October 16, 2023

The Fight Over MSNBC’s Cave-in to Islamophobia

Amid war fever and bigoted violence, we have to combat media cowardice.

Jeet Heer
Left to right: Ayman Mohyeldin, Ali Melshi, and Mehdi Hasan.
Left to right: Ayman Mohyeldin, Ali Velshi, and Mehdi Hasan. (Left to right: Taylor Hill / WireImage, Taylor Hill / FilmMagic, David Livingston / Getty)

In the wake of the Hamas massacre and Israel’s new bombing campaign in Gaza, a prelude to a pending ground war, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic violence is flaring up all over the world. The situation resembles the days and weeks after 9/11. On Saturday, police in Chicago arrested 71-year-old landlord Joseph Czuba for allegedly stabbing to death a 6-year-old Palestinian America boy as well as stabbing the boy’s 32-year-old mother. According to CBS News, “investigators were able to determine he targeted the victims because they are Muslim, due to the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas.”

While public officials like President Joe Biden have rightly condemned anti-Semitic exploitation of the conflict, the political elite has been more muted on the dangers of Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism. The major exceptions to this are among more progressive lawmakers such as Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Cori Bush of Missouri, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York—who for their trouble have been attacked as weak on terrorism.

As war fever rages, the need to stand up to racism and bigotry in any form is paramount. Unfortunately, a major media outlet that is putatively liberal, the cable news network, MSNBC, cowered for a few days in the face of Islamophobia.

On Friday in Semafor, Max Tani reported,

MSNBC has quietly taken three of its Muslim broadcasters out of the anchor’s chair since Hamas’s attack on Israel last Saturday amid America’s wave of sympathy for Israeli terror victims.

The network did not air a scheduled Thursday night episode of The Mehdi Hasan Show on the streaming platform Peacock. MSNBC also reversed a plan for Ayman Mohyeldin to fill in this week on the network for host Joy Reid’s 7 p.m. show on Thursday and Friday. Mohyeldin, an Egyptian-American journalist and veteran NBC News correspondent covered the conflict from Gaza for two years…. Two network sources with knowledge of the plans told Semafor that the network also plans to have Alicia Menendez fill in this upcoming weekend for Ali Velshi, a third Muslim-American host who on Sunday interviewed a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority.

Alicia Menendez is daughter of scandal-plagued New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez.

Tani added, “Some staff at MSNBC have been concerned by the moves, feeling all three hosts have some of the deepest knowledge of the conflict. NBC says the shifts are coincidental, and the three continue to appear on air to report and provide analysis.” Tani also documented intense debate, sometimes including incendiary accusations that reporters who called for contextual reporting were guilty of being terrorist apologists, on MSNBC’s internal Slack channel.

In their vehement rejoinder to Tani’s report, MSNBC claimed that the three Muslim-American hosts were removed only for logistical reasons and that their religion had nothing to do with the decision. One complexity of the story is that the three employees continued to appear on MSNBC as reporters and analysts even as they were sidelined as hosts.

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But the hosting position is an important one. A host is the public face of the network and not just one contending voice among many. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that in removing these Muslim Americans from hosting duties for a week, MSNBC was sending a signal that their religious identity made them ill-suited to be representatives of the network. This may be a subtle form of bigotry, but it is still bigotry.

Anyone familiar with the history of MSNBC would hesitate to give the network the benefit of the doubt on this issue. In February 2003, in the prelude to the American invasion of Iraq, MSNBC fired Phil Donahue—at the time the highest-rated host of any show on the network. In an internal memo, a staffer noted that Donahue was “a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war,” because, while “our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity,” Donahue “seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration’s motives.”

As Eric Alterman noted in his book What Liberal Media? (2004), “To replace Donahue, the station hired in his stead former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough and the radio talk show host Michael Savage.” The aptly self-named Savage (the nom de plume of the equally apposite Michael Alan Weiner) was known for complaining that the United States had been taken over by “the freaks, the cripples, the perverts and the mental defectives.” Arguing with a gay caller on MSNBC, Savage said, “Oh, you’re one of the sodomites. You should only get AIDS and die, you pig.” This riposte earned Savage a firing, but was a much more serious offense than Donahue’s anti-war commentary.

In recent years, NBC has a pattern of losing prominent Black journalists who either quit or are fired. Karen Attiah of The Washington Post reported in 2022,

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NBC has lost a number of prominent Black voices over the years, especially Black women. Melissa Harris-Perry’s popular MSNBC weekend show was canceled in 2016. In 2017, Tamron Hall was pushed out. MSNBC’s Peacock hub canceled Zerlina Maxwell’s and Joshua Johnson’s shows, and both left the network.

As Attiah and other critics have noted, in some of these cases the network seems to have caved in response to racist backlash because these journalists were outspoken critics of white supremacy.

The seeming removal of Muslim-American journalists from hosting decisions provoked a huge backlash. On Saturday, Ilhan Omar observed,

Muslims face routine discrimination and silencing campaigns based on our religion. MSNBC is one of the few networks to give Muslim-Americans a prominent platform. This is a shocking decision that runs counter to our values of a free and open press. I hope it will be reversed.

Protesting against this move seems to have worked. By Sunday morning Ali Velshi was back as host. Omar justifiably took a victory lap, rightly linking it with other protest movements to limit war crimes:

Happy to see MSNBC reversing its decision and allowing Muslim anchors to return. President Biden pressuring Israel to turn the water back on is a start, now we need to push him to call for electricity and food access to be restored. And join the rest of the world in calling for an end to the bombardment of Gaza. Keep raising your voices, our humanity will not survive if we stay silent as genocidal rhetoric continues and leads to the eradication of Gaza.

The lesson is clear: Both the mainstream media and the Biden administration are all too likely to cave in to bigotry unless they are faced with protests. Continued vigilance and opposition is the only way to contain a war fever that continues to threaten all humane and decent values.

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Jeet Heer

Jeet Heer is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation and host of the weekly Nation podcast, The Time of Monsters. He also pens the monthly column “Morbid Symptoms.” The author of In Love with Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman (2013) and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles (2014), Heer has written for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The American Prospect, The GuardianThe New Republic, and The Boston Globe.

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