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Melanie McFarland

The double standard in the opinion war

On Wednesday CUNY professor and author Marc Lamont Hill marked his fifth anniversary of being ousted from CNN.

Prominent media figures aren’t generally in the habit of reminding people of jobs they lost, but the reason CNN terminated Hill’s contract has special relevance now: “I was fired from CNN after giving a speech at the United Nations in defense of Palestinian rights,” he posted on X (formerly Twitter).

In 2018 Hill took part in the U.N.’s International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. The Anti-Defamation League accused Hill of making antisemitic statements for closing his speech, the transcript of which is readily available, with “We have an opportunity to not just offer solidarity in words but to commit to political action, grassroots action, local action and international action that will give us what justice requires — and that is a free Palestine from the river to the sea.”

Noting how much has changed since then, Hill mused, “I can’t help but wonder how this ‘dangerous’ speech would have been received now.”

The next day MSNBC canceled “The Mehdi Hasan Show,” which will officially end in a couple of weeks. 

Concretely speaking, the events are not related. Hill’s speech did not air on CNN, whereas on Hasan’s MSNBC show, the British-born journalist consistently has voiced his support for Palestinian civilians and offered views contrasting that of government officials.

He’s been raising concerns about Israel’s bombing of Gaza since Oct. 7, when Hamas terrorists killed 1,200 people in Israel, according to the Israeli government, and took around 240 hostages. Over the recent weeklong ceasefire, Hamas set free 81 Israelis and 24 foreigners according to the New York Times, and Israel released 240 incarcerated Palestinians.

Israel’s military response has so far killed more than 15,000 people in Gaza, including more than 6,150 children, according to Palestinian health authority data reported by Reuters and endorsed by the United Nations. Thousands are missing, and 1.7 million people have been left homeless or displaced.

Long before the conflict began, Hasan cultivated a reputation of being a fierce interviewer with a habit of jamming up politicians’ spin with clarifying and often debunking hard data.

His recent grilling of Benjamin Netanyahu’s senior adviser Mark Regev is an excellent example of this. When Regev tells Hasan that the images of dead Palestinian children circulating on social media are merely “the pictures Hamas wants you to see,” Hasan pointedly adds, “and also because they’re dead, Mark. They’re also people your government has killed.”

“I agree with you,” Hasan adds shortly after. “We shouldn’t blindly believe anything Hamas says. But why should we believe what your government says either?”

When an armed conflict involves an ally that is as deeply enmeshed with American politics as Israel, the need for the public to access the broadest range of perspectives possible is vital. But there are few on TV offering Hasan’s bracing clarity, and you certainly won’t find it in such concentrated doses in primetime.

Another hour of Ayman Mohyeldin’s show will replace Hasan’s, part of a general overhaul of its weekend lineup, highlighted by the debut of “The Weekend” with anchors Alicia Menendez, Symone Sanders-Townsend and Michael Steele hosting from Washington, D.C. beginning Jan. 13.

MSNBC explained its decision to end Hasan’s show by citing its low ratings, and even Hill is cautiously taking the network’s word. He along with many of the anchor’s fans have invoked the phrase “bad optics.” 

There’s a lot of that going around.

MSNBC passionately disavowed a Semafor report that it intentionally sidelined its Muslim anchors, including Hasan, Mohyeldin (who is Egyptian-American) and Ali Velshi, after the Oct. 7 attacks. (Particularly noteworthy was MSNBC reversing its plan for Mohyeldin to fill in for Joy Reid on two nights of her 7 p.m. show which the network countered was coincidental.)

Indisputable is the mainstream media’s longstanding hesitancy to represent Gazans in coverage that isn’t related to armed tensions in Israel, thereby cementing pervasive misconceptions about Palestinians. Concurrently it has done little to dispel the insistence that disagreeing with the Israeli government’s policies is akin to turning against the Jewish people.

This was true a decade ago when Anthony Bourdain dared to film in the West Bank and Gaza for “Parts Unknown,” for which he predicted he’d be seen as “a terrorist sympathizer, a Zionist tool, a self-hating Jew, an apologist for American imperialism, and Orientalist, socialist, fascist, CIA agent and worse.”

And it is true now, a time when the lack of nuanced coverage over the years of Gaza, the West Bank, Middle Eastern culture and geopolitics generally, is catching up with us. The most brazen bad optics hitting aren’t coming from the news side of the industry but from Hollywood, where entertainers have a long tradition of expressing ill-informed opinions some come to regret, especially if they want to keep working.

Julianna Margulies had to apologize for offending Black people, queer people and Palestinians  on Friday after slandering those groups on a Nov. 20 episode of "The Back Room with Andy Ostroy." She did this in part by accusing Black people voicing support for Palestinians of being “brainwashed to hate Jews.” Of non-binary college students who support Gazans, she said, “It’s those people that will be the first people beheaded, and their heads played with like a soccer ball . . . on the field.”

Incredibly she also said,“As someone who plays a lesbian journalist on ‘The Morning Show,’ I am more offended by it as a lesbian,” – which Margulies is not –“than I am as a Jew to be honest with you. Because I wanna say to them, ‘You f**king idiots. You don’t exist. Like, you’re even lower than the Jews. A, you’re Black and B, you’re gay, and you’re turning your back against the people who support you?’”

It took 11 days and the public’s mass horror at her statements for Margulies to realize how sorry-not-sorry she was.

This week, Sarah Silverman expressed her regret for reposting an Instagram statement on Oct. 18 after Netanyahu cut off supplies to Gaza, that reads, "Many are saying that it's inhumane that Israel is cutting off water/electricity to Gaza. Israel made it pretty simple—' release the hostages, and we will turn it back on.' Instead of pleading with Hamas to release civilian hostages which include babies and toddlers there are politicians (cough cough AOC) calling Israel inhumane.”

Silverman later said she was stoned and hadn’t read the full post before sharing it. She deleted it, but not before X-Twitter did its thing.

Amy Schumer has not apologized for attacking a Black and Asian actor for her pro-Palestinian stance or co-opting footage of Martin Luther King, Jr. to imply the Civil Rights icon would have supported bombing Gaza, despite King’s daughter correcting that atrocious notion.

Neither has “Stranger Things” star Noah Schnapp apologized for posting, "You either stand with Israel or you stand with terrorism,” on social media shortly after Hamas’ Oct. 7 rampage and more recently posing with stickers reading “Zionism is sexy.”

Meanwhile in November, Susan Sarandon’s agency UTA dumped her for inelegantly expressing her support for a ceasefire at a pro-Palestinian rally. “There are a lot of people that are afraid, that are afraid of being Jewish at this time, and are getting a taste of what it feels like to be a Muslim in this country, so often subjected to violence,” she said. Sarandon has since apologized for her comments.

In the same week Melissa Barrera was dropped from the lead role in “Scream VII,” and Maha Dakhil, a CAA agent who represented Tom Cruise and other heavy hitters, resigned from her agency's board, both for posting statements on social media that were critical of Israel.

“What’s more heartbreaking than witnessing genocide? Witnessing the denial that genocide is happening,” Dakhil wrote. She apologized later in a statement to Variety.

Barrera lost work; Dakhil lost status in the industry. Sarandon has films in post-production; whether her agency banishment impacts any of them is yet to be determined. (She has a slimmer odds of facing lasting consequences than others, including supermodel Gigi Hadid, who had shared a now-deleted post spreading false claims about Israel harvesting organs from its victims.)

Silverman recently finished her second week of guest hosting “The Daily Show” and reaped a shiny mea culpa maxima profile in the Los Angeles Times. Thursday brought the announcement that Schumer has a Netflix movie in the works

Schnapp made Forbes' just released 30 Under 30 list for 2024. Margulies' situation is still in flux but as she says, she plays a lesbian journalist on “The Morning Show.” Present tense.

It’s difficult not to see a double standard at play as these matters shake out. Silverman, Schumer, Schnapp, and Margulies offended by making statements landing on the politically correct side of the U.S. government's relationship with Israel. The others sided with the Palestinians.

But it all comes from a mixture of anger and passion that results from the lack of informed dialogue, which is impossible to have without robust multifaceted coverage that isn’t shy of questioning the legality and morality of state-sanctioned violence against a civilian population.

In an Instagram story Barrera explained that she sought out and shared visions of the war from Palestinians’ perspectives “because Western media only shows the other side.” That is noble, and it also means misinformation is being amplified via celebrity platforms. Mainstream news has its faults, but its practice of confirming and correcting mistakes is vital in an evolving humanitarian crisis like this.

As public sentiment on the war shifts, some mainstream news coverage is reflecting that broader questioning of the asymmetrical violence Netanyahu’s right-wing government is inflicting on Gazans.

In these discussions Hasan will be useful if what MSNBC says about his transition is true; once his show ends, he’ll serve as a primetime guest anchor and on-air political analyst.

One wonders how vigorously skeptical he will be able to be in this reduced role, and if that will be enough to deliver viewers the grounding context the channel’s coverage of this war needs. Maybe his toughness seemed dangerous to his critics in the way Hill’s was to CNN. Based on the passion-based rhetoric driving the conversation we need more people to pick up that spirit of edged debate and dissent, not fewer.

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