Student Protesters Are Right to Be Wary of Bad-Faith Journalists

The whining of prestige journalists like Peggy Noonan that pro-Palestine student protesters won’t talk to them speaks to both the protesters’ admirable discipline and the mistrust those journalists have earned by consistently distorting protesters’ message.

A “media tent” is one among dozens set up in the heart of George Washington University by pro-Palestinian students on May 2, 2024 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

Elite journalists are mad. Pro-Palestine student protesters have a media strategy, complete with press liaisons and message discipline, and journalists at some of the country’s most prestigious publications don’t like it one bit.

Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal columnist and former Reagan speechwriter, lamented in a piece that a “beautiful” student without media training refused to talk with her. Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for the New York Times, didn’t see students’ unwillingness to talk as a reflection of the students’ excellent message control. In a condescending tweet, Baker claimed student protesters politely declining reporter’s requests aren’t interested in “explaining your cause or trying to engage journalists who are there to listen.”

It is a stretch to claim that students who have, in some cases, risked their education and job prospects to support a movement they believe in are not interested in convincing their opponents. Protest itself is one way to persuade, of course, and convincing the world that Israel’s assault on Gaza is a moral disaster is why students are demonstrating.

Not to be outdone, the Atlantic’s Michael Powell complained that protesters hoping for a liberated Palestine were “distinctly non-liberated when it came to talking with a reporter.” Powell, too, interprets student reticence not as media savvy but as “a strategic error.”

Condescension, dismissal, and misrepresentation from elite journalists kind of proves the students’ point: they should be wary of the mainstream media’s intentions, as mainstream media has consistently misrepresented the movement’s goals. These journalists are holding student activists to a standard that they don’t hold other organizations to — including their own workplaces.

Journalists from the New York Times, the Atlantic, and the Wall Street Journal are powerful professionals at the top of their fields who regularly deal with media spokespeople. The organizations they work for enforce message discipline by investigating reporters’ leaks, directing inquiries to media liaisons, and maintaining strict social media policies that control how (and if) their employees weigh in on unfolding events. Many of the organizations’ reporters’ interviewees, such as universities, make it clear that individuals do not speak for the organization as a whole. Media policies are standard operating procedure for contemporary organizations and movements. A White House correspondent like Baker is surely used to talking with spokespeople.

Refusing to grant students the courtesy of talking to their chosen representatives — a courtesy that is part of the job when questioning the powerful — is of a piece with the disrespect often reflected in the reporting and commentary that demeans and misrepresents student protesters’ motivations and goals.

Powell’s own dispatch from Columbia’s protests, where he talked with the spokesperson Layla Salina, shows exactly why students are mistrustful. Powell lauds Layla as a “singular voice” without directly quoting her. Further, Powell conveyed Layla’s claim that her family was killed in Gaza with a dangerously confusing lack of clarity by saying they “died in the fighting.” If a journalist from a leading outlet described the state murdering my civilian family in a way that left their cause of death open to interpretation, I wouldn’t want to talk with them, either.

Journalists whose job is reliant upon First Amendment protections should, as Noah Berlatsky points out, understand that the First Amendment also protects the right to not speak, and that students who refuse to talk with journalists are exercising their constitutional right. By maintaining message discipline, these students show that they are not only serious about the collective cause they are organizing for, but that they are also willing to forgo the momentary ego boost of seeing themselves quoted in the news for the long-term goals of a movement.

Famous journalists castigating students for making a strategic choice they disagree with punctures these writers’ pretensions of objectivity. Baker, especially, is notoriously loath to voice an opinion on anything, claiming he does not even vote so as to avoid any appearance of bias. It is striking, then, that Baker was willing to voice an opinion calling these students’ seriousness into question in a public forum. It seems safe to infer, then, that he is biased against the movement.

Of course, it is self-serving for journalists to think everyone should talk to them: their job depends upon getting a story, and an essential part of a journalist getting a story is convincing sources to talk to them. But I wonder if some of the anxiety around students refusing to talk is also about the breakdown of elite media’s traditional gatekeeping function. Student and social media have proven they can get their collective message out without the filtering (and sometimes distorting) middleman of prestige media. Last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in conversations with Senator Mitt Romney, claimed that social media has made it more difficult for Israel’s public relations to shape the public narrative.

And the best journalism to come out of the protests hasn’t come from elite journalists at the New York Times or the Atlantic. Columbia University’s brave student journalists displayed stunning heroism and put themselves at great personal risk, reporting live as the New York Police Department laid siege to their campus. Student journalists at Columbia’s campus radio station WKCR corrected many mainstream reporters like CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Dana Bash, whose statements about campus protests bordered on propaganda. Students debunked CNN’s claims that “outside agitators” — a complaint long used by authorities to delegitimize activism — were the driving force behind the protests.

Perhaps instead of complaining about their inability to get students to talk with them, these elite journalists should learn from their more-skilled peers — sometimes writing for the exact same outlets — who seem to have no problem establishing the necessary rapport and respect it takes to get a story.

At the New Yorker, Jay Caspian Kang apparently had no trouble talking with protesters at Berkeley’s encampment, where he learned that students are deeply distrustful of a media apparatus that they see as sanitizing the conflict. At the Atlantic, Tyler Austin Harper interviewed students who were shocked by their universities’ hypocrisy. Students noted that Columbia and Cornell exploit their campuses’ history of protest to attract students but then brutally suppress contemporary activism.

And in an amazing work of social-media journalism, Steven Thrasher, Daniel H. Renberg Chair of social justice in reporting at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, provided an on-the-ground tour Columbia’s encampment, showing students grappling with their role in a world-historic moment while “figuring out their values, and putting real effort into trying to do what’s right.”

It is not difficult to figure out what pro-Palestinian student protesters want. Organizers at multiple encampments have written, publicized, and advertised their demands. Their disciplined refusal to break message discipline shows a remarkable seriousness. Their refusal also sends a message to mainstream journalism they feel has failed to rise to the historical moment: prestige journalism, examine thyself.