Breitbart and Fox News Save [A] Christmas [Carol]!

A few days ago, would-be theocrat Todd Starnes, a Fox News Christianist pundit, published and performed an inflammatory segment about a school district canceling A Christmas Carol due to complaints from local families over its reference to God. He picked it up from local news alleging the family was responsible, something the principal has denied. Although Starnes noted that the principal blamed time away from curriculum (thus allowing a dig at Common Core too) late in the article, he led with “Parents told local reporters the play was canceled because two parents complained about a line in the Charles Dickens holiday classic.”

Breitbart picked up the story and intensified the violence by putting up a picture of a Nativity Play in a church for a story about A Christmas Carol. Their article further projects this story as an attack on Christianity by two intolerant parents and a wimpy school official.

Neither the Fox News nor Breitbart story identifies the parents or speculates as to their religion. Both, however, clearly intended to target their two parents, while remaining within the realm of legally defensible journalism. The art accompanying the Breitbart story is particularly offensive.

The local online paper, Lancaster Online, ran a story about the family – who turn out to be a Jewish couple – “fleeing” town after reading comments in Breitbart demanding they be identified. Here’s the key direct quote:

The Jewish student’s parents say some of the reactions to the stories frightened them.

After seeing reader comments like “It would be nice if we had the addresses of those concerned citizens and, I bet, this info is known to people living in the area” on the Breitbart story, the parents pulled their child out of school and headed out of the area for a bit.

“There’s no way we’re going to take a chance after the pizza incident,” they said, referencing the man who fired an assault rifle in a Washington D.C area pizzeria after reading a fake-news story that said Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of there.

UPDATE: See below for Lancaster Online‘s response to the ADL’s statement.

That quote flew wildly around the internet. It was a direct quote from a reporter on the ground, which is pretty much what journalists take as truth. Then later, the Anti-Defamation League issued this statement, calling the allegations of a family fleeing untrue and damaging.

“News reports alleging that a Jewish family has ‘fled’ Lancaster County are untrue and damaging,” said Nancy Baron-Baer, ADL Regional Director. “We spoke with the family, who explained that they went on a previously-planned vacation for the holidays. Stories like this can sow fear in the Jewish community and beyond, and it is important to stop the spread of misinformation.

It is striking that the ADL does not reference the Fox or Breitbart stories. The statement comes across as angry at the idea that Jews might flee, while ignoring the inciting incidents. Moreover, there is a clear conflict between the direct quotes from the family and the indirect quotes here.

So what happened? 
Here’s what I do know.
  1. The news stories were inflammatory, and deliberately so.
  2. The family left town.
  3. The local reporter has a direct quote.
  4. The ADL has an indirect quote.
  5. Anyone who takes the ADL’s statement as simple truth, ignoring points 1-4, is making a mistake.
UPDATED 12/24 7:00 AM – Confirmed the family left town one day early over concerns about local harassmentIs that “fleeing?” We are in a semantic debate here, but the ADL statement had such power, generating all kinds of FAKE NEWS headlines and tweets from major reporters, that forever this incident is going to be about motivations for leaving town – were they just worried or afraid – and not about the harassment. 

The premise of the story is that the family became aware of increasingly hostile comments on Breitbart, so yesterday I spent a few hours reading the 1200 comments or so on the story. I tweeted, with screenshots, a tiny fraction of what I found, mostly under the hashtag #BreitbartComments. They were super interesting. Hundreds of anti-Muslim comments before the focus intensifies on Jews. Whole strings of debates about the Crusades, about how feminists are ugly, about whether God exists (there’s an atheist, and not a nice one, trolling in there). Hundreds of comments wondering why the rights of minorities should be protected over the will of the majority. And a distinct set of comments demanding the complainers be identified, with some direct and indirect threats of violence.

Here is a key example:

Would I have fled my home in the face of such comments? Probably not. Would I have been glad to be leaving town were such a story trending about me? Yes, definitely. 

Next month, I’ll say more about Breitbart’s decision to use the Nativity picture, in a long piece for Pacific Standard on blood libel and modern anti-semitism. One of my fears is that I’ll have to cut the paragraph on this story and replace it with whatever new horror unfolds.

UPDATE 12/23 12:00 CST – Lancaster Online stands by their reporting.

Editor’s Note: This story has been amended to reflect further comments from the parents of a Centerville Elementary School student who removed their child from class over concerns for their and their child’s safety. The parents told the Anti-Defamation League Thursday they were traveling on a previously planned vacation. The family told LNP and LancasterOnline their child was being harassed and blamed for the cancellation of “A Christmas Carol,” and that they were concerned for their and their child’s safety. LNP and LancasterOnline stand by the original reporting on this story.

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