Watching the watchdogs: The US media and intergenerational fault lines

The media is playing a central role in the clash between progressive youth and the political establishment in the US.

Police arrest a pro-Palestinian protester at USC campus in Los Angeles, California, U.S., April 24, 2024, in this still image taken from video. REUTERS/Reuters TV REFILE - CORRECTING DATE FROM "APRIL 25" TO "APRIL 24" AND CREDIT FROM "VIDEO OBTAINED BY REUTERS" TO "REUTERS TV
Police arrest a pro-Palestinian protester at USC campus in Los Angeles, US on April 24, 2024 [File: Reuters]

As Israel continues to wage its genocidal war on Gaza, a fault line in American society is becoming increasingly more pronounced. University students are challenging the political establishment on university campuses across the country.

One side opposes US backing for Israel and profiteering from investments in arms industries, while the other supports the Israeli offensive and has urged police action to break up the student protest encampments.

This fault line reflects not only growing intergenerational tensions in US society, but also how the media approaches coverage of Israel’s genocidal war in Gaza.

Pro-Israel advocates in the US have tried to focus media attention on alleged widespread anti-Semitic activity and disruptive violence at university protests.

This ploy has two aims: to distract attention away from discussing Israel’s US-backed genocidal war on the Palestinians and to silence pro-Palestinian voices by making criticism of Israel an anti-Semitic act punishable by law.

The evidence for the accusations against student protesters is thin. Nevertheless, the mainstream media has given them much airtime and front page space. As a result, those who oppose or support the Israeli war on Gaza now find themselves mostly debating the role of universities, the spread of anti-Semitism, and how the state and society should address both.

But how mainstream media has covered the university protests is just one aspect of the story. The media itself, like society, is fragmented and polarised. In fact, we must speak of three medias: the mainstream media that steadily loses advertising and audience, and broadly reflects US and Israeli government views; the feisty progressive independent media that challenges the mainstream views but battles to remain financially viable; and the kaleidoscopic world of social media that dominates young audiences under 30.

The Israeli war on Gaza has made clear how consumption of these three different media segments is tied to age groups and ideological sentiments. In other words, different media service different sides of the intergenerational fault line.

Surveys have consistently revealed a correlation between age and different political views, with young people being more critical of the war and supportive of Palestinians than older people.

A February survey by Pew Research showed that among Americans 65 years or older, 47 percent were more likely to sympathise with Israelis, and just 9 percent with the Palestinians. Among young Americans under the age of 30, one-third favour Palestinians, while 14 percent support Israel.

A whopping 60 percent of under-30 adults view the Palestinians positively, while 46 percent – the Israelis. Older Americans tend to view Israelis more positively than Palestinians.

Age also seems to determine the pattern of media consumption. An April poll conducted by J L Partners showed that 59 percent of young people get their news from social media; the same percentage of those aged 65 and above rely on mainstream TV and cable channels.

People who get their news primarily from mainstream TV and cable channels “are more supportive of Israel’s war effort, less likely to think Israel is committing war crimes, and less interested in the war in general”, journalist Ryan Grim wrote in the progressive outlet The Intercept.

But Americans who rely on social media, podcasts and YouTube, “generally side with the Palestinians, believe Israel is committing war crimes and genocide, and consider the issue of significant importance”, he found.

Americans who rely on social media see more stories and video of the severe impact of Israel’s war on Gaza, which presumably increases their concern about US involvement in it. No wonder students are protesting against the war so vehemently, demanding their universities divest from firms that feed the Israeli military and cut ties with Israeli academic institutions.

Such demands challenge the government’s policy and the traditional pro-Israel groups, especially the elderly conservative political elite. This explains why Congress and President Joe Biden reacted so quickly against the student protests, and, using the media, tried to smear them with accusations of anti-Semitism.

Young Americans rely less on mainstream media than their parents in large part because they see and feel its reporting distortions, biases and gaps.

A good example of mainstream media bias can be seen in a recent analysis by Marc Owen Jones, a pioneering researcher of digital disinformation. His review of 100 New York Times articles about US campus protests, published in April and early May, showed that the reporting heavily emphasised equating protests with anti-Semitism.

He also found that the terms “anti-Semitism” and “anti-Semitic” appeared 296 times, while terms such as “Islamophobia” and “Islamophobic” only showed up nine times, despite the fact that both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia have been on the rise.

Also, a March analysis of New York Times reporting on the war by the monitoring group has similar findings. It also identified big disparities in the sources for the paper’s reporting on Palestine, which quoted Israeli and American sources “more than three times as often as Palestinian ones”. When examining only quotations from officials, it found that “Israeli and American officials’ quotes outnumber Palestinians nine to one”.

We should not be surprised that young Americans live in a different news media world, while older Americans battle hard to maintain the old one that keeps generating wars around the world. More importantly, these trends have moved in the same direction for many years, so they portend continued polarisation in society, alongside growing support for Palestinian rights and a balanced US position on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.