Lesson of The Atlantic attack on Mondoweiss: “New media” can’t kick old habit of excluding Palestinians

This weekend, an intern at The Atlantic published a shoddy attack on our friends Alex Kane and everyone at Mondoweiss.

The smear fell flat, and was rightly condemned by mainstream pundits Robert Wright and Andrew Sullivan.

Wright, the intern’s boss at The Atlantic, was unsparing in his criticism, terming the attack on Kane and Mondoweiss, “neo-McCarthyism.” Listing the faults in the intern’s piece, Wright called his smears against Kane “guilt by association,” which has “an unfortunate history in American politics and intellectual life.” Wright offered an unreserved apology to Kane, for The Atlantic intern’s baseless attacks.

Of course, it is right to defend Kane and Mondoweiss against these smears that aim to silence and marginalize them. These friends are worth defending, and in the past, they have defended Palestinians against similar smears or attempts to silence and marginalize them.

When The Electronic Intifada was founded in 2001, it was focused on media analysis, criticism, and activism. In particular, our coverage focused on exclusion of Palestinians from all discussions – whether mainstream or alternative media – about their country. It has gradually become less central to The Electronic Intifada to criticize mainstream media, because the Internet has allowed Palestinians to develop their own media. But the recent incident demonstrates that the problems are still there.

You can say anything about Palestinians while also completely excluding them

Palestinians are still routinely smeared as anti-Semitic by media elites who never deign to speak to one. The “Israel Firster” controversy at the Center for American Progress is typical. As Ali Abunimah wrote in January this year:

The smear campaign against the Center for American Progress (CAP), orchestrated by the Israeli attack group NGO Monitor, included attempts to smear CAP bloggers Eli Clifton and Ali Gharib by association with The Electronic Intifada.

What caught me when I read Wildman’s piece is that for her the universe of people being falsely smeared as anti-Semites appears to limited to Democratic Party apparatchiks. Has she not noticed that Palestinians are first and foremost the victims of this smear, that is when their existence is not being denied outright?

Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a relative newcomer to the issue of Palestine, and his intervention regarding the attack on Mondoweiss was brave and correct. But his few other interventions on Palestine have been limited and cautious. After he became senior editor of The Atlantic at the beginning of 2012, he wrote posts in defense of CAP bloggers and Palestinian activist Fadi Quran.

Another notable project of Robert Wright is bloggingheads.tv. Here the mainstream media elite habit of excluding or blacklisting Palestinians is more apparent. If you search this site for Palestine, Palestinian or Palestinians, you see a very typical pattern. The only Palestinians I could find who have ever appeared on bloggingheads.tv since 2006 are:

Zero Palestinian women have ever appeared on bloggingheads.tv. If I have omitted anyone, please let me know in the comments below. What’s notable is that there’s no shortage of episodes on this web site about Palestine. Other “experts” include – this is only a partial list:

It is clear that there is a preponderance of voices that are Israeli or right-wing American supporters of Israel who are often highly critical of, and even denigrating toward Palestinians as well as “liberal” Zionists.

Gershom Gorenberg has appeared on bloggingheads.tv more than the total appearances of all Palestinians combined. And this is before we even consider bloggingheads.tv’s coverage of Israel, a topic where it seems even more unlikely for a Palestinian to speak. More than once, two Israelis speak to each other about Palestinians.

What explains this oversight? Why haven’t show hosts like Matthew Duss ever invited a Palestinian to speak yet have invited on multiple occasions non-Palestinians to discuss Palestine?

Andrew Sullivan

The case of Andrew Sullivan is even more perplexing, because in January 2012, he made a clear statement that he would defend anyone against these anti-Semitism slurs. In a video titled Ask Andrew Anything - ‘Israel Firster’

Near the very end, Sullivan says:

More discourse on this [Israeli occupation of Palestinian land] is better. If we can avoid the insults. And it’s been too frozen for too long by fear and intimidation. And anybody who wades into that fight, I’ve got his or her back.

Coincidentally, Sullivan spoke out just days before the PennBDS conference on boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS). Dena Shunra wrote to Sullivan by email on 2 February 2012 to say:

It has come to my attention that you’ve said you’d come out publicly in favor of people being smeared with the anti-Semitism slur for wanting to criticize Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.

Here’s an opportunity to do that:

In the run-up to the PennBDS conference, the word anti-Semitism (along with “Capos” and “Nazis”) are getting quite a workout here and here to name two.

It seems to me that the slurs are being used in order to avoid an actual debate on whether BDS is a worthwhile strategy. Is it? I don’t know, because wherever the debate begins, it is drowned with angry shouts accusing anyone who brings up the possibility of anti-Semitism (and worse).

Not surprisingly, Andrew Sullivan did not stand up for PennBDS activists and never responded to Dena Shunra. When Andrew Sullivan isn’t ridiculing Palestinians, he’s ignoring them.

Mainstream media elites only defend non-Palestinians and non-Arabs

The takeaway from this whole affair is that Palestinians are not worthy of defense. They’re not worthy of inclusion. They’re not worthy to speak. Mainstream media elite figures like Robert Wright and Andrew Sullivan are defending a very safe position: white, Jewish and Israeli voices should have freedom of expression and amplification. That’s nothing new.

Notably Armin Rosen, The Atlantic intern rebuked by Wright for the attack on Mondoweiss, had sharpened his teeth while a student in the Jewish Theological Seminary/Columbia University School of General Studies program. As a budding journalist, Rosen wrote several articles smearing Professor Joseph Massad (and others) and demanding that the university not give Massad tenure.

Aside from the sheer audacity of Rosen to consider himself more qualified than Columbia’s faculty to judge Massad’s scholarly contributions, Rosen recently admitted that he has not read any of Massad’s books except “small parts” of Desiring Arabs which Rosen trashed in one of his articles.

Few came forward to defend Massad’s academic freedom against the public McCarthyite campaign in which Rosen was an enthusiastic participant. Had more people paid attention at the time, no one could be surprised by the “neo-McCarthyite” tactics that Rosen brought with him to The Atlantic.

The illusion of “new media” is simply reproducing old media exclusion when it’s controlled and managed by old media personalities. The same elites simply use new the technology and new forms to extend their control of the parameters of discourse and to exclude actual stakeholders from all discussion and representation.




I've been impressed with Robert Wright's clear-headed writing and thinking about issues related to Israel-Palestine and the Middle East in general. So after reviewing the panelists on Bloggingheads.tv and finding them very heavily inside the Beltway oriented, I wrote to Wright asking if he'd consider including me. He was very polite, said he'd pass my name along to the editors, & I never heard from him again.

I made several attempts to reach an editor and again, after an initial response, never heard further. You're right in noting that Bloggingheads.tv isn't designed to amplify the voices heard on this issue. It isn't designed to add diversity to the debate. It's designed to allow the smart set to think they're entertaining the Big Ideas.