• Journalism as a Front of War:
    On American Media and the Ideology of the Status Quo

    Introducing a New Column by Steven W. Thrasher

    This begins a series of essays thinking about journalism as a front of war.

    In terms of literary craft, tone, and meaning, journalism can be many things. In this series, we will explore the many ways journalism (including reporting practices produced via social media, but also in contrast to some forms of social media) is employed to different ends around the globe. This will include exploring journalism as a praxis of liberation, and how its techniques can even be practiced in such a way that journalism can work as an act of love.

    But in the west, we will primarily consider how journalism is, first and foremost, a literary act of war—because everything in the west has been forged in, and is maintained, by war. The United Kingdom was created, and in many ways is upheld despite its decline, through extractive colonialism. This is also true of several of the countries in Europe (which are also not coincidentally among the few nations of the earth opposing a ceasefire in Gaza). Meanwhile, the United States was birthed in—and, if you ask many Native Americans, still defined by—settler colonialism.

    As they help to uphold their societies’ hegemony over other nations, the news media of the west reflects these origins and ongoing realities.

    And whether it is covering bombs and battlefields abroad or reporting on school districts, city council meetings, police, or gender domestically, journalism in the United States is especially steeped in warfront framing—because public discourse, culture, and language in America are literally referred to as wars.

    Lyndon Johnson brought us the War on Crime and the War on Poverty. Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon brought us the War on Drugs. (In addition to doing so in Vietnam and Cambodia, Nixon also declared a War on Cancer, which is referred to as such in federal policy to this day, even though war causes cancer.)

    More recently, New York Governor Kathy Hohcul and the New York Post have declared a War on Shoplifting. With COVID-19, Donald Trump and Joe Biden both declared a War on the Virus. New York Times columnist Pamala Paul serves as a reliable foot soldier in the War of the Sexes and the Gender Wars. In news media and academia, we constantly hear about a War of Ideas. And conservative Christians, aided by Fox News, constantly whine about a War on Christmas (even though, from Halloween to New Year’s, you can’t escape yuletide carols in almost any public space in America).

    And then, there’s perhaps the most circulatory battle phrase of them all, conjured up together by George W. Bush, the turn-of-the-century news media, and the security state: the War on Terror. If it were a person, this war would now be 22—old enough to have served a few tours in Afghanistan and Iraq (the latter battle site having been largely put in motion by New York Times journalist Judith Miller).

    Journalism in the United States valorizes American militarism (and that of its allies), loathes activism (especially pacifism), and rewards those who lead careers which generally uphold the status quo.

    Declaring “war on” something in American vernacular to address any social issue is not surprising, given how the ubiquity of the language of war infiltrates our everyday speech and thinking: people campaign in battleground states, engage in protest marches, experience viral outbreaks, talk to those on the ground, say things we regret in the heat of battle, wear makeup to camouflage our wrinkles, have LGBTQ or racial justice allies, reward someone for being a pioneer in their field, deliver bullet points in meetings, and are terminated when we lose our jobs.

    And this infiltration not only extends to, but is largely led by, mainstream journalism.

    We will begin our exploration by considering one example of how established journalism organizations favor warriors instead of those who question war in the mainstream press, starting by comparing the news production, and backgrounds, of two Jewish American women journalists in the United States. Both alumni of Stanford University: Emily Wilder, formerly (and briefly) of the Associated Press, and Carrie Keller-Lynn, who writes for the Wall Street Journal.

    On January 29, Keller-Lynn co-authored a Journal article headlined “Intelligence Reveals Details of U.N. Agency Staff’s Links to Oct.7 Attack,” which argued—relying upon “intelligence reports reviewed by The Wall Street Journal”—that “Around 10% of Palestinian aid agency’s 12,000 staff in Gaza have links to militants.” (Reading the article, the actual number of people accused of having participated in Operation Al-Aqsa Flood is 12 or 13, or 0.017%.)

    This news was leaked right after the International Court of Justice had provisionally ruled in South Africa’s favor that claims of genocide were “plausible” and Israel was ordered “in accordance with its obligations under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, in relation to Palestinians in Gaza,” to “take all measures within its power to prevent” genocide,” includingkilling members of the group,” “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group,” and “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part” (i.e., depriving them of food, water or medicine).

    Al Jazeera reports Israel has killed more than 1,000 Palestinians since the court issued its ruling, and counting. Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal has served as Israel’s partner in discrediting the United Nations Relief Works Administration, the main organ for getting aid into Gaza, and an organization Israel has wanted to take down for decades.

    No journalist is “objective”—this will be a theme we will explore in greater depth in further essays—but Keller-Lynn was especially subjective in a particular way. Users of social media quickly pointed out, Keller-Lynn appeared to have served in the Israeli military.

    As the Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill wrote, “ITrek, an organization that sends grad students on trips to Israel, took down an article featuring an old [2020] interview with Carrie Keller-Lynn, author of the WSJ story promoting Israel’s allegations against UNRWA.”

    The ITrek article is fascinating, which you can find archived here or here. In it, Keller-Lynn describes herself as a “Freelance Strategy Consultant,” says she served in the Israeli military in 2009 (where she was “a military liaison to Egypt during the Arab Spring”) and went on her Itrek in 2016. She also talked about co-producing a podcast with her friend, Aliza Landes, called “Israel from Right to Left,” which Keller-Lynn describes as about “Baseline Israeli civics.”

    Most mainstream journalism subjectively picks sides in wars (or picks war over peace) and actively promotes specific outcomes.

    “Hopefully policymakers and journalists will also be our audience” she said, which focused on “explaining fundamental things like how the Knesset is formed.” (The podcast’s webpage, www.israelrightleft.com, is inactive, nor is the podcast archived anywhere I could find.) Keller-Lynn claimed that her friend Alizia Landes, who is interviewed in the same ITrek article, had “literally created social media for the IDF” and was featured in a book called War in 140 Characters: How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century. (I bought the book and there is a lot about Landes. Author David Patrikarakos credits her with being a member of the Israeli military’s “PR team for North American reporters” during Operation Cast Lead in 2008 and with making the Israeli military’s public affairs social media unit what it had become—“and she was three things that characterize it today: young, female and adept with social media.”)

    This was with whom Keller-Lynn made her podcast. But back during graduate school at Stanford, Keller-Lynn said that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions “movement was very present. I was in law school there first, and helping lead the on-campus fight against some active BDS resolutions.”

    After later being a soldier for Israel and a “freelance strategy consultant” who co-produced a propaganda podcast with a member of the IOF’s social media team, Keller-Lynn later was published by the Wall Street Journal, covering Israel. Then, she obtained an intelligence dossier from Israel—and published damaging information about Israel’s avowed enemy the week the ICJ ordered it to pull back.

    A few days later, Channel 4 in Britain got the dossier and said it contained “no evidence” to support Israel’s “explosive new claim” that “around 190 Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorist operatives” had worked as UNRWA employees and “more than 10 staffers took part in the events of 7th of October.” But by then the damage was done: UNRWA had lost hundreds of millions of funding. There is no telling when, or if, it will come back.

    How was anything reported by Keller-Lynn ever “objective” news journalism?

    Compare this to the case of Emily Wilder, who is also a Jewish alumni of Stanford. On May 3rd, 2021, Wilder was hired by the Associated Press to cover state politics in Arizona. On May 16, the Israeli military destroyed the building housing the Associated Press’s Gaza bureau in an airstrike. On May 18, the Stanford College Republicans began a smear campaign against Wilder, circulating posts she had made in college and claiming that “While at Stanford from 2016 to 2020, Wilder was a leader in Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine, an organization with ties to Hamas affiliates, and which is notorious for inflicting acts of intimidation and violence against pro-Israel students.”

    In subsequent days, conservative news outlets and Senator Tom Cotton piled on Wilder—and by May 20, she was fired. (Wilder told SF Gate that the AP “told me that I violated their social media policy and would be terminated immediately, but they never said which tweet or post violated the policy.”)

    Why is Keller-Lynn allowed to have served in the Israeli military and bragged about being a propagandist for it prior to covering the Israeli military in one of America’s leading news organizations, but Wilder was not allowed to cover Arizona politics at another major outlet, just because she had criticized a foreign government some 7,447 miles away from Phoenix?

    Or, considering them both as former students of the same university, we could ask a question with an even more direct comparison: Why did working as an activist for the BDS movement (in a group called Jewish Voices for Peace) end one student’s future journalism career—but having worked as an activist against that same movement, and then as a soldier, did not end another’s?

    The answer can be found, in part, in the unique role Israel plays as a de facto branch of the United States military (and thus how it is perpetually adjacent to the power of America’s elite institutions). But the specificity of this example should not elide the broad ways journalism in the United States valorizes American militarism (and that of its allies), loathes activism (especially pacifism), and rewards those who lead careers which generally uphold the status quo.

    It speaks to how western journalism is not objective about war. Most mainstream journalism subjectively picks sides in wars (or picks war over peace) and actively promotes specific outcomes. Outlets are operationalized to achieve military goals. Most of the time, journalism’s narrative framing props up what bell hooks called “white supremacist, capitalist, [cis-hetero] patriarchy.” Or, as journalist Ramona Martinez put it, “Objectivity is the ideology of the status quo,” as she told Lewis Raven Wallace in his book The View from Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity

    As readers, scholars, and practitioners of journalism, we are experiencing news media in a time of great flux. Let us unpack how often journalism is utilized as a tool of war, so that we may begin to undo the damage of this and begin—in our minds and in our craft—to dispatch journalism to better ends.

    Steven W. Thrasher
    Steven W. Thrasher
    Steven W. Thrasher, PhD, CPT, a journalist, social epidemiologist, and cultural critic, holds the Daniel Renberg chair at the Medill School of Journalism, and is on the faculty of Northwestern University’s Institute of Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing. A former writer for the Village Voice, Scientific American and the Guardian, Thrasher is the author of the critically acclaimed book The Viral Underclass: The Human Toll When Inequality and Disease Collide. [Photo by C.S. Muncy]

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