by Jonathan Tobin
(JNS) — What befell Emily Wilder could not have happened to earlier generations of journalists. Before the start of platforms like MySpace and Facebook in the early 2000s, no one was held accountable for the things that they said or wrote when they were in college or even high school. In the era before social media, the musings of students were not a matter of public record. And prior to the rise of the Internet, when anything can be “Googled,” accessing even published articles would have required in-depth research in libraries or scrolling through microfilm and microfiche archives to be brought into public view.
Until last month, Wilder was an unknown left-wing college activist who aspired to a career in journalism. But today, she is something of a celebrity, acclaimed as a martyr to a right-wing smear campaign while her fate is being cited by veteran journalists in well-known publications like Politico and Vox as emblematic of the cruel abuse that those in the mainstream liberal press must endure at the hands of conservatives.
Wilder, a recent graduate of Stanford University, came under fire when she was hired at the Associated Press after a brief stint at The Arizona Republic newspaper. When that became known, the Stanford College Republicans group thought it relevant to note that her years of college activism consisted of smearing Israel and its supporters, including calling Sheldon Adelson, the late Jewish philanthropist and contributor to Republican candidates, “a naked mole rat.” In their opinion and that of others, that ought to have been disqualifying for someone who wanted to work as a reporter.
Wilder posted that insult of Adelson by way of explaining her support for Jewish Voice for Peace’s “return the Birthright” campaign, which opposed the Birthright Israel program for young American Jews to visit Israel on free trips that Adelson helped fund. Those who supported that campaign believe that Jews should not visit Israel until all the descendants of the 1948 Palestinian Arab refugees are allowed to “return” to Israel, which is shorthand for saying they wish to eliminate the Jewish state.
The Stanford Republicans were under the impression that being a member of an anti-Zionist group that, despite its Jewish title, has promoted anti-Semitic blood libels against American Jews should have been relevant as to whether or not she would be trusted to report the news fairly. That notion was supported by conservatives like journalist Ben Shapiro and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.).
Though nothing about what they said about her was inaccurate, Wilder and her many well-connected supporters characterized the attention brought to her past comments as a “smear” campaign against a young Jewish progressive.
Those who engage in the kind of vicious rhetoric employed by Wilder — let alone someone whose idea of activism is supporting efforts to destroy the only Jewish state on the planet — are undeserving of sympathy. But treating all things that college students say, do, believe or tweet as evidence to be held against them later on in life is a harsh standard that few of us (especially those who came of age before the Internet and social media) would wish to be judged by.
Numerous examples now exist of foolish or hateful things posted by teenagers coming back to haunt them and essentially ruining their lives as the politically correct cheer their public shaming. The New York Times’s decision to run a lengthy feature about one such victim underlines the way the press has enabled the worst forms of cancel culture to flourish. It should only matter when college excesses point to subsequent behavior, as was the case with newly confirmed Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, who was an antisemite in college and then subsequently defended other antisemites many years later.
Which is to say that perhaps even Wilder deserved a fresh start once she left the hothouse atmosphere of an elite college campus where left-wing hate speech is in fashion. She was entitled to the presumption that once in journalism, she would stop being an “activist” and stick to her new job of reporting the news; as such, her private views, however odious, would be kept private.
And so they would have if she had been transitioning from college to journalism 20 or 30 years ago. But not today.
When the story about her college tweets broke, the AP ignored the criticism and stuck to their decision to hire her. To back that up, she was apparently given some instruction about maintaining at least the appearance of objectivity by avoiding social-media use that would mark her as an ideologue or partisan.
Nevertheless, Wilder — no doubt following a practice commonplace throughout journalism these days — didn’t stop tweeting her support for the Palestinians and her contempt for Israel. At that point, her supervisors clearly felt that she considered herself above the rules and fired her.
The response to her firing illustrates the fact that many in the profession share her apparent belief that trying to establish even a veneer of objectivity is no longer necessary. AP employees expressed outrage about the treatment of Wilder, as did others at mainstream and legacy outlets. The AP subsequently apologized for the way it handled her firing but has not yet retracted it.
How is it possible that someone like Wilder could be supported by so many in the profession, let alone treated like a martyr?
To most of those who currently work in many, if not most, mainstream media newsrooms, partisanship and openly promoting leftist causes and talking points are not incompatible with being a reporter, even if that creates a clear conflict of interest.
For some, this was justified by their conviction that former President Donald Trump was so awful that it was necessary for the media to give any and all assistance to his opponents. But this goes way beyond bias against Trump. Indeed, as we saw last summer, when just such a woke mob of journalists forced The New York Times to retract an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton because of its stance towards the Black Lives Matter movement and the riots it inspired. They intimidated the Times’ management into forcing out the editor who approved it. Similarly hostile attitudes toward Jews and Israel, as well as anything about antisemitism unconnected to Trump, was the reason that Bari Weiss gave for leaving the paper.
There’s also a sense that many of those who are BLM supporters in the press believe that Israel should be treated in the same manner as the police officer who killed George Floyd. That’s a particular issue for the AP because of its role in sharing a building in Gaza with Hamas operatives and then behaving as if they were wronged when Israel bombed the place, even though it first warned the journalists to vacate the building, and no one was harmed. Former AP staffer Matti Friedman wrote about the organization’s anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian bias in The Atlantic in 2014.
In the past, much of the media bias against Israel was rooted in ignorance on the part of many in the press. But in an environment where the behavior of someone like Wilder — both in college and once she began working as a journalist — is not only considered defensible but actually normative, then such journalism has zero credibility.
At stake in this minor controversy is more than the fate of one young woman, though it’s likely that her claims to martyrdom will ensure her a future in the field. If we are now at the point where we assume that all journalists are going to slant the news in favor of causes or politicians they support, there is no reason to believe anything that you read, hear or watch from news outlets unless it confirms your pre-existing beliefs and prejudices.
People like Wilder and those who support her are killing journalism. The consequences for the future of democracy — let alone a Jewish community that has already seen how smears of Israel can inspire anti-Semitic violence — are ominous.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.