For Fox News and Conservative Media, Student Protests Are a Familiar Target

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“Well, House Speaker Mike Johnson crashed Hamas’s spring break at Columbia today.”

That quip came from the Fox News host Jesse Watters, who was interviewing Mr. Johnson on his prime-time show Wednesday.

In response to a standoff between student protesters and the university’s president, Mr. Johnson had visited Columbia University’s campus, where students had set up encampments in solidarity with Palestinians. He was booed during a brief news conference on the steps of a school library.

“So many of them, Jesse, don’t know what the heck they’re talking about,” Mr. Johnson said.

Mr. Johnson’s appearance on “Jesse Watters Primetime” embodied the chiding and often adversarial tone of conservative media toward the latest wave of protests on college campuses over Israel’s campaign in Gaza. In the conservative media sphere, the protests are fresh evidence of the disorder and unrest that have long gripped liberal institutions — particularly at Ivy League schools — as social movements like Black Lives Matter, and now pro-Palestinian activism, spread their influence.

“There’s a difference between educated people and smart people,” Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas and Fox News host, said on the network Tuesday. “A lot of these college kids are educated, but they’re not real smart.”

It’s an old line that has met a new moment.

For years, conservative commentators have routinely pointed to incidents on campuses as illustrative of elite, liberal hypocrisy. Instances of conservative speakers being shouted down by students during events were grist for the idea that university administrators were intolerant of dissenting views, while coddling students.

In 2016, then Fox News host Todd Starnes pointed to a Black Lives Matter protest inside a Dartmouth College library as evidence that white students were being “verbally assaulted.” Two years later, Charlie Kirk, a conservative activist, said on Fox: “I find on college campuses, the most intolerant people are those people that preach tolerance.”

This kind of commentary has taken on a new valence in the past week, as student encampments and protests have roiled campuses. Many Jewish students have reported feeling unsafe because of the protests, something conservative outlets have emphasized in their coverage. In a recent column, Rikki Schlott of The New York Post wrote that the encampments were a “betrayal” to Jewish students at Columbia.

Antisemitism is “exploding here in the United States,” Katrina Szish of Newsmax, a smaller conservative network, said on Thursday when she interviewed Tal Heinrich, the spokeswoman for Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

The student protesters, many of whom are Jewish, say they are being deliberately mislabeled as violent and antisemitic to distract from their objectives, which include forcing their universities to divest from Israel. Protest leaders insist they are simply trying to support Palestinians and speak out against the war in Gaza.

But there have been several instances of hate speech and threats of violence specifically directed at Jewish students.

“We are Hamas, we’re all Hamas” and “All you do is colonize” are among the uglier attacks directed at Jewish students inside and outside Columbia’s campus during the recent protests. On Friday, a student leader of the protests at the university apologized for comments he made in a January video, in which he said, “Zionists don’t deserve to live.”

Fox News, Newsmax, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Post did not respond to requests for comment.

The protests have jumped far from the elite universities in the Northeast that are a favorite punching bag for conservative commentators to schools across the country. That includes the University of Texas, where state troopers have arrested more than 50 protesters, and the University of Minnesota, where nine protesters were arrested after erecting an encampment.

But the criticism of how universities are handling the situation dovetails with some political views about college campuses. Polls show that conservatives have lost faith in higher education in recent years, and conservative media outlets have frequently covered campuses as incubators for left-wing ideologies and as hostile to conservatives.

“This is one of the results of a campus culture that has been growing increasingly problematic for years, mostly because university administrators have been tolerating identity and left-wing politics and protests,” Kimberley Strassel, a columnist for The Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial page, said on the “Potomac Watch” podcast on Tuesday.





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