By Ben Norton
Of all extremist groups, the far right is consistently given the kindest news coverage in US corporate media. This weekend, the world witnessed a prime example of such friendly treatment in action.
Armed far-right anti-government militants occupied a federal building in Oregon late on January 2 and announced they would remain there indefinitely. Although the armed occupation was ostensibly organized to protest the imprisonment of ranchers on arson charges, the ultra-conservative militants made it clear from the beginning that they were willing to use violence, and hoped to inspire a larger anti-government uprising.
Major US media outlets ignored these basic facts, nevertheless, instead characterizing the far-right militants as peaceful “ranchers’ rights protesters” and “activists.”
The armed occupation was organized by Ammon and Ryan Bundy, sons of right-wing extremist Cliven Bundy. Cliven led a similar standoff with the federal government in 2014, in which scores of heavily armed far-right militants occupied federal land, many pointing guns at government authorities. No militants were killed, or even injured, in the incident.
When the ongoing Oregon occupation began, the extremists said they would use violence if need be to fight what they deemed government “tyranny.” Early on the morning of January 3, Ian Kullgren, a politics reporter for the Oregonian local newspaper, spoke with Ryan Bundy, who told him the far-right occupiers are willing to kill and be killed.
I talked to Ryan Bundy on the phone again. He said they're willing to kill and be killed if necessary. #OregonUnderAttackThe armed militants stressed to Kullgren that they are “ready to die”:
— Ian Kullgren (@IanKullgren) January 3, 2016
Bundy said feds' actions are violation of constitution. Founding fathers were ready to die, and so are they. #OregonUnderAttackBefore the occupation began, participant Jon Ritzheimer posted a declaration on YouTube (12/31/15; Indian Country, 1/3/15) in which he encouraged the head of the ranching family to “die a free man” fighting the “oppressive, tyrannical” federal government, and announced he was “100 percent willing to lay down my life to fight against tyranny in this country.”
— Ian Kullgren (@IanKullgren) January 3, 2016
There were few photos of the armed occupation at this time, but Guardian photographer Jason Wilson visited the site on the night the occupation began, and shared a picture of the extremists with heavy weapons. Wilson’s photo made it indisputable, from the start, that the militants were armed. Many media reports would later question or even downright ignore this fact.
This is as close as I was allowed to get to the armed militia occupying the Malheur Wildlife Refuge HQ. #burnsoregon pic.twitter.com/DPztu0VsVUThe Associated Press, which many local outlets rely on for coverage of national and international news, released one of the earliest reports on the incident on the night of January 2. The piece began:
— Jason Wilson (@jason_a_w) January 3, 2016
A peaceful protest Saturday in support of an eastern Oregon ranching family facing prison terms for arson was followed shortly afterward by an occupation of a building at a national wildlife refuge.Leading with the description of a “peaceful protest” suggested that this movement–led by people willing to “kill and be killed”–was a nonviolent one. This article did not make it clear that the militants were armed; in fact, it implied they weren’t, reporting:
Peaceful protest in Oregon rancher arson case followed by building takeover at national wildlife refuge: https://t.co/nsIKxQlyIu
— The Associated Press (@AP) January 3, 2016
Some local residents feared the Saturday rally would involve more than speeches, flags and marching. But the only real additions to that list seemed to be songs, flowers and pennies.(The pennies were a reference to protesters throwing pennies at the courthouse doors to signify that “civilians were buying back their government.”)
AP published a more detailed follow-up piece on the night of January 3 with the ambiguous, contextless headline, “Oregon Standoff Latest in Dispute Over Western Lands.” This article did point out in the opening line that the right-wing occupiers are armed and motivated by “anti-government sentiment.”
1/2/16) was similarly vague in its reporting. The leading US newspaper employed the passive voice to obscure who was responsible for the armed occupation. “Wildlife Refuge Occupied in Protest of Oregon Ranchers’ Prison Terms” was the headline for its report—glossing over the fact that those occupying this federal installation were armed right-wing extremists prepared to use lethal force.
The New York Times (1/3/16) published a follow-up piece that conveyed in the headline that the occupiers were armed: “Armed Group Vows to Continue Occupation at Oregon Refuge.”
NBC (1/3/16) characterized the militants as “rancher’s rights protesters.” It headlined its report on the story “Ammon Bundy, Rancher’s Rights Protesters Occupy Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.”
NBC euphemistically referred to the extremists as “reportedly armed protesters,” even though its report was published hours after the Guardian photographer Wilson publicly shared the aforementioned photo showing that the militants were heavily armed.
The Wall Street Journal (1/3/16) initially titled its report “Protesters Occupying Oregon Wildlife Refuge Ask Militia Members to Join Them.” Later, the Journal acknowledged that the militants were armed, changing the headline of the piece to “Oregon Armed Protest Leader Says Group Will Defend Occupied Building.”
Reuters (1/3/16) headlined its report “Protesters Occupy Oregon Wildlife Refuge as Dispute Over Western Range Flares,” again euphemistically characterizing the right-wing extremists as mere “protesters.” Only in the middle of the piece did Reuters acknowledge that the militants are armed.
Numerous news outlets employed similarly misleading tactics, downplaying the extremism of the armed occupation and ignoring details that had been widely known hours before.
CNN, for instance, described the paramilitary occupation as an “armed protest” and the militants as “armed protesters” in its interview with extremist leader Ammon Bundy.
The double standards in reporting were striking, particularly compared to the way in which US media treated Black Lives Matter civil rights protests and victims of police brutality. Media outlets have frequently characterized peaceful Black Lives Matter activists as dangerous, with protests in Ferguson, Missouri, blamed on “outside agitators.” Corporate media are quick to jump on sketchy claims of African-American and left-wing threats, as with claims of an “anarchist plot to ambush cops on Halloween” or a “Teen Purge” in Baltimore, but when actual right-wing militants openly declare an armed insurrection against federal “tyranny,” that somehow fails to alarm journalists.
This hypocrisy was vociferously condemned on social media.
Terrorist: To be, or not to be- that is the question #OregonUnderAttack pic.twitter.com/rTVQMSnS1q
— Carlos Latuff (@LatuffCartoons) January 3, 2016
If only people of color could were privileged enough to be labeled a "militia" when occupying federal building w/ guns. #oregonunderattack
— Wajahat Ali (@WajahatAli) January 3, 2016
Did I miss the call for the national guard in Oregon? I recall them in Ferguson and Baltimore. #OregonUnderAttack
— rolandsmartin (@rolandsmartin) January 3, 2016
The infamous “terrorism” double standard was sometimes remarked upon in corporate media itself. The Washington Post (1/3/16) published an op-ed asking “Why Aren’t We calling the Oregon Occupiers ‘Terrorists?'” CNN (1/3/16) ran a more forceful opinion piece, “Face it, Oregon Building Takeover Is Terrorism.”
Media double standards vis-à-vis far-right extremism are a commonplace by this point. The hands-off response of the government—which said it had no plans to deal with the armed occupation—is striking, if not unexpected; the response of the media even more so.
As much as the right complains about the US media’s supposed “liberal bias,” news outlets were enormously euphemistic and gracious in their portrayal of the Oregon occupation. Such graciousness is not extended to other extremist groups.
Ben Norton is a journalist and writer based in New York City. He is currently a politics staff writer at Salon. His website can be found at BenNorton.com, and he tweets at @BenjaminNorton.