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The Hill’s online show, ‘Rising,’ falls prey to host’s anti-Israel conspiracy theories

Briahna Joy Gray denied documentation of Hamas’ sexual violence and accused Israel of targeting its hostages in Gaza

“Rising,” a popular online morning news and opinion show produced by The Hill, has long promoted itself as a unique forum for heterodox debate not seen on other mainstream broadcasts, with two leading co-hosts from opposing ends of the political spectrum facing off on any number of hot-button issues.

The program, launched in 2018, has occasionally drawn scrutiny as an evolving cast of outspoken hosts on the populist left and right have courted controversy for amplifying fringe views. 

In recent months, however, it has faced particularly fierce backlash over its incendiary left-wing commentary on the Israel-Hamas war, which critics allege has increasingly strayed into undisguised antisemitism, raising questions about whether the show’s stated commitment to engaging with provocative ideas has reached a breaking point.

Since the Oct. 7 attacks, the show’s most high-profile host, Briahna Joy Gray, a far-left pundit who served as the national press secretary on Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign, has repeatedly used her platform to downplay the violence, sharing commentary that some viewers have interpreted as defending Hamas’ actions.

“Violence is not a violation of international law,” Gray said in one broadcast shortly after the attacks. “Resistance is not a violation of international law.”

More recently, Gray has sought to boost unverified claims that Israel is intentionally targeting hostages held in Gaza, as she argued in a monologue aired on Wednesday. “This is not just accidental killings in the fog of war,” she said, “but seemingly a policy to prevent Israel from being in the position of having to negotiate the release of thousands of Palestinians who were imprisoned in Israel before Oct. 7, and now, in exchange for their own Israeli hostages.”

The 38-year-old progressive commentator has also characterized conflicting reports about decapitated babies as being part of a propaganda campaign to tarnish Palestinians as barbaric and to justify what she has called a “genocide” in Gaza, among other comments that have raised eyebrows among viewers.

But perhaps most troublingly to followers of the show who have expressed alarm over its recent direction, Gray, who has become unusually fixated on Israel in the wake of the attacks, has engaged in a concerted effort to cast doubt on Hamas’ use of widespread sexual violence against women, the growing evidence for which she has continued to dismiss as inadequate.

“Zionists are asking that we believe the uncorroborated eyewitness account of men who describe alleged rape victims in odd, fetishistic terms,” Gray wrote last month on X, formerly Twitter, where she boasts a sizable following and frequently inveighs against Israel. “Shame on Israel for not seriously investigating claims of rape and collecting rape kits.”

In an episode of “Rising” earlier this month, Gray enlisted Max Blumenthal, a prominent conspiracy theorist who has spread misinformation about Hamas’ terror attacks, in an effort to invalidate a recent New York Times investigation that established a broad pattern of gender-based violence on Oct. 7, citing testimony from several Israelis who recalled witnessing rape.

“I think it is incumbent on us to ask questions as to why this story that is so flimsy is being pushed,” she said, agreeing with Blumenthal’s unfounded claim that Israel has sought to embellish the brutality of the attacks to gin up support for its ongoing war in Gaza.

Joel Rubin, a progressive activist who worked as the Jewish outreach director on Sanders’ 2020 campaign and has appeared on “Rising,” said he views Gray’s efforts to deny the atrocities committed on Oct. 7 as part of a broader pattern of antisemitic activity that has gained traction among left-wing critics of Israel since the attacks. “These words matter, and what they do is they contribute to the dehumanization of Jews,” he said in an interview with Jewish Insider last week. “We need to call it out, and we need to stand up to it.”

“You can’t call yourself a progressive if you’re saying antisemitic things,” Rubin, who is running for Congress in Maryland, explained. “This denial of violence against women is devaluing Jewish lives.”

Even as Gray’s commentary has faced pushback from her libertarian co-host, Robby Soave, a senior editor at Reason magazine whose objections to her views on the conflict have resulted in some notable shouting matches, critics say the show has too often failed to provide a platform for dissenting opinion, leading some followers to give up on the program altogether. (Soave declined to comment.)

Vanessa Santos, who leads Renegade DC, a public relations firm in Washington, said she had long defended the show and encouraged her clients to appear on the program if they were invited. “I said time after time that what I personally like about the show is that they’re bringing together people with differing perspectives,” Santos told JI. “It’s a format that cable news networks have almost completely done away with.”

But following the Hamas attacks, Santos said she has “decided to no longer work with the show,” claiming that pro-Israel clients whom she has pitched as guests “have been cancelled on, disrespected on-air” or “ignored entirely” — experiences that she believes have shown the program “is not interested in open and honest discourse.”

“‘Rising’ used to be good, but it has become completely unserious, with its decline accelerating in the wake of Oct. 7,” Santos said, arguing that the show “has relegated substantive political and policy discussions to Briahna’s emotional outbursts and takes, and demonstrates a painfully obvious obstinacy toward fair representation of viewpoint diversity.”

Santos isn’t the only critic who has chosen to stop engaging with the show. One person who frequently appeared on the program before the Oct. 7 attacks, speaking anonymously to avoid reprisals, confided to JI that Gray’s commentary has become so toxic as to preclude any future engagement.

Gray did not respond to a request for comment from JI on Thursday.

The new concerns raised by progressives as well as conservatives have also cast a spotlight on The Hill, the widely read Beltway politics site, whose staffers have reportedly voiced reservations about Gray’s recent Middle East commentary. The publication’s editor-in-chief, Bob Cusack, did not respond to requests for comment about the program, which is now in a transitional period following the departure last week of its executive producer, Gabi Schulte, who had been seen as an ally of Gray’s, according to a source familiar with the matter. Schulte did not respond to a request for comment on the show.

Meanwhile, the show’s commentary has made for an uncomfortable match with its parent company, the TV news behemoth Nexstar, which acquired The Hill three years ago for $130 million — in a deal it touted as a reflection of its “commitment to deliver trusted, unbiased, fact-based journalism.”

In a statement to JI last week, Gary Weitman, a spokesperson for Nexstar, defended the show’s approach, noting that it is “designed to encourage debate.”

“‘Rising’ is independently produced and while the show presents a diversity of opinion, it is not a news show,” he said, adding, “In instances where a particular viewpoint is presented, care is taken to offer alternative perspectives. Importantly, ‘Rising’ is not run by The Hill’s newsroom, which produces objective, fact-based journalism.”

Still, Weitman did not address questions regarding criticism of the show’s Israel commentary.

“Rising” has drawn scrutiny within Nexstar’s flagship property, NewsNation, a cable outlet that has sought to position itself as an alternative to CNN and Fox News. A NewsNation contributor, speaking anonymously to address a sensitive issue, dismissed the program as “oversimplified morning show fodder,” while arguing that confrontations on Israel that have devolved into shouting matches do not serve viewers’ interests. “It tends to elicit the worst out of one another,” the contributor said.

The Israel-Hamas war has “brought a very steep learning curve” that has been evident on the show, the contributor added. “It’s revealed a lot of people who are not well-informed about the history of the conflict and the history of the region.”

Beyond her “Rising” commentary, Gray has stirred outrage for misleading statements on social media, where she has falsely described the Houthis, the Iran-backed militia in Yemen that has launched rocket attacks targeting commercial vessels in the Red Sea, as “nonviolent,” while demonstrating a historical ignorance of mass Jewish displacement from Arab countries after the founding of Israel.

The show, which reaches roughly 1 million viewers daily and is available on streaming platforms such as Roku, has long been a source of anti-Israel sentiment that predates Gray’s tenure. In 2022, for instance, a former left-wing host, Katie Halper, was fired from “Rising” after she recorded a segment calling Israel an “apartheid state,” which was never aired.

Since Halper’s dismissal, however, “Rising” has increasingly become a platform for fringe views on Israel, critics say. In addition to Gray, one of the program’s Friday co-hosts, Jessica Burbank, a left-wing commentator, has also been accused of spreading falsehoods about Israel — charges that she contested in an email to JI on Thursday.

For her part, Gray has continued to double down on Israel, now one of the show’s most frequent topics of debate — even as she has faced allegations that her approach to the conflict has moved beyond legitimate debate.

It remains to be seen if the show will meaningfully change course as it seeks to hire a new executive producer, who will be expected to advocate for “the inclusion of diverse voices” and “inspire a team of producers and editors to bring their best journalism to the program,” according to a publicly available job listing.

“I genuinely hope the show makes some changes because there truly is an appetite for open and honest debate in such a highly charged political climate,” said Santos, the publicist in Washington.

Still, some critics attribute the show’s slide into extremism to broader trends that have helped fuel the rise of conspiratorial thinking in recent months.

“One of the sad takeaways of the devaluation of Jewish lives in this case that I see,” Rubin, the former Jewish outreach director for Sanders, told JI, “is that it’s extremely popular to be antisemitic right now.”

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