The Media Today

The alarming reality of made-for-TV authoritarianism

July 21, 2020

Yesterday, protests took place in Portland, Oregon, as they have every day since late May. Community leaders led chants of “Black Lives Matter.” Wall of Moms, a mothers’ group, linked arms and sang a haunting lullaby: “Hands up, please don’t shoot me.” In the early days, members of the Portland police department fired tear gas and impact munitions at the crowds. Officials justified their aggression by tweeting pictures of projectiles—a part-eaten apple, a brick, a can of White Claw—that they said protesters had thrown at cops. As June progressed, the protests “settled into an odd rhythm,” Bellingcat’s Robert Evans, who has been covering the scene, writes; they “sometimes ended in police violence and sometimes ended in parties.” In July, the federal government got heavily involved. Its agents joined local forces in using gas and munitions—one of which left a protester, Donovan LaBella, in need of skull and facial surgery. According to The Oregonian’s Maxine Bernstein, federal officials also surveilled protesters and sent undercover officers into the crowd to make arrests. Last week, the situation came to national attention after news emerged that federal immigration officers in unmarked vehicles were snatching protesters off the streets.

In recent days, media critics have argued that federal agents in Portland were trying to get national attention—namely from right-wing media. Right-wing outlets have been on top of the story. Sean Hannity and others have provided wild descriptions of Portland as a war zone where the Trump administration has bravely fended off leftist mobs hell-bent on anarchy. As The Oregonian’s Eder Campuzano reported over the weekend, that’s nonsense: a majority of protesters have been peaceful; violent clashes have been limited to a small section of the city during nighttime hours. Since the truth does not match Trump’s preferred narrative—that Democratic-led cities are on fire, and only he can put out the flames—it appears that his administration is using blunt force to put on a show of his law-and-order bona fides. On Sunday, Anne Applebaum, of The Atlantic, told CNN that the crackdown on Portland amounts to “performative authoritarianism.” Will Bunch, of the Philadelphia Inquirer, called it “made-for-TV fascism.”

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TV authoritarianism is still authoritarianism. Local outlets, in particular, have done an excellent job documenting federal agents’ chilling behavior in Portland. But the national conversation has arguably been slow to catch up to the severity of what’s going on. Bunch and others argue that’s due in part to how few national reporters are based in Portland—and, to an extent, Fox and others have taken the opening to frame the story. Some journalists have expressed a feeling that if this were all happening in New York or DC, it would be covered as a much bigger deal. The story certainly merits more urgent attention: about two months after a white officer named Derek Chauvin killed a Black man named George Floyd, prompting a national reckoning with white supremacy, federal agents are using chemical weapons against Americans marching for Black lives, and spiriting some away.

The stakes are rising by the day. Yesterday, the Chicago Tribune reported that the Trump administration is now preparing to send federal agents into Chicago; Department of Homeland Security officials subsequently confirmed those plans to the Washington Post, and Trump said publicly that New York might be next. We can’t say we weren’t warned—after Floyd was killed, Trump said repeatedly that he was considering sending troops into major cities, and, as Josh Sternberg, of The Media Nut, pointed out yesterday, Sen. Tom Cotton advocated as much in his infamous New York Times op-ed, which was published in early June. Around the same time, Trump staged a photo-op that involved teargassing protesters in Washington; later that month, he vowed to jail “vandals, hoodlums, anarchists, and agitators” around the country. Bunch points out that, by July 1—when Trump established an “Orwellian” new task force, ostensibly to protect statues and monuments, with worryingly broad law enforcement powers—the story got “almost no attention.”

Media coverage is habitually reactive. The aggressions of federal agents in Portland aren’t happening in a vacuum; as Tuck Woodstock, a local journalist, pointed out last week, “This is the natural escalation of the last seven weeks. This is what has come of Portlanders protesting police brutality for 50 days: more bizarre acts of police brutality.” Right-wing outlets have continued to obsess over the ongoing protests, through a distorting lens, while their reality-based counterparts’ interest in the protests has waned. It’s taken people being snatched off the street to begin to rectify that. We can’t let our attention drop again. What’s happening in Portland will keep happening, there and elsewhere. As Woodstock said, “Portlanders are risking everything every day. Please notice.”

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Below, more on Portland, protest, and race in the media:

  • Media criticism: Campuzano, of The Oregonian, spoke with Portland residents about their impressions of media coverage of protests in the city. Some residents argued that local outlets, as well as national media, have been overly focused on scenes of violence and vandalism. “It misses the point,” one protester, Katherine Sherman, told Campuzano. “It misses the beauty of this cultural moment.” In June, after readers expressed similar concerns to editors at The Oregonian, the paper changed the way it displayed protest photos online, Campuzano reports.
  • A strike: Yesterday, at least twenty thousand workers in the service industry and gig economy walked off the job in protest of systemic racism and inequality. “The Strike for Black Lives was organized or supported by more than 60 labor unions and social and racial justice organizations, which held a range of events in more than two dozen cities,” Aaron Morrison reports for the Associated Press. “Support swelled well beyond expectations, organizers said, although a precise participation tally was not available.”
  • On the subject of the AP: After moving recently to capitalize the word “Black” as it pertains to race and culture, John Daniszewski, the AP’s vice president for standards, confirmed yesterday that his organization will continue to lowercase the word “white.” (The AP’s style guide remains a baseline for many US newsrooms.) Following internal discussions, the AP concluded that “white people generally do not share the same history and culture, or the experience of being discriminated against because of skin color. In addition, we are a global news organization and in much of the world there is considerable disagreement, ambiguity and confusion about whom the term includes.”
  • A firing: Last month, Yashar Ali reported, for HuffPost, on allegations of abusive and racist behavior by Barbara Fedida, a senior executive at ABC News who was in charge of the network’s talent. (Fedida called the claims “heartbreaking and incredibly misleading.”) After Ali’s story came out, Fedida was placed on administrative leave, pending an investigation. She has now been fired. Ali has more details.

Other notable stories:

  • The daily White House coronavirus briefings, which stopped after The Bleach Incident, are making a comeback. Trump is expected to host one today at 5pm Eastern. He sees the briefings as a ratings draw, he says, and a way to assert some control over media narratives about his handling of the pandemic; as ever, TV networks will have to decide whether they want to play along, and if so, on what terms. In another (literal) about-face yesterday, Trump, who has resisted wearing a mask in public, tweeted a picture of himself doing so, with the caption, “many people say that it is Patriotic.”
  • Early this month, Fox News fired Ed Henry, a host, citing “sexual misconduct.” Yesterday, Jennifer Eckhart, a former Fox Business producer, alleged, in a lawsuit, that Henry raped her. Henry denies wrongdoing. In the same lawsuit, Cathy Areu, a journalist and regular Fox guest, claimed that she was sexually harassed by Henry, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and Howard Kurtz. Fox claims that a “comprehensive independent investigation” cleared the latter three hosts of wrongdoing.
  • Recently, Facebook appended a fact check to a Daily Wire article about climate change after a group of scientists reviewed the piece on Facebook’s behalf and determined that it was “partly false.” Then the fact check vanished. Its disappearance, heated’s Emily Atkin and Popular Information’s Judd Legum write, looks like deference to right-wing media, and they question Facebook’s commitment to fighting climate misinformation.
  • Staffers at the Dallas Morning News and Al Día Dallas, its Spanish-language sister paper, are unionizing with the NewsGuild-CWA. In a mission statement, the staffers called on A.H. Belo, the papers’ owner, to voluntarily recognize the union and work to build “a more stable and secure environment so that local journalism can thrive.”
  • Yesterday, NBCUniversal named Beau Ferrari as the new chair of Telemundo, replacing Cesar Conde, who was recently promoted to oversee NBCUniversal’s news division. (For more on that division, read Adam Piore’s profile of MSNBC for CJR.) Ferrari was previously Telemundo’s executive vice president, focused on strategy and finance.
  • The journalists Alex Kotch and Walker Bragman are launching OptOut, a nonprofit news app that will allow users to “completely bypass the corporate media and read, listen to, and watch exclusively independent content.” OptOut has partnered with outlets including Jacobin, Popula, and Sludge and plans to produce original reporting and podcasts.
  • For CJR, E. Tammy Kim profiles three “transnationally Asian” publicationsNew Naratif, New Bloom, and Lausan—and their illuminating coverage of the pandemic and the protests. “In these magazines’ far-reaching pages,” Kim writes, “the overlapping crises of our moment—in health and wealth; race, nation, and class—felt undeniably shared.”
  • In 2018, Kinita Shenoy, who was then the editor of Cosmopolitan’s Sri Lanka edition, criticized skin-lightening creams made by a division of Unilever. Afterward, company executives contacted Shenoy’s boss demanding positive coverage; when she said no, Unilever pulled its ads from the magazine. BuzzFeed’s Megha Rajagopalan has more.
  • And Nina Kapur, a reporter with CBS New York, has died following a moped accident. She was twenty-six. Jane Hong, a former classmate of Kapur’s, tweeted, “I remember telling her I couldn’t wait to watch her on national news one day… She deserved more.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.