End the Double Standards in Reporting Political Violence

Black Lives Matter counter-protest at a rally marking the one-year anniversary of the 2017 Charlottesville “Unite the Right” protests, in Washington, D.C., August 12, 2018. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
The refusal by many media outlets to offer proportionate coverage empowers the worst elements of the radical Left.

Let’s take a short walk down memory lane. Not long ago, on January 2, 2016, a small group of armed protesters seized an unoccupied federal building in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is located in a relatively isolated area in eastern Oregon, and the occupied building itself was far from any populated area. The protests were related to a long-running land dispute between the federal government and Steve and Dwight Hammond — a dispute that culminated in a vindictive prosecution against the Hammonds, under the federal Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, for two “burns” that caused a trifling amount of damage (less than $1,000) to public lands.

The occupation created a media firestorm. It was covered from coast to coast, and #OregonUnderAttack trended on Twitter. The occupation was the news story for days. It spawned countless think pieces lamenting the rise of violence on the right — including a debate about whether the protesters were “domestic terrorists.” The protests continued until the last arrests in early February. On January 26, law enforcement shot and killed one of the protesters when he attempted to evade a roadblock, left his car, and seemed to reach for his waistband as he fled the scene on foot.

Again, all of this was covered, breathlessly, from beginning to end.

But how many of you know about a very different Oregon standoff, one that ended just weeks ago? How many of you are aware that protesters used threats of violence in the heart of a great American city to besiege a federal building for more than a month and that local law enforcement allegedly refused to intervene to protect federal employees from the mob? Until the report by Andy Ngo in the Wall Street Journal on August 3, there was no adequate national coverage of a terrifying campaign of harassment and intimidation directed against ICE officials in Portland, Ore. The details are infuriating:

A mob surrounded ICE’s office in Southwest Portland June 19. They barricaded the exits and blocked the driveway. They sent “guards” to patrol the doors, trapping workers inside. At night they laid on the street, stopping traffic at a critical junction near a hospital. Police stayed away. “At this time I am denying your request for additional resources,” the Portland Police Bureau’s deputy chief, Robert Day, wrote to federal officers pleading for help. Hours later, the remaining ICE workers were finally evacuated by a small federal police team. The facility shut down for more than a week.

The intimidation campaign got very personal:

Federal workers were defenseless. An ICE officer, who asked that his name not be published, told me one of his colleagues was trailed in a car and confronted when he went to pick up his daughter from summer camp. Later people showed up at his house. Another had his name and photo plastered on flyers outside his home accusing him of being part of the “Gestapo.”

Rather than enforce the rule of law, the mayor took sides — explicitly blocking police from helping ICE employees:

Where were the police? Ordered away by Democratic Mayor Ted Wheeler, who doubles as police commissioner. “I do not want the @PortlandPolice to be engaged or sucked into a conflict, particularly from a federal agency that I believe is on the wrong track,” he tweeted. “If [ICE is] looking for a bailout from this mayor, they are looking in the wrong place.”

As Ngo details, the mob pounded on cars, threatened violence, physically attacked a photographer, and terrorized business owners and bystanders.

This is so far out of bounds that it’s hard to know where to begin. But just imagine if a far-right mob besieged a federal building during the next Democratic administration and the local Republican authorities refused police protection for embattled government workers. Debates about domestic terrorism and hashtags about “Y’all Qaeda” would be supplemented by dark speculations about secession and government insurrection.

Yet how did the Washington Post cover the same event? With a glowing story that ignored the acts of intimidation and whitewashed the protests. It began:

It started as a candlelight vigil for immigrant children who had been separated from their parents while crossing into the United States. A few dozen demonstrators gathered in front of the nondescript Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in southwest Portland on June 17.

After the candles were blown out, some of the demonstrators decided to stay, stumbling onto a more effective form of protest with a simple line of reasoning: ICE cannot deport people if immigration judges, lawyers and litigants cannot physically enter its facilities.

“Occupy ICE PDX was born” declared the Post.

It’s a simple fact that all too many members of the mainstream media have a soft spot for left-wing radicalism even as they remain convinced that right-wing violence represents a mortal threat to public safety. Since the rise of Black Lives Matter and the emergence of Antifa after Trump’s election, the riots and acts of political violence are almost too numerous to count.

We’ve seen buildings burn, cars burn, speeches blocked, and physical assaults, even against the most innocent bystanders. Yet instead of universal condemnation, we’ve seen nonsense like this:

Or this:

It’s part of human nature, but all too often when people believe that anger is justifiable, they see violence is excusable — or at least understandable. A member of the media may feel deep sympathy with protests against police violence or against family separation. They can therefore understand the rage of the protester. And that sympathy may lead to soft-pedaling or ignoring acts of violence, out of concern that reporting the facts — or especially reporting them with remotely the same prominence that they report riots or attacks from the other side — might make the movement suffer.

Contrast that with the response to right-wing violence. There is no sympathy for the underlying cause. Not only is there no disincentive to downplay violence for the sake of the larger cause, the incentives operate in reverse. One of the fastest ways to discredit any political movement is to associate it with threats and disorder. To broadcast the violence is to defeat the movement.

But the American choice isn’t between well-meaning violence and malicious violence. There is no excuse for downplaying threats and attacks to protect the larger cause. Double standards exacerbate existing tensions, and the refusal to offer proportionate coverage actually empowers the worst elements of the radical Left. Simply put, they (sometimes reasonably) believe they can enjoy the best of both worlds — intimidating their opponents while also enjoying a heroic public reputation.

Political violence in the U.S. is criminal, not heroic. And no amount of media sympathy for underlying causes should influence the amount of the attention or the volume of the condemnation for actions that cross very bright legal lines. Let’s see every American movement for what it is — warts and all — and let sunlight cleanse the violence from public life before that violence escalates out of control.

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