By Matt Taibbi / TK News
The longtime co-host of Useful Idiots, Katie Halper, made headlines last week, and not for any reasons she would have asked for. Katie was fired from a part-time hosting arrangement at The Hill’s Rising, whose editor told her an editorial critical of Israeli policies in Palestine was “not in our sweet spot of coverage.”
Rising grew a significant audience as an independent media vehicle between 2019 and 2021, when it was hosted by the left-right team of Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti. It has since undergone changes, piloted for a time by Intercept reporter Ryan Grim and Emily Jashinsky of The Federalist, and ultimately moving to a new incarnation featuring Briahna Joy Gray and Robby Soave. Part of the hosting job involves monologues called “radars.” Katie, who had a fill-in arrangement at the outlet for years, was let go over just such a radar. You can see it above.
The controversy began when Michigan Democrat Rashida Tliab spoke at an online seminar on September 20th and said, “It has become clear that you cannot claim to hold progressive values, yet back Israel’s apartheid government.” Tliab gave her talk in the wake of the shooting of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed in the West Bank City of Jenin in May. Abu Akleh’s family met with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in July, and asked the International Criminal Court to open a case two weeks ago, simultaneous to Tlaib’s seminar.
Tliab’s comments inspired an immediate reaction from the Anti-Defamation League, which deemed them anti-Semitic. CEO Jonathan Greenblatt ripped Tliab for ostensibly telling “American Jews they must pass an anti-Zionist litmus test to participate in progressive spaces.” The ADL reaction got wide play on stations like CNN.
Katie’s “Radar” argues Tliab’s comments laid bare what has long been a source of tension among self-described progressives, who often tiptoe around the subject of occupied Palestine. As you’ll see above, she approached her subject with great care, leaning on statements from groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Agree with her or not, her editorial certainly wasn’t fake news, or flippant, or gratuitous. It’s what the media business normally wants: a decisive, well-argued opinion.
However, the Hill thought otherwise, and what makes the situation unusual is a media company saying the proverbial quiet part out loud. When editors refused to run the “Radar,” Katie asked flat-out if the problem was the subject of Israel. Though there was some hemming and hawing (at one point she was told the problem was that the show’s focus was on domestic and not foreign policy, despite running content about Brazilian elections, Italy’s new prime minister, and multiple Ukraine pieces that week), eventually they just told her that was, in fact, the case. The next day, she was let go via a curt email ending, “We wish you all the best.”
Gary Weitman, the chief communications officer for Nexstar Media Group, which owns the Hill, declined to respond to queries from Grim, for a story in The Intercept. My own queries have so far not elicited a response.
Israel’s Palestine policies, which Human Rights Watch and others have long described as apartheid, obviously arouse very strong feelings. Still, a lot of media figures avoid the topic, as it can be a career-defining or at minimum a career-complicating decision to go there. The fact that Palestinian journalists and Palestinian news sites are often canaries in the content moderation coal mine, deleted or suppressed in creative ways by platforms like Facebook and Google, has added another layer of trepidation for editorialists. Episodes like this don’t help:
Matt Taibbi: What happened?
Katie Halper: I’ve been appearing [on Rising] for three years as a weekly guest. There are some weeks I took off when things were in disarray, but then the new iteration of the show came, and they asked me if I wanted to appear. So I started doing a weekly segment once again with them.
When you’re a host, you do these things called “Radars,” which are monologues. I came up with three ideas of radars I wanted to do. One was on Ukraine, one was on immigration, and one was on Israel. It’s funny, because had I done the other ones first, I’d still be working at the Hill. At least, until I did the Israel one.
Anyway, I did my Israel radar. I put a lot of work into it because I thought it was really important. You have to be thorough, because you get attacked, and there are so many watchdog groups that are dedicated to debunking anything or trying to debunk anything critical of Israel. So, I really wanted to make sure I dotted all of my Is and crossed my Ts. I also wanted to make sure it was good because it was my first radar. I put a lot of work into it, made sure that everything was linkable and also that I was quoting sources like the UN, the International Criminal Court, Israeli law, former Israeli prime ministers, and then Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela [who said, “Our freedom is incomplete without the Palestinians”].
I recorded it, and then as I was leaving, they had this thing where they had a pickup that they wanted to record, in which they had Robbie [Soave] repeat the Jonathan Greenblatt criticism that was in the video. Also they had him give a longer quote from Greenblatt, I think calling Amnesty International anti-Semitic.
I thought, “Okay, that’s weird but that’s fine, they can end it how they want.” I did a bunch of segments that day, because the radar is just one part of the show. As I was leaving, that’s when I got a phone call from a producer. The producers were supportive and they wanted to do the right thing, but they were saying that they weren’t going to run it.
Then for the next three days, we went back and forth trying to figure out some kind of compromise. For instance, maybe having an opposing view. I had been told that they have a new policy where op-eds on Israel were a no-no, both written op-eds, which The Hill does as newspaper, and also these video op-eds.
Matt: Just to back up, you tried to accommodate them?
Katie: I was not being inflexible. I really wanted to make it work. I like doing the show there. I like working in a professional environment, I like getting the makeup done [laughs], all that stuff. But to be totally sincere, my real concern was making sure that this story was out there, not just the Rashida Tlaib part, but in general.
Matt: And they told you no?
Katie: Right. I got a call telling me they weren’t going to run it, and that was it. There was nothing like, “We enjoy working with you, but…” Nothing like that. It was just: we’re not going to run it. Nothing about making it work in any way.
I asked the producers, “Can I do it for my segment? “ In other words, could I do it for my regular segment, which I record every Thursday and is released over the weekend? I figured I could still talk about the story. The producers said, “Check your email.” I checked my email and saw: we won’t need you to come in tomorrow, we won’t be needing you to do your Radar tomorrow. Please send all unpaid invoices. Best of luck.
Matt: There have been some crazy suggestions you did this intentionally, knowing you’d be fired. Do you want to address those?
Katie: Yes. That’s silly. I had been critical of Israel many times before. I thought the usual suspects would complain, or email, but I never thought I’d be fired over it.
Matt: Obviously people get fired all the time in media, and sometimes it’s because the bosses don’t like your opinions on this or that subject. However, it’s unusual, isn’t it, to have someone just tell you openly you’ve been let go over a certain subject?
Katie: Right. I mean, they liked me. My video segments did really well. They also were happy enough with my work that we had actually shot a pilot for a show idea that I had, that Briahna Joy Gray and I brought to them, which was like a leftist version of The View. We shot a whole pilot and people can see one segment of it but it was just me, Briahna Joy Gray, Rania Khalek, and Abby Martin and that did good numbers. So this was sudden.
Matt: We should just get this out of the way. Did you think you might have had a little bit of extra leeway with this issue?
Katie: Oh, yes. I also was surprised because, even though Jews have been canceled over this issue — for instance Norman Finklestein, who is not only Jewish but the son of concentration camp survivors, his academic career was ruined. Jews have a little bit more cover but not that much more. Then, of course, I get to live with the label of self-loathing Jew, as opposed to anti-Semite.
Matt: Isn’t this part of what makes this subject difficult? You don’t want to play into real stereotypes about Jewish control of media.
Katie: Yes. Not to do the, “As a Jew…” thing, but, as a Jew, it does really anger me, because I get so frustrated. It’s very hard to talk about this without playing into tropes.
Israel is still the third rail. There have been major shifts when it comes to public opinion, but that hasn’t been reflected in US policy. It is reflected in some members of Congress. You have the squad and you have [Minnesota Democrat] Betty McCollum, who has been really vocal on this issue.
Matt: Bernie Sanders.
Katie: Yes, Bernie — when it comes to the Senate, far and away, the most critical. He gets a lot of flak for that, but, again, I think that if he weren’t Jewish, it would be worse.
I think that the really important thing is that the AIPAC* position doesn’t represent all Jews. There are Jews who are very critical of what Israel does, but are still very committed to the state of Israel. There are Jews who are anti-Zionist, and want a one-state solution. There are Jews who want a two-state solution. I’ve been getting a lot of support from people who are Jewish. A lot of people have said, “I have fought with friends and family over this.”
Matt: How would you advise that people understand this episode with Rising?
Katie: First I want to emphasize that I’m very lucky in several ways and that many people have had it so much worse than me. Obviously, if you’re a Palestinian reporter in Israel in those territories, it’s so much worse. Just look at what happened to Abu Akleh. So I don’t want people to get the wrong idea. I’ll just say anti-Semitism is a real problem, but I think that when people constantly call things anti-Semitic, or constantly conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, they’re trivializing real anti-Semitism. That’s what I hope people see.
Matt: Thanks, Katie. Sorry to hear about this.
Katie: Okay. Thanks, Matt.
*American Israel Public Affairs Committee