In April 2019, immediately after fire had almost destroyed the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, the Washington Post ran a piece with the headline, “The Notre Dame fire ignites the West’s far-right.” The author, Ishaan Tharoor, used his piece to expand on that untimely and inaccurate claim. He wrote:
“A strange — though not altogether surprising — thing happened in the shadow of Monday’s tragedy. As many around the world watched an iconic cathedral in Paris go up in flames, others immediately set about trying to spark new fires. On both sides of the Atlantic, denizens of the far right took to social media to grind their culture-warring axes, locating in the calamity a parable for the political moment — or, at least, their understanding of it.”
Tharoor then went on to list the various people he wanted to grab at to make this prefabricated argument.
He attacked Fox News host Tucker Carlson for having commented, regarding the Notre Dame fire, that it was in “some ways a metaphor for the decline of Christianity in Europe.” You might agree with that or you might not, but it is not at all clear why Carlson saying this should be included in a piece claiming that the “far-right” have been ignited by the fire at Notre Dame. Unless you are willing to pretend that Carlson is “far-right”. Sure enough, this is what Tharoor does, or (perhaps distantly aware of the law) tries to do. He writes:
“Fox News host Tucker Carlson, a popular anchor accused by critics of openly embracing white nationalism in his broadcasts, said the Notre Dame fire was in ‘some ways a metaphor for the decline of Christianity in Europe.'”
So Tharoor introduces Carlson by referencing the most defamatory and untrue statement he can think of? Because some “critics” have said it?
Ordinarily this sort of thing would not be considered journalism. After all, if we all did it, it would become a race to the bottom. Once I have appointed myself a critic of Mr Tharoor’s, for instance, I might decide to smear him with precisely the sort of ordure he seeks to smear over others. I might decide to make a disingenuous claim that Mr Tharoor is, for instance, a white nationalist. Then, whenever anyone else writes about him — if they ever do — they will be able to say, if they were as dishonest and lazy as their subject, “Ishaan Tharoor, an unpopular writer whom critics accuse of being a white nationalist…” and so on. I would not do it: honesty and decency ought to matter in journalism. But there is no reason why someone else might not do it, if these are the standards in the trade that are now acceptable.
Tharoor was less subtle with his next attempted smear. He introduced Mark Steyn in an even more peculiar way. Where the Washington Post’s writer could have said, “New York Times Best-selling author Mark Steyn” or “syndicated journalist Mark Steyn” or any number of other things, Tharoor skipped all that and went straight for “far-right commentator Mark Steyn”. Ben Shapiro got some of the same treatment for writing how terrible it was to watch the destruction of part of the “Judeo-Christian heritage”. Raising the interesting question of whether it was wrong to identify Notre Dame via the Christian faith, or just wrong to lament its burning.
After listing various other people, Tharoor then performed this move:
“Others groused over the decades of supposed neglect looming over the site. ‘Civilization only ever hangs by a thread,’ right-wing British commentator Douglas Murray wrote. ‘Today one of those threads seems to have frayed, perhaps snapped.'”
I did indeed write that, in the hours when it looked as if the whole of Notre Dame, structure, edifice, towers, the lot were all going to come down in one great heap of scalding rubble. I make no apology for lamenting this loss, or very near-loss as it turns out. But what a strange and vindictive way to write about the expression of such a sentiment. Those of us who noted that for years Notre Dame had been trying to raise funds for its restoration, and that restoration work was badly overdue, were not making it up. All this had long been covered in the French media. How can anyone writing about people who are lamenting decades of neglect at one of the great buildings of the world be described as “grousing”, rather than say “regretting”?
What is strangest — and most defamatory — is to call people “far-right”, or insinuate that they are linked to the far-right because they are saddened by the fire at Notre Dame.
It might be possible to think this article was just the dishonest and dishonourable smear-job attempted by one jobbing hack. Yet a week later, and the Washington Post was back at a similar trick. In the aftermath of the appalling Easter Sunday attacks on Christians and tourists in Sri Lanka, the Washington Post ran a story, “Christianity under attack? Sri Lanka church bombings stoke far-right anger in the West.” According to the authors of that piece — Adam Taylor and Rick Noack — those attacks “which targeted a religious minority in a predominantly Buddhist country, also resonated abroad – especially in Europe.” On this occasion, the Post‘s journalists noted that Marine Le Pen of the National Rally party in France had sent out a tweet saying that those killed in the Easter attack had been “targeted for their faith”. As they had been. This fact does not become a non-fact because Marine Le Pen has said it. Elsewhere, the authors chose to smear former Reagan administration aide Frank Gaffney for saying on his radio show of the murder of Christians, “All too often, their losses go unremarked.” Once again, that comment is either markedly true or at the very least debatable. But making such a comment does not make somebody “far-right”.
Anyone looking at such coverage from outside journalism might marvel at it. For those who know the journalism business, however, the degradation exemplified by Tharoor, Taylor and Noack is no surprise. It is the consequence of a shrinking industry with shrinking budgets which cannot afford foreign reporters and finds itself instead paying low-grade hacks to sit in America and write about people in Europe who are tweeting about a massacre in Sri Lanka. Apart from demonstrating quite a remarkable freedom with facts and ignorance of libel laws, these “journalists” also do something else. They see the world, and the terrible actions of some terrible people in it, through a prism that is not only remarkably shallow, but strikingly narrow and parochial.