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When the Misinformation Comes From Inside the House Bari Weiss

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The New York Times changes its story. (Photo illustration by The Free Press)

Scores of Palestinians are dead after a blast late yesterday at a hospital in Gaza, a horrific tragedy. 

Hamas immediately blamed Israel. And then so did the paper of record.

Very soon after the incident, The New York Times published a story with the headline “Israeli Strike Kills Hundreds in Hospital, Palestinians Say” and sent it out as a breaking news notification. They did so relying on Hamas’s word on the matter. 

Israeli authorities soon after denied responsibility. An IDF spokesperson said that no Israeli aircraft had been operating in the area of the hospital at the time of the explosion. Israel has released footage they say shows that the hospital was struck by a wayward missile fired from within Gaza. The spokesperson further said the Israeli military will release recordings of intercepted conversations and drone footage that they claim demonstrates the hospital was hit by a rocket fired by Gaza-based terrorist group Islamic Jihad. 

Realizing their mistake, editors at the Times changed the headline on their homepage to: “At Least 500 Dead in Strike on Gaza Hospital, Palestinians Say.” 

And then changed it again to: “At Least 500 Dead in Blast at Gaza Hospital, Palestinians Say.” 

So in the space of several hours, it went from an Israeli strike to an ambiguous blast.

We don’t know yet definitively what happened in Gaza yesterday. The point of doing good journalism is that you pause to get the facts straight and hesitate before trusting the word of a terrorist group—in this case, the Hamas-run Gaza Ministry of Health—or a government. Yet, for some reason, when it comes to Hamas, all the old rules are out the window. And whatever the facts are, that breaking news alert—Israel targets a hospital, hundreds of death—is already echoing throughout the world.

The Power of Bad Ideas

If you’ve ever voiced concern about the excesses of campus radicalism in the last decade, someone has probably told you to calm down. They probably told you not to worry about the crazy proclamations of a few gender studies majors and reassured you that they’ll grow up, get jobs, pay taxes for the first time, and shake off their outlandish ideas. 

Here’s Atlantic journalist Anne Applebaum expressing that thought yesterday on Twitter: “Out of all the terrible problems there are in the world today, the problem of small numbers of American university students with stupid or even evil opinions seems to me the least important and least interesting. But clearly, I am in a minority.”

So let us get this straight: college is worth taking on hundreds of thousands in debt. . . but also completely meaningless? 

It’s wishful thinking to say people naturally grow out of hateful beliefs, as though history has ever shown that. If Ivy League students are glorifying Hamas, with professors applauding them, there is very little reason to believe that, a few years later—now congressmen and lawyers, doctors and teachers, and perhaps professors themselves—they will necessarily have changed their views.

We have a sort of hazy, rose-colored view of youthful stridency, like it’s all hippies. But stridency can go in any direction.

Andrew Sullivan put it best and most presciently in February 2018 in this piece: We All Live on Campus Now. Here’s the key part: 

I believe ideas matter. When elite universities shift their entire worldview away from liberal education as we have long known it toward the imperatives of an identity-based “social justice” movement, the broader culture is in danger of drifting away from liberal democracy as well. If elites believe that the core truth of our society is a system of interlocking and oppressive power structures based around immutable characteristics like race or sex or sexual orientation, then sooner rather than later, this will be reflected in our culture at large. What matters most of all in these colleges—your membership in a group that is embedded in a hierarchy of oppression—will soon enough be what matters in the society as a whole.

We urge you to read the whole thing

Two new Free Press stories about very different subjects make clear that these are not abstract debates—and that the ideas that begin on campus trickle down to the rest of the culture.

First up, TFP reporter Francesca Block tells the extraordinary story of what happened when an ophthalmologist and a popular YouTuber teamed up to cure a thousand people of blindness. 

You might think that the collaboration between Dr. Jeff Levenson—a brilliant eye doctor—and MrBeast—the second most-followed person on YouTube—to deliver life-transforming cataract surgery would be treated as unmitigated good news. 

Sadly not. The duo faced accusations of “ableism”—a woolly concept born in 1981 that has made the definitive leap from obscure activism into the mainstream. Thanks to ideas cooked up in the academy, a doctor is forced to defend the fact that he has healed thousands of people. Meanwhile, as Francesca reports, the medical establishment seems to be more interested in indulging these voguish ideas than defending heroes like Jeff Levenson.

Our Canadian bureau is small but very mighty. How small? It is composed of a single woman: Rupa Subramanya

Rupa is unstoppable. And today she reports from Ottawa, where she attended a pro-Palestine rally. She spoke to many of the young people there who, to a person, believe that Israel should be wiped off the map—but had little idea about what ought to happen to the Jews who currently live there.

Our interviews capture a range of perspectives, some more hard-line than others. But the overall impression they leave, at least to us, is of a movement using the kind of language that is everywhere on campus—words like colonizer and oppressor—that now have had major ramifications in the real world.

Watch for yourself: 

The Donor Revolt Picks Up Steam

Last Wednesday, Apollo CEO and University of Pennsylvania megadonor Marc Rowan announced in The Free Press that he was closing his checkbook. Accusing UPenn’s leaders of “allowing anti-Jewish hate to infect their campus,” he said that he would not donate to the college as long as Liz Magill and Scott Bok remained in place as president and chairman, respectively.

In the days since, other donors, at UPenn and beyond, have followed suit. As Jacob Savage reported in our pages on Monday, America’s top colleges have a donor revolt on their hands. And the ranks of disgusted benefactors continue to grow. 

“I am deeply ashamed of my association with the University of Pennsylvania,” wrote major UPenn donor David Magerman in a letter to McGill and Bok this week. “I refuse to donate another dollar to Penn.”

Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah and former U.S. ambassador to China, Russia, and Singapore, has also halted his donations—tens of millions of dollars within the past three decades—to UPenn. 

Jonathan Jacobson has given tens of millions of dollars to UPenn. He is also pulling out

On Monday, Bath & Body Works founder Leslie Wexner became the latest to pull the plug on donations to Harvard. The Wexner Foundation wrote to Harvard’s board Monday to explain the decision: “We are stunned and sickened by the dismal failure of Harvard’s leadership to take a clear and unequivocal stance against the barbaric murders of innocent Israeli civilians.”

Citadel CEO Ken Griffin, who has pledged $300 million to Harvard this year alone, has vowed not to hire any of the Harvard students who blamed Israel for Hamas terror. We wonder if he can claw that money back.

In Other News. . . 

→ Biden lands as the stakes are raised: Biden flew to Israel overnight as the picture in the Middle East only grew darker. Axios reports that the U.S. has been discussing the possibility of using military force if Hezbollah attacks Israel to open a northern front in the war. Meanwhile, Biden’s planned stop in Jordan, where he was due to meet Jordanian and Egyptian leaders as well as Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, has been canceled.

→ Chaos at embassies: There were chaotic scenes at embassies across the Middle East as we went to press last night. Demonstrators attempted to storm the Israeli embassy in Amman. In Beirut, protests erupted outside the U.S. embassy. 

→ Still speakerless: On Monday afternoon it looked like Jim Jordan might have enough momentum to end the impasse in the House and become the next Speaker. But Tuesday didn’t go according to the Ohio firebrand’s plan. Twenty Republican colleagues voted against Jordan in a floor vote. Jordan needs as many as seventeen of those nos to change their minds if he is to triumph. At least Kevin McCarthy, who was ousted as Speaker two weeks ago, can see the funny side

→A dollar for your thoughts: X, formerly Twitter, is planning to charge new users a dollar per year for the ability to tweet and retweet. Oops, we mean post and repost. Sorry, Elon! 

→ Having nun of it: On a lighter note, let’s hear it for the French nun who took out an environmental protester yesterday.

The Fog of War

We’re a small operation. The Free Press doesn’t have foreign bureaus—at least not yet. But we remain committed to trying our hardest to bring you a full picture of what is happening in this war. That means bringing you more stories from inside Gaza, especially stories of ordinary people who are suffering the consequences of this terrible war. 

We are using WhatsApp and other platforms to ask people in Gaza to send us voice memos and videos about what they are seeing. We’ve already heard some heartbreaking stories. But we want to hear more.

Please, if you have other tips or leads, write to us at tips@thefp.com.

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Letters to the Editor: America Doesn’t Respect Teachers The Free Press

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“Society holds the teaching profession in such low esteem, which has led to a massive teacher shortage,” writes one reader. (Photo by Ken Hively/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

“How can public schools at once be hotbeds of radicalism, yet produce students who are so poorly informed about radical causes?” 

This was the central question of Robert Pondiscio’s piece, published June 12: “How Public Schools Became Ideological Boot Camps.”

His answer is that every day, material that hasn’t been officially approved is put in front of children. Here, the founder and president of the Academy for Teachers, Sam Swope, offers an alternative theory, and argues that Robert’s solution—greater oversight—would only make things worse:

Robert Pondiscio argues that because there’s so little oversight of what teachers teach, teachers do whatever they want, and what they want is always bad. 

There’s more than a grain of truth to that, but his call for stricter oversight and less autonomy for teachers isn’t going to solve the problem. It will make things worse.

Our core problem is that society holds the teaching profession in such low esteem, which has led to a massive teacher shortage, meaning principals are scraping the bottom of the barrel, desperate for any warm body to stand in front of a classroom. Not surprisingly, most new hires don’t last. For kids, this is a disaster: school is a parade of one inexperienced teacher after another. 

Schools are looking for smart, creative, empathic teachers, who can be trusted—indeed, expected—to bring their personal passion and intelligence to the work. Of course the schools provide oversight, but they want to be able to respect their teachers as professionals. (Sure, there will be teachers who are bad actors, but you deal with them.)

And yet, given an increasingly weak teaching force, I understand the urge for stringent, distrustful oversight. I can also understand, even as I cringe at the thought, the urge to mandate curricula. At least then some learning might happen!

But a stringent, distrustful, mandated approach is intolerable for the best teachers, and it will make a teaching career repellent to smart, young, idealistic people eager for a profession where they can shine.

There are two urgent problems in education to solve: how to retain our best teachers, and how to encourage inspired young people to join the profession. 

—Sam Swope

Last month, we gave over an episode of Honestly to one of the most contentious debates of the moment: Is Israel’s War Just? Free Pressers Eli Lake and Michael Moynihan argued yes; arguing otherwise were former Bernie Sanders press secretary Briahna Joy Gray and Jake Klein, editor of The Black Sheep. (The debate originally took place at Dissident Dialogues, in partnership with UnHerd.)

Recently, Rabbi Hayim Leiter was listening to this episode in his car while driving to work. There’s something he wants Gray and Klein to know.

I’m based in Efrat, in the West Bank, but I recently traveled to Tel Aviv for a meeting. As is my practice on long drives, I was listening to an Honestly episode, a recording of a live debate entitled, “Is Israel’s War Just?” Right up my alley.

The panelists were all over each other, passionately debating the issue, when Briahna Joy Gray said Israel should not be a Jewish state. She said all of the Arabs should have the right of return and Israel should become a democracy devoid of religious identity. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

Then, suddenly: “CRITICAL—Rocket and missile fire.” A Home Front Command notification appeared on my phone. This meant I had less than a minute to get out of my car and lie down with my hands over my head. Now, I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Rockets in Tel Aviv? The middle of the country had been quiet for months. 

BOOM, BOOM, BOOM: the explosions were instantaneous and directly overhead. I hadn’t even had time to pull over. I suppose sometimes the Home Front Command warnings are delayed. Thank God the Iron Dome response wasn’t. No one was killed, but later I heard there was a woman injured by shrapnel not far from where I was.

As the dust settled, my focus returned to the podcast. “The right of return is what will ultimately lead to peace,” Gray reiterated. I wanted to yank her out of the radio and sit her next to me. “Do you see that?” I’d ask her, pointing at the smoke trails in the sky. “That’s a rocket.” 

It’s so easy to argue about this war from the safety of America, where the problem is almost always Israel: if only we’d done more of this or less of that. But very few people spend time thinking about what’s happening here, right now. They have no idea what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a Qassam rocket.

I managed to pull myself together and head to my meeting and then to officiate a wedding an hour north of Tel Aviv, in Zichron Yaakov. As we prepared to sign the Ketubah, my phone continued to ring with additional rocket warnings across the country. It’s unnerving knowing that the Huppah could be interrupted at any moment by air-raid sirens. But somehow you press on, praying you won’t have to face that reality.

—Rabbi Hayim Leiter

On Saturday, we ran a piece by Larissa Phillips about what city kids learn at her “farm camp” in upstate New York—important lessons like “Cuts, scrapes, and stings aren’t really a big deal.”

Beneath it, we asked you: How did you spend your childhood vacations? What are the lessons school simply can’t teach you?

Here’s what you said:

My family moved from our prairie home in Saskatchewan to the east coast when I was 5. But every summer we popped on a flight from Saint John, via Toronto or Winnipeg, to Saskatoon. From there it was another five-hour drive north, to where the pavement turned to dirt. In our hometown, we literally lived at the end of the road. 

My grandparents had a cabin, a solitary lease lot in a provincial park, with no neighbors save for the reservation across the lake and a campground five kilometers up the shore. My summers were spent at that cabin with nothing but a canoe, and the odd cousin or friend if I was lucky. There were no cell phones, just loons, leeches, and occasional lightning strikes.

Here, I learned about the forces of nature. I canoed to the middle of the lake, the size of a small sea, during a thunderstorm, and had to make it back against three-foot whitecaps. I discovered that you should not cross the path of a protective mommy beaver, unless you want the bow of your canoe attacked. Most importantly, I learned self-reliance and the value of boredom—to take in the gift of hours alone.

The nights of powwow drumming across the lake while we sat with the campfire will never leave me. Nor the chipmunk that stole my sunflower seeds.

—Jarod Farn-Guillette, Brewer, Maine

I spent seven amazing summers as a camper in Northern Ontario. My family wasn’t rich. My father, an immigrant tailor, only got two weeks of vacation. But my parents knew it was important for me to experience a place different from my home; they sacrificed to send me to summer camp. It was almost six decades ago, but I still remember my mother begging the director for financial assistance.

I learned everything there: how to build a fire, how to swim, how to get along in a cabin with 14 other boys and no bathroom. Peeing off the cabin porch in the middle of the night without waking the counselors was another acquired skill. I not only grew; I grew up. That brief time away from my parents was enough to change me, and they commented on that change every year when I returned home. When I was too old to be a camper, I became a waiter at the camp, my first paying job.

I met my wife at that camp when I was a teenager, and 56 years later we are still together and still talk about our experiences. Looking back, I am amazed at how random choices have such a huge impact on one’s life. Who and where would I be without those summers? When I visit my parents’ graves, I thank them for the opportunities they gave me. I like to think that I raised my sons with the same degree of independence, and that they, in their own time, will pass it on to my grandchildren.

—Sheldon Meingarten, Toronto, Canada

Do you have a unique perspective on a Free Press story? Can you bring your personal experience or expertise to bear on an issue we cover? We want to hear from you. Send us a letter to the editor: letters@thefp.com.

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June 18, 2024 Heather Cox Richardson

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My First Job, at the Stanford Internet Observatory Julia Steinberg

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Like a zillion other bright-eyed Stanford undergrads, I was drawn to work at a place that promised I’d “learn about the abuse of the internet in real time,” writes Julia Steinberg. (Photo by David Madison/Getty Images)

The Stanford Internet Observatory—a research center tasked with rooting out “misinformation” on social media—is shutting its doors. Chances are if you’ve heard of the SIO it was in a scathing piece from Michael Shellenberger or Matt Taibbi, who have accused the center of being a key node in the censorship-industrial complex.

It was also my first employer. Like a zillion other bright-eyed Stanford undergrads, I was drawn to work at a place that promised to “learn about the abuse of the internet in real time, to develop a novel curriculum on trust and safety that is a first in computer science, and to translate our research discoveries into training and policy innovations for the public good.” To me, that meant ending internet abuse like the glamorization of anorexia on social media or financial scams that steal billions every year. But mostly I worked on the Election Integrity Partnership (EIP), which SIO ran during the 2020 and 2022 elections. The purpose of that project was to identify so-called “fake news” spreading on social media. 

In actuality, SIO hired a load of interns to scan social media for posts deemed to be mis- and disinformation. It turns out that the posts we students flagged were often sent along to moderators at Twitter (now X), Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok, which took them down in order to quash dissenting viewpoints—viewpoints that sometimes ended up being right, as in the case of Covid likely being the result of a lab leak, or Hunter Biden’s hard drive being his actual hard drive—not Russian disinformation. 

Thanks to the work of independent journalists, the SIO’s work has come under a lot of scrutiny, including in Washington. A recent House Judiciary Committee report alleges that, by cooperating with the Department of Homeland Security, the SIO’s Election Integrity Partnership “provided a way for the federal government to launder its censorship activities in hopes of bypassing both the First Amendment and public scrutiny.” 

The SIO has stated that “Stanford has not shut down or dismantled SIO as a result of outside pressure. SIO does, however, face funding challenges as its founding grants will soon be exhausted.” But on June 13, Platformer reported that much of SIO’s staff was on the way out: “Its founding director, Alex Stamos, left his position in November. Renee DiResta, its research director, left last week after her contract was not renewed. One other staff member’s contract expired this month, while others have been told to look for jobs elsewhere, sources say.”

The Supreme Court will soon rule on a case, Murthy v. Missouri, that addresses whether the U.S. government should be able to collaborate with social media companies to censor commentary. The plaintiffs, in their brief, lambast SIO for its role in abetting government censorship. We’ll be watching that case closely.

Julia Steinberg is an intern at The Free Press. Read her piece on the college dropout who unlocked the secrets of ancient Rome using AI. And follow her on X @Juliaonatroika.

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