For all the strides the Palestinian cause has made in terms of American sympathies, criticism of the Israeli government and its treatment of the Palestinians is still the major taboo in US political discourse. Just look at what happened to Katie Halper this week.
The Intercept reported today that Halper, a popular left-wing podcaster and cohost of Useful Idiots with Matt Taibbi, was earlier this week let go from Rising, the Hill’s political morning program, for which Halper had been doing a once-weekly weekend show for the past three years. After taping a monologue, this time covering the recent controversy over Rashida Tlaib’s comments about Israeli apartheid, Halper was at first told her “Radar,” as the monologues are known on the show, was being delayed while it underwent a review.
Before long, Halper was informed it wouldn’t run at all by Hill editor in chief Bob Cusack, who told her it was “not in our sweet spot of coverage.” When Halper asked him explicitly if the segment was being nixed because it was about Israel, he confirmed that that was the “rationale,” and that the Hill’s focus is largely on domestic, not foreign, policy. Soon, she was told by an executive in an email that they wouldn’t need her to record a show the next day. “We wish you all the best,” was the sign-off.
It’s not clear what Cusack was referring to when he said that the Hill doesn’t cover foreign policy. In the past week alone, Rising’s other cohosts have run segments on the Brazilian election, Italy’s new neofascist prime minister, the South Korean president’s hot mic scandal, and multiple segments on the war in Ukraine. And while Halper’s monologue was largely devoted to laying out the evidence for Tlaib’s labeling of Israel as an apartheid state, it had a domestic element, too, given what a major flashpoint it became in US politics and the intraparty factional war among Democrats, with establishment, pro-Israel officials piling on the socialist Tlaib in concert.
This appears to be a new editorial line for the program. According to Ryan Grim, who broke the Halper story and who himself recorded more than 150 Radars as a cohost for Rising, “There is no approval process.” The hosts simply upload their script to a teleprompter and record. Krystal Ball, who co-helmed the show for years, says that while she and cohost Saagar Enjeti faced occasional pushback on certain topics, they were “never blocked from guests or topics.”
It’s hard to know what’s driving this. But one thing that has changed since Ball and Enjeti’s stint on the show is a changeover in ownership of the Hill, which was sold to media conglomerate Nexstar Media Group, Inc., for $130 million last August. This month, Psagot Value Holdings Ltd., an investment firm based in Tel Aviv, bought 6,100 shares in Nexstar, to the tune of more than $1 million.
But there were signs of a possible tilt in the Hill’s editorial line on Israel even before that. In late August, Nexstar filled the position of deputy managing editor of NewsNation, its cable channel, with Jake Novak, a journalist who spent the preceding year and a half as the media director of the Israeli consulate general in New York. Novak most recently achieved infamy for being embroiled in the Matt Gaetz underage-sex controversy, where he appeared to admit to Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams, of all people, that he was involved in the extortion attempt on Gaetz’s rich father in order to funnel millions of dollars to a “commando team leader” to free a US hostage in Iran.
Novak has written approvingly of Donald Trump’s dropping of US support for the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and he has advocated for Israel to build more illegal settlements on the land that would make up a hypothetical Palestinian state, saying it “would bring more peace, prosperity, and freedom to both Israelis and Arabs.” Six days before the announcement of his hiring, Novak led a presentation at Bar-Ilan University titled, “Defending Israel Against Media Bias — How to fight news media and social media bias against Israel: The best defense is a good offense.” It was an update of a talk he had given in 2016 about defending Israel’s reputation, which the host described as “an absolute master class in public relations in diplomacy.”
There is certainly a political tilt in Nexstar’s political donations. Over the 2016 election cycle, the company’s PAC gave 80 percent of its money to GOP-affiliated PACs, a number that rose to 100 percent in the 2018 cycle. Its CEO donated six times as much to high-ranking Republican congresspeople as he did to Democrats over the past ten years, no matter which party was in power. Its giving is more balanced now, but the Democrats Nexstar does donate to tend to be of the more centrist, establishment, and pro-Israel variety, like Jerry Nadler, Jamie Raskin, Kathy Castor, and Hakeem Jeffries.
If Nexstar is being driven by a pro-Israel slant that it enforces in its programming, it’s a serious concern. After buying Tribune Media in 2019, Nexstar became the largest local broadcast TV owner in the country, outstripping the explicitly right-wing Sinclair Broadcast Group. According to an August 2022 filing with the SEC, the company now reaches nearly 40 percent of all US television households, and it owns, operates, and provides services to 199 television stations and one AM radio station across Washington, DC, and thirty-nine states. In the filing, the company notes the Supreme Court’s April 2021 striking down of FCC limits on local media ownership.
Halper is far from the first left-wing commentator to be fired for pro-Palestinian speech. Marc Lamont Hill lost his position at CNN for a speech calling for “a free Palestine from the river to the sea,” while Current Affairs editor Nathan Robinson lost the regular column he had written for the Guardian for four years after sarcastically tweeting that Congress “is not actually permitted to authorize any new spending unless a portion of it is directed toward buying weapons for Israel.” This month, a report Facebook itself had commissioned determined the company’s censorship policies “have had an adverse human rights impact” on Palestinians, thanks to the company’s double standard on “moderating” Palestinian posts versus Israeli ones.