Author Interview: William Gillis

By | November 29, 2017

Summer 2017 Issue

William Gillis is the author of “The Anti-Semitic Roots of the ‘Liberal News Media’ Critique.” In an interview with Editorial Assistant Virginia Harrison, he discussed how he became interested in the subject, why conservative outlets that criticized the news media were popular, and how anti-Semitism continues to play a role in attacks on journalism today.

What brought your attention to the connection between anti-Semitism and the “liberal news media” critique, and how did you get interested in tracing its history?

I first became exposed to attacks on the so-called “Jewish news media” while doing archival research in the Laird Wilcox Collection at the University of Kansas Spencer Research Library. The Wilcox Collection is an incredible resource for anyone interested in the postwar Right. The collection includes hundreds of conservative publications ranging from quite moderate to racist and anti-Semitic publications. It was in these publications that I found example after example of explicitly anti-Semitic attacks on the news media. After then reading more widely about anticommunism and anti-Semitism, and the role that far-right extremist groups and individuals played in fighting racial integration, for example, I began to see that anti-Semitism played an important role in creating the idea of a liberal news media.

You write that two news outlets advancing the “liberal news media” critique each reached 250,000 readers in the 1970s. Why do you think these publications were so popular among Americans? What did it reflect about our culture at the time?
Conservative news outlets of the 1960s and 1970s that criticized the news media were popular largely because of anticommunism. Older strains of conservatism as well as resistance to the civil rights movement were also critical factors in the popularity of the “liberal news media” critique and publications that made that critique. In addition, certain flashpoint conflicts of the era widened the popularity of the idea of a liberal news media. In my dissertation, I examine how white opponents of court-ordered busing for school integration in Boston, Detroit, and Louisville targeted local newspapers and TV outlets for backing busing. They argued that newspapers such as the Boston Globe, the Detroit Free Press, and the Louisville Courier-Journal were hopelessly liberal. In Boston and Louisville, busing opponents organized boycotts of those newspapers and reporters were subjected to intimidation and even violence.
How does the anti-Semitic “liberal news media” critique of the 1970s compare to today’s rise of “fake news” and partisan news media outlets?
The Internet generally, YouTube, and social media offer conservatives powerful ways to disseminate their ideas and their critiques of the allegedly liberal news media. You can find explicit anti-Semitic attacks all over social media, as well as the “hazy borderlines” coded anti-Semitism that I describe in my article–for example, see and Alex Jones’s InfoWars YouTube channel. Interestingly, supporters of David Duke attack Alex Jones for failing to make explicit anti-Semitic attacks on the news media.
You write about Spiro Agnew’s 1969 speech criticizing on the press as giving voice to many people’s long-held concerns about a biased media. How is this event similar or different from President Trump’s critiques of the press and public reaction over the past year?
Trump’s attacks on the liberal media and the “fake news” perhaps represent the zenith of the “liberal news media” idea. Agnew’s attacks on the news media in 1969 and 1970 resonated with conservatives, and Trump’s attacks resonate even more strongly and widely today. I would argue that anti-Semitism continues to play a major role in attacks on the news media. Jewish journalists who cover the Trump administration are regularly subjected to anti-Semitic attacks on social media. Earlier this summer, Trump re-tweeted a video of himself “body slamming” a CNN “wrestler.” It turns out the originator of the tweet is an anti-Semite who posts memes about Jewish “control” of CNN. I would argue that Trump knowingly or unknowingly operates in the “hazy borderlines” of coded anti-Semitism.
What are some good resources for people who are interested in learning more about the connection between anti-Semitism and the “liberal news media” critique?
Again, I would recommend the Wilcox Collection at the University of Kansas, but I understand a research trip to Lawrence, Kansas, is not possible for everyone. There are historians and communications scholars who have done great work on conservative critiques of the news media generally. Nicole Hemmer is a historian who recently published the book Messengers of the Right, writes columns for several news outlets, and is active on Twitter at @pastpunditry. I would also recommend the work of Clive Webb, D. J. Mulloy, Heather Hendershot, Joseph Crespino, and David Greenberg.