more. Some deface synagogues (multiple examples) and public property (Washington, DC), menace Jews at their homes (California), assault Jews in the street (New York City) and on the quad (Harvard), attempt to kill Jewish children (Indiana), and even killed a pro-Israel demonstrator (again, California). And much of the resulting coverage has been drastically and undeniably less skeptical-to-hostile than what the Tea Party experienced. No one is arguing, or should argue, that there were no racists within the Tea Party movement — or that attendees of ‘pro-Palestine’ rallies universally hold some of the most repugnant views represented at those events. I would argue, however, that unlike the former movement, objectively disgusting sentiments are a very common feature of the latter gatherings. Openly eliminationist slogans have been the rule, not the exception.
Yet the coverage of these respective movements broadly reversed that dynamic. The danger and threats posed by the American right-wing are self-evident to most journalists, you see, so they go about their work accordingly. But when a politically-aligned or inconvenient group ostentatiously lives down to the image they worked hard to impose upon the Tea Party, the headlines, editorial decisions look rather different. They don’t like to cover, or even censor, unhelpful facts. Journos have transformed themselves from pointed inquisitors and accusers into publicists. It’s impossible not to notice. Finally, in light of another glaring and galling media double standard about the relationship between political rhetoric and physical violence, I ask: Why are we not in the midst of a fraught, media-driven “national conversation” about civility and a dangerous “culture of hate” fomented by politicians’ words — especially in light of the multiple violent episodes mentioned above? Or does that sort of moral panic only apply when the ‘news’ media’s preferred team stands to benefit from it?