Northwestern professor tells students at anti-Israel protest journalism 'not about objectivity'

People rally on the campus of Northwestern University to show support for residents of Gaza on April 25, 2024 in Evanston, Illinois. The rally is among many roiling university campuses across the country in response to the ongoing war in Gaza.
People rally on the campus of Northwestern University to show support for residents of Gaza on April 25, 2024 in Evanston, Illinois. The rally is among many roiling university campuses across the country in response to the ongoing war in Gaza. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

A Northwestern University journalism professor told protesters at an anti-Israel protest encampment that journalists' work isn't about "objectivity," saying he teaches "relational journalism" that encourages students to open their "compassionate hearts." 

Steven Thrasher, an assistant professor of journalism at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, addressed a crowd of nearly 100 people at the "Northwestern Liberation Zone" on Deering Meadow last Saturday. 

He is the university's inaugural Daniel H. Renberg chair of social justice in reporting, with an emphasis on LGBT-related issues, according to the university's website. Before teaching at the university, he expressed admiration for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and called Israel an "apartheid state."

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On Saturday, Thrasher, whose articles have been featured in BuzzFeed News and The New York Times, told the crowd of anti-Israel demonstrators that he teaches his students "relational journalism." 

"To the Medill students and journalists within earshot, I say to you: Our work is not about objectivity. Our work is about you putting your brilliant minds to work and opening your compassionate hearts," the professor said in his speech, a copy of which was shared with The Christian Post. He stated that journalism can be an "act of love."

He said that one of the people he looks up to most in the world is trans journalist Lewis Wallace, who wrote in the book The View From Somewhere that there are two schools of journalism. 

"[There is] extractive journalism, where journalists take something from people (in a model similar to colonialism), and relational journalism, where journalists are in relationship with the communities and people they are writing about," Thrasher said. 

"I teach my students relational journalism. But one of the many lessons Palestinian journalists have taught me — at great sacrifice — is that journalism can be an act of love. They have elevated beyond belief what relational journalism can, and should, be." 

According to The Daily Northwestern, the professor had made multiple appearances at the encampment since it began last Thursday, even participating in blocking the Northwestern Police from entering. Journalist Andy Ngo shared a video to X on April 25 that showed the professor using his body to block the police.

Thrasher said in his speech that he locked arms with several fellow faculty members to block the police, claiming that they do "violence on behalf of the ruling class." The professor also accused Israel of committing "genocide" against Palestinians and said that he did not "see antisemitism" from any of the demonstrators. 

In comments to CP, Thrasher denied that he was "fighting" the police when he blocked them from entering the encampment. The professor argued that it was the other way around, and the police assaulted him as he stood "arm in arm" with his colleagues. 

"Since this is a Christian publication, as a Christian, I will say that Jesus and the scriptures have taught me that you turn the other cheek and allow yourself to be hit again and again and that you put your life before others," Thrasher stated. 

The journalism professor claimed he only stood in place when the police arrived and that he never let go of his co-workers' arms to raise a hand to the officers. Thrasher stated that he and his colleagues blocked the police to "protect our students."

He also requested that the media "properly contextualize" the situation, referring to what he called a "genocide" of Palestinians and Christians in Gaza. He called Israel's actions in Gaza a "lethal occupation of Palestine, which has brutalized Christians, Jews, and Muslims on the land where Christ was born, lived and died." 

Israel's offensive began last October after Hamas, the terror group that has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2007, attacked southern Israel and killed over 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapped over 240 people. The Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry says that over 34,000 people have died in Gaza since the war began but doesn't differentiate between combatants and civilians. 

Northwestern University did not immediately respond to The Christian Post's request for comment. 

John Grano, the senior managing editor of The Christian Post and a former Northwestern University student, believes the professor is "masquerading as a journalist."

"Professor Thrasher seems like an effective advocate who doesn't know the first thing about journalism," Grano, the former senior vice president of Inside Washington Publishers, told CP. "No news story is completely and perfectly objective, but that doesn't mean a journalist shouldn't try his hardest to make it so."

"The way to accomplish this is to be conversant in every narrative that affects the story. Professor Thatcher chooses to pick a narrative and ignore the other aspects of this story," he continued. "I would call it just foolish if it wasn't so dangerous."

Grano said journalists need to understand all the facts and narratives that apply to a particular story to the extent that they can act as public relations people for both sides. He asserted that if a reporter cannot do this, they are not even ready to ask the first question in an interview. 

"You haven't fully absorbed the dynamics of the story that you're writing," Grano said. "You should know what one side says. You should be able to write a better press release than the PR person for that side."

"You understand the narrative, but you need to understand both narratives," he added. "And then, you're in a position to start asking questions to try to get to the next point, which is, where do the narratives match or do they not match? Because the reader is the ultimate decision-maker in terms of what's true in a story."

As The Washington Times reported in May 2019, then-New York University President Andrew Hamilton condemned Thrasher for using his doctoral convocation speech to praise the BDS movement, with one of the school's deans saying that those remarks were omitted from the speech beforehand. During his speech, Thrasher said that he was "so proud" of those who supported BDS, and he referred to Israel as an "apartheid state."

Hamilton told The Jewish Journal at the time that Thrasher should never have been chosen as a speaker for the event after the administration was made aware of what the NYU president described as "undoubtedly vile and anti-Semitic tweets" by Thrasher. 

The Israelly Cool blog published social media posts that included Thrasher comparing the Israeli government to Nazis and making jokes about the Holocaust. 

At the time of the controversy, Northwestern University's then-President and Professor of Economics Morton Schapiro and then-Provost and Professor of History and African American Studies Jonathan Holloway released a joint statement saying that Thrasher would still join the Northwestern University staff and that he was not the only faculty member to support BDS.

"Many were understandably offended by some of the comments made by Dr. Thrasher during his commencement speech at New York University earlier this week," the pair stated. "We do not share all of his views, nor do we feel commencement was the appropriate venue to express them. However, academic freedom assures his right to hold them."

On Wednesday, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty announced it had filed a federal Title VI complaint against Northwestern University on behalf of the Young America's Foundation. The complaint highlighted the university entering into an agreement with the demonstrators, which included offering nearly $1.9 million in scholarship funds to Palestinian students. 

The agreement provides "funding two faculty per year for two years," and the university also promised to "provide immediate temporary space for MENA/Muslim students," with "MENA" meaning Middle Eastern and North African. WILL argued that this agreement is discriminatory toward non-Palestinian and non-MENA individuals. 

Three anonymous Northwestern University students have also filed a class-action lawsuit against the school, alleging that the school chose "to facilitate, encourage, and coddle a dystopic cesspool of hate."

While most of the encampment dispersed on Monday, the lawsuit argued that "Northwestern twisted itself into a pretzel to accommodate the hostile and discriminatory encampment, legislate around it, and ultimately reward it." The suit included a photo of a demonstrator at the anti-Israel encampment wearing a shirt that appears to depict a Hamas terrorist. 

Samantha Kamman is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at: Follow her on Twitter: @Samantha_Kamman

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