Roy Moore's and Donald Trump's claims about "liberal media" conspiracies are the latest iteration of an age-old anti-Jewish dog whistle.
Roy Moore, the accused child molester and judge from Alabama, attempted to put the media on trial in his failed bid for the Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions. He had to: Where else do you turn when multiple women accuse you of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault? You have to shoot the messenger. And Moore didn’t just shoot—he and his surrogates loaded up and let loose, bazooka-style, on the media, the amorphous baddie that has risen from its lair over the past couple of years, summoned by a potent combination of satanic spell-craft, liberal brainwashing. and something something Crooked Hillary.
Their efforts concluded with a bang when, on Monday night, Moore’s wife sneered and simpered her way through 90 seconds of unbridled anti-Semitism at a pre-election rally, waving her hands at reporters “while they’re all here” and hissing, “One of our attorneys is a Jew.” Her contempt goes beyond palpable, beyond tangible. She is contempt, in this moment—almost unbelievably so. Had Kayla Moore’s line been written for and delivered in a performance, any director would have told the actor to rein it in, because nobody, surely nobody, in any audience anywhere would fall for such a cruelly stereotypical portrayal of an Alabama church lady. And yet there she stood, in her coiffed blonde glory, the bane of potlucks and picnics, ready to strike fear into those who hear her demands to speak to a manager.
We can assume Kayla Moore was responding to the fact that people sort of noticed that her husband’s campaign was laced through with anti-Semitic dog- and not-so-dog whistles, especially in Moore’s attacks on lefty big-bucks donor George Soros, who is Jewish. I’m not sure I know a journalist who hasn’t been accused of being a Soros-funded shill, and that includes everyone from folks like me who work in advocacy journalism to buttoned-up mainstreamers at daily papers. To the Kayla and Roy Moores of the world, the media is not just a liberal conspiracy, it’s a liberal Jewish conspiracy. So it’s important to remember that when you see Kayla Moore hissing about her Jewish attorney to a gaggle of reporters “while they’re all here,” she thinks she’s playing “gotcha” not just with the hostile media, but with people she and her right-wing brethren and sist’ren believe are under the thumb of evil, conniving Jewish conspirators.
The phrase “fake news” is new, but anti-media bias is historically steeped in anti-Semitism. The current wave of white nationalists and white supremacists that attempt to soft-pedal their bigotry under the “alt-right” moniker rely on decades-old claims and stereotypes developed by actual Nazis and Nazi sympathizers, knowing full well just what kind of person the phrase “fake news” conjures for those primed to believe “the media” is out to get the good (Christian) folk. This opinion piece on the conservative Alabama news site Yellowhammer, about why a load of Alabamians support an accused child molester, does an unsettlingly good job at demonstrating just how deep this long-cultivated resentment of the media goes: “Alabamians aren’t so much supporting Moore than they are reacting to years, decades even, of our way of life being constantly under assault from popular culture—the news media, film, music, books, you name it.”
It’s true—or, at least, it’s true that Moore supporters believe it’s true, as a CBS poll found earlier this month. This is pretty par-for-the-course conservative self-victimization in which the most limited iterations of social progress constitute “assault” on real people. (See: “Christmas, War On.”) It’s not hard to guess what the Yellowhammer writer considers “our” when it comes to “our” way of life—it’s the “our” of “our Confederate heritage,” (white folks) the “our” of “our church family” (Christian folks), and the “one man and one woman” between whom real marriage is supposed to be (straight folks). The barest investigation of these claims of “assault” reveals how silly they are. From mass-market television Christmas specials to the prayer that opens your local city council meeting to the compulsory heterosexuality of Hollywood rom-coms to the endless chatter about “blue lives” mattering, it is clear that “our way of life” is enjoying robust national support in the form of being, you know, the American hegemonic default.
But to Alabama conservatives, it’s more likely that there exists an expansive media conspiracy in which journalists aligned with Democrats to ruin the political career of a God-fearing (Christian) judge than it is that Roy Moore is your average, run-of-the-mill creep. This prevalent and preposterous bit of conspiro-bigotry made Moore’s loss to Democrat Doug Jones on Tuesday all the more surprising — and all the sweeter. (Moore hasn’t yet conceded the race, but the Alabama secretary of state, who administers elections, has told reporters that Moore would be unlikely to prevail in a recount.)
It’s tempting to see Jones’s narrow but significant victory as a win against the Moore-supporting bigots of the world, as some kind of signal that the tides of anti-media bias are turning. They are not. While it appears to be the case that Moore did lose support from some parts of his expected base — particularly suburban white women—the truth is that Doug Jones won thanks to an incredible get-out-the-vote effort among Alabama voters of color, especially Black women.
The closeness of that Senate race showed that bigotry and bias are much, much stronger than logic and common sense. Some people can’t be reached; some people will force themselves to believe that a Washington Post reporter named “Bernie Bernstein” really existed, and really spent a few days cold-calling locals for dirt on Roy Moore.
It’s easy for liberals to scoff at this kind of chicanery (I see it on my Facebook news feed all day long), but I believe there are many more people who feel vaguely mistrustful of the media, who could be susceptible to attractive claims about reporters’ dishonesty when it comes to political shenanigans that hit closer to home. Take the allegations of sexual assault and harassment lodged against Al Franken; many on the left are primed to believe that they’re merely the result of a right-wing smear campaign led by biased members of the media who either don’t know any better or who are acting with expressly malevolent intentions. This is, of course, as silly as thinking we reporters have a conference call every morning with our fearless commander George Soros.
Thinking people can’t have it both ways—we can’t claim that the media reports honestly and fairly only about the politicians we disagree with, only when the coverage is negative.
Thankfully, news outlets are catching on to this widespread skepticism—a Poynter poll found that more than half of Americans surveyed distrust the media—and taking the initiative to educate readers on how the newsy sausage gets made. There’s the Washington Post “How to be a journalist” series, which unpacks the reporting process for readers. There’s Hearken, an initiative that works with publications to co-create stories with public input. The New York Times’ “insider” section gives its audience a glimpse behind the scenes, for example showing how op-ed pages differ from the rest of the paper. And if you’d rather hear how the newsy sausage gets made, tune into the Longform podcast, or On the Media.
But whatever you do, tune in, not out. Read more. Read longer. Subscribe. Don’t trade “Roger Stone” for “George Soros” to make the truth about American politics more palatable.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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