At the Associated Press, college activism is apparently a fireable offense. On Thursday, the venerable news organization sent an email informing staff that Emily Wilder, a news associate based in Arizona, had been let go. Wilder had been the target of a concerted right-wing smear campaign based on her membership in the group Students for Justice in Palestine during her time as a student at Stanford University, as well as her involvement in a protest against the Sheldon Adelson–funded Birthright program.
Wilder wasn’t a public figure. She wasn’t even a senior employee. She is, again, based in Arizona, several worlds away from the current strife in Palestine. Nevertheless, the subheadline of the unbylined Washington Free Beacon piece that kicked off the whole fracas—“AP’s objectivity in question amid revelations it shared office space with Hamas”—attempted to place her at Ground Zero of that conflict, suggesting that her employment further undermined the organization’s neutrality after the Israeli military claimed it had been sharing office space in Gaza with Hamas; a contention that hasn’t been proved and which has been made moot by dint of the fact that Israel blew the office up.
But the right-wing smear alleging nefariousness on Wilder’s part spread rapidly. It was amplified by Stanford’s College Republicans, who had been harassing her for years, despite the fact that she was no longer a student there. Ben Shapiro, Jack Posobiec, and Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton quickly piled on, and the AP folded like a cheap suit in the latest, dumbest example of news organizations being wholly unprepared for bad-faith right-wing smears against its employees. But no one forced the AP to be so shamelessly chicken-hearted: It did that all on its own.
“This is clearly a case of selective enforcement” of the social media policy, Wilder told The San Francisco Chronicle. “I don’t buy their convenient cover story at all because they never told me what specifically I did wrong, and in the termination letter, they said the harassment campaign prompted the review, and in that review they found supposed violations of their policy.” In other words, Wilder was being pushed out not because she had violated a specific policy but to make the mean and loud right-wing people go away so that newsroom leaders didn’t have to hear the complaints anymore.
The right has tried to push the idea that the mainstream media is insufficiently sympathetic to Israel—a truly wild charge, with no basis in fact. Fox News referred to Wilder’s hiring as a “second Middle East-related issue” for the AP, as if the AP was also somehow responsible for its offices being bombed by the Israeli military. This elevation of pseudo-scandals—again, Wilder was a low-level employee working in Arizona—is a tactic aimed at influencing coverage. Any minuscule step away from dogmatically following every word of the Israeli government becomes a tremendous scandal.
The right-wing media excels at using mainstream outlets’ “neutrality” to stoke these kind of conflicts. With Wilder, the Washington Free Beacon played Lucy holding the football; the AP the hapless Charlie Brown. The correct response to these kinds of pseudo-scandals is obvious. Wilder’s presence in a newsroom in Arizona does not affect the coverage of Gaza and Israel. Wilder is not directing any of the organization’s coverage. So then: Who cares? Go away. Instead, the AP gave these maniacs a scalp, which only ever guarantees that the hooligans will be back for more. When there’s chum in the water, the sharks return.
There is, moreover, no other remedy for this. Wilder was fired for having an opinion on one of the most contentious and important issues in the world, like a lot of human beings. The precedent being set here—that any level of “activism,” even as a teenager or college student, bars a career in mainstream journalism—is an abysmal one. Having been encouraged by the AP, the right will move on to its next victim without much thought.
“There’s no question I was just canceled,” Wilder told the Chronicle. “This is exactly the issue with the rhetoric around ‘cancel culture.’ To Republicans, cancel culture is usually seen as teens or young people online advocating that people be held accountable over accusations of racism or whatever it may be, but when it comes down to who actually has to deal with the lifelong ramifications of the selective enforcement of cancel culture—specifically over the issue of Israel and Palestine—it’s always the same side.” Despite constantly whining about “cancel culture,” the right maintains a strict devotion to the practice. The weird and tacit acceptance of the right’s line on the issue among the media’s elite gatekeepers has begotten no end of ironies; the fact that Bari Weiss, known far and wide for her efforts to get an Arab professor fired for his comments on Israel, has been somehow reborn as an anti-censorship crusader is just one of the more baroque absurdities in this era of the Culture Wars.
This is also a scandal for The Washington Post, as well. It was recently announced that Sally Buzbee, currently the AP’s top editor, would be taking over the Post. Last year, The Washington Post suspended a reporter for accurately tweeting that Kobe Bryant had been accused of sexual assault shortly after he died, in a similar attempt to quell a social media uproar. Wilder’s firing is just the latest example of media bosses disciplining and firing employees for dumb reasons, and until newsroom leaders learn just to ignore bad-faith critics and send them on their way to easier marks, it won’t be the last.