In Rush to Condemn Attack on Andy Ngo, Journalists Miss Larger Picture of Portland Protests
National media whiffed in a big way this past weekend.
On Saturday, an amalgamation of right-wing groups that included some Proud Boys staged a rally in Portland, Oregon. They were met by a group of left-wing counterprotesters that included members of Antifa. As seems to happen whenever these two groups are in close proximity, there were some violent clashes and fights, the Portland Police Department declared it a “civil disturbance,” and at least three people were arrested before the groups dispersed.
A few people were also injured. This group included Andy Ngo, a conservative editor for the right-wing website Quillette. Video from the event appeared to show Ngo getting punched and kicked by one masked Antifa protestor. Others doused him with at least one milkshake, sprayed him with silly string, and appeared to chuck a couple of eggs at him. Ngo also says that someone stole the GoPro camera he was using to film events.
Most inexplicably, the Portland police tweeted a warning that some of the milkshakes being thrown by left-wing protestors contained “quick-drying cement.” That tweet, which has around 13 thousand shares and is still up despite the fact that there is no evidence it was ever true. The police later told a reporter for the Portland Mercury that the tweet was based on the observations of one officer in the field that he saw “a cup with appeared to have material on it consistent with quick drying cement.”
Both Ngo’s story and the rumor about the concrete milkshakes exploded on social media. And this is where mainstream journalists blew it.
Reporters with large social media followings amplified the attack on Ngo with an extra dose of finger-wagging. Mainstream outlets such as NBC News wrote stories with “concrete milkshakes” in the headline and “police believe” that protestors hurled these milkshakes in the subhed. It wasn’t until Monday morning, approximately 36 hours after the story was first posted, that NBC inserted a paragraph admitting that there is no evidence that the shakes contained any foreign substances.
There is some context here that, as far as I can tell, reporters outside of Portland missed.
For one, it is impossible to know how much of the concrete milkshake rumor was driven by social media. But at least one well-known right-wing provocateur appears to have been amplifying it in the hours afterwards, claiming that the concrete mixed with milkshake ingredients creates “an acid-like chemical weapon.” This assertion spread on social media, giving the impression that Antifa had been purposely throwing caustic agents at people.
The journalists also appear to have missed recent reporting by Portland media about a cozy relationship between leaders of the Proud Boys in that area and members of the Portland police department, as well as left-wing activist complaints that the cops seem to view them as much more of a threat to public safety despite the right-wing groups having a more extensive record of violence.
As for Ngo, the attack on him should not be condoned by anyone. But there is plenty of evidence to suggest that his reporting on Antifa has generally been highly biased and irresponsible. Other reporters with long experience covering extremism on both the left and right have accused him of provoking Antifa activists by “deliberately” inviting attacks, an ethical no-no for any journalist.
Earlier this year Ngo promoted an article published by Quillette, where he is an editor, that used unreliable data to claim that many of the reporters who cover right-wing groups are closely associated with Antifa. This report was hailed by right-wing outlets as somehow proving left-wing bias of media coverage of the right even as its methodology was being debunked to reveal it as a “smear job” of journalists.
More worrisome, some of the reporters mentioned in the Quillette article were put on a “kill list” by the far-right, extremely violent group Atomwaffen. Quillette has yet to correct the piece. The magazine’s editor, Claire Lehmann, spent Monday morning demanding more investigations of journalists who cover right-wing groups while claiming she does not endorse violent reprisals.
Again, none of this is to excuse the attack on Ngo or endorse some of Antifa’s tactics during these protests. But ignoring it highlights a failing of media figures with millions of social media followers, newsletter recipients and cable-news broadcasts. There is a great deal of history behind the elements that came together in a combustible mix this weekend — right-wing versus left-wing protests in Portland (which are fairly common), the suspicions of left-wing activists about the sympathies of the Portland police department, Andy Ngo and the outlet that employs him having a history of reporting on Antifa that more experienced reporters have deemed unethical and warned was intended to provoke.
To ignore all of this context in a rush to condemn what they see as an attack on one of their own, mainstream journalists perpetuate a narrative that only one side in this clash was violent. In fact, reporters on the ground at the protest had a much more even-handed view of the fights, noting that Proud Boys were also engaging in violence.
High-profile journalists and outlets need to be more responsible, even if just popping off on Twitter. Otherwise, they are just buying into the disinformation spread by the right reinforcing a biased narrative. That in turn gives cover to right-wing efforts to discredit legitimate leftist protest against the dangerous groups that have risen in support of Donald Trump.