From covering displaced refugees around the globe to the obstacles faced by protesters seeking change in America, freelance photojournalist Maranie Staab believes her camera can be a force for truth and social justice. The work of a “conflict photographer” often requires physical courage in places she has reported from, such as Africa and the Middle East. It certainly did so on Aug. 22, while Staab was covering demonstrations in Portland, Ore.
Members of the left-wing group antifa called her a “slut” and then demanded that journalists assembled to cover the protests “get the f— out.” Staab, a 2020 reporting fellow for the liberal Pulitzer Center, tried to calm the situation. She was assaulted. She told the Willamette Week that they grabbed her phone and smashed it. Then they threw her to the pavement and sprayed her with mace. The ugly assault on Staab (below) was filmed and distributed quickly online, resulting in widespread condemnation. “If we’re on a public street and a newsworthy event is occurring, you’re not going to tell me what I can and cannot film,” Staab told the weekly newspaper.
VIDEO THREAD (content warning – violence) Today Proud Boys and other right-wing groups fought black-bloc-clad counter-protesters Sunday afternoon outside their “Summer of Love” rally in Portland, Oregon.
— Ford Fischer (@FordFischer) August 23, 2021
For the small band of reporters willing cover the violent left-wing radicals in antifa, such attacks are distressingly common. Protest mayhem has been in the news since the murder of George Floyd last summer brought many Black Lives Matter and antifa activists out on the streets. But the anti-media animus of antifa—which, unlike BLM, focuses on deliberately attacking reporters—has been an issue for years.
“We are deeply concerned by the increase in attacks on journalists working in the United States,” the Committee to Protect Journalists tells RealClearInvestigations. “Since 2017, the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has documented 517 journalists attacked during protests, 400 of those in 2020 alone. Attacking reporters who are covering matters of public interest is never okay.”
Despite the alarming increase in such attacks, reporters who cover antifa express frustration that the condemnation of the attack on Staab was an aberration. More often than not, antifa’s attacks on the press have gone ignored, with the police typically standing back in the current climate of hostility toward law enforcement.
The journalists who have done significant reporting on the loose-knit group are of divergent backgrounds and motivations, but tend to have one thing in common—they represent a new breed of journalist without the backing of traditional corporate media outlets. Instead, they rely on social media to break news. Some of their work has been criticized by other journalists who claim they blur the line between professional reporting and activism.
No reporter is better known for covering antifa than Andy Ngo, author of the best-selling book “Unmasked: Inside Antifa’s Radical Plan to Destroy Democracy.” Ngo, the son of Vietnamese immigrants, first started reporting on protest violence for the Portland State Vanguard, Portland State University’s student newspaper, in 2016. He was fired from his job at the paper the next year after he was accused of sensationalizing a clip of a Muslim student at a university event saying that “being an infidel is not allowed” in Muslim countries. This ended Ngo’s traditional journalism career, but the story blew up online and was picked up by conservative media nationally.
With left-wing violence largely ignored by legacy news organizations, Ngo quickly found there was a market for coverage of Portland’s growing problem with street violence — notably by antifa, a largely decentralized, avowedly anti-fascist and anti-racist political movement without an identifiable leader or spokesperson that is concentrated in the Pacific Northwest.
Soon Ngo was in the streets working as a freelance reporter while his Twitter feed became a nationally known clearinghouse for information related to antifa—everything from videos of violence and vandalism to the ensuing mugshots and charging documents. Ngo currently works as editor-at-large for a right-leaning web outlet, The Post Millennial. However, his journalism is still largely defined by his outsized social media presence, to say nothing of his reputation for angering antifa.
In June of 2019, Ngo was jumped by a crowd of antifa protesters while reporting on a demonstration in the city. They kicked him in the groin, repeatedly punched him in the head while wearing tactical gloves with fiberglass-reinforced knuckles, and then pelted him with hard objects. Ngo ended up in the hospital with a brain hemorrhage.
Ngo says he has been attacked four times and no longer lives in Portland out of concern for his safety, but antifa regularly show up and make menacing appearances at his aging mother’s house in the city. Graffiti has appeared in Portland saying, “Kill Andy Ngo” and “Andy Ngo 187”—187 being a police code to denote a murder. “It’s just been this constant incitement to kill me,” he says. “That’s why I left at the end of last year,” Ngo said. When he returned to Portland this past May, he said, he was chased down a street and beaten and bloodied. He narrowly escaped when he took refuge in a hotel, with the antifa mob surrounding the lobby doors and demanding that he come outside.
Although the attacks have generated sporadic news coverage, Ngo and other journalists complain that media organizations have not done enough to defend them. Following the attack on Maranie Staab, the Oregon chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists issued a statement noting that “assaulting journalists runs counter to the ideals of our democracy” before adding, “This isn’t the first time SPJ Oregon has had to issue a statement like this.” Ngo counters that the organization hasn’t once spoken out about the attacks on him—even though those brutal attacks have garnered national media attention from conservative outlets.
RCI could find only one other statement from the society’s Oregon’s chapter condemning an attack by left-wing protesters, one earlier this year involving Justin Yau, a journalist working for Willamette Week. The organization did not respond to RCI’s request for other examples of its condemnation of attacks on other reporters or for comment on this article. SPJ’s national president, Rebecca Aguilar, said in an email Wednesday that she would need more time to issue a “proper response,” acknowledging “a very dangerous situation for journalists seeking the truth.” (Reporters Without Borders, the international organization, also did not respond to a request for comment on antifa attacks on reporters.)
Ngo isn’t alone in thinking that these attacks on the press are being downplayed. So does Nancy Rommelmann, who as a journalist has written for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and has been an author for decades. Her well-received 2018 book, “To the Bridge: A True Story of Motherhood and Murder,” detailed an infamous case of infanticide in Portland. As a longtime area resident who watched her husband’s small business suffer from antifa’s violence, she felt compelled to get to the bottom of what was happening. Working as a freelancer, she filed several reports on antifa and street violence in Portland for the libertarian magazine Reason.
She was attacked in the streets, she says, and threatened online, with her photo publicly posted. Rommelmann believes the traditional media are ignoring the street violence for political reasons—they don’t want antifa’s extremism to be seen as discrediting to liberal causes. “I can tell you that 100% of the people that have attacked and continue to attack me, they’re all on the left—all of them. And I consider myself a liberal,” Rommelmann said.
To the extent that traditional news media are forced to cover antifa, Rommelmann says, they do so only when its adherents clash with right-wing protesters, and draw equivalencies with right-wing violence regardless of whether comparisons are warranted. After the assault on Staab last month, Rommelmann began venting on Twitter about why the media refused to acknowledge that “black bloc protesters [those wearing black ski masks and other garments to obscure their identities] in Portland are the MAIN source of violence. Proud Boys and right-wing groups rolled through [just] four times in 2020. Then who tf was committing the violence every night?” She then linked to video footage she took of a man in downtown Portland trying to smash a window with a fire extinguisher. “I was reminded, again, of a Portland editor telling someone my reporting ‘infers without actual evidence,’” she tweeted. “Like, what, my eyeballs were rolled in flour? I didn’t have my phone stolen? We are supposed to believe the guy who says I staged this video in a studio?”
Last night I was reminded, again, of a Portland editor telling someone my reporting “infers without actual evidence.” Like, what, my eyeballs were rolled in flour? I didn’t have my phone stolen? We are supposed to believe the guy who says I staged this video in a studio? Wtff? pic.twitter.com/CvQV4elreD
— Nancy Rommelmann (@NancyRomm) August 25, 2021
There’s no question that attacks on journalists are common from angry Americans on the right. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker notes a number of recent violent episodes at school board meetings and anti-COVID restriction protests. But a number of the right-wing groups that clash with antifa don’t necessarily have hostile relationships with the media. Joey Gibson, the founder of Patriot Prayer, a right-wing group active in Portland known for clashing with antifa, has shown a willingness to be profiled and talk to reporters. The difference with antifa is that it espouses an explicit ideology that compels its adherents to attack the press.
In “The Antifa Handbook,” radical Rutgers University lecturer Mark Bray observes that First Amendment beliefs are held only by “a minority of today’s anti-fascists in the United States.” Bray writes that they distrust the press because, “instead of privileging allegedly ‘neutral’ universal rights, anti-fascists prioritize the political project of destroying fascism and protecting the vulnerable regardless of whether their actions are considered violations of the free speech of fascists or not.”
Rommelmann reports that “‘YOU’RE NOT ALLOWED TO FILM’ and its occasional variation, ‘PHOTOGRAPHY EQUALS DEATH!’” are rallying cries at protests where antifa is present. And at the same time some antifa protesters assault independent journalists and smash their cameras, she says, radical activists run around protests with PRESS emblazoned on their clothing as a putative “Independent Press Corps” in league with antifa. The goal is to shut down impartial reporters covering events so that the only photos and video footage released on social media are hand-selected by antifa to make police look bad and for other propaganda purposes. “It’s a revolution via the cellphone video they allow you to see,” Rommelmann said.
Rommelmann says this strategy of limiting what people see appeared to work when antifa and allied leftist groups laid siege to the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse in downtown Portland for a month last summer.
“They would then disseminate [their own recordings] to news organizations around the country and around the world and on their own Instagrams. And they would form a narrative and the narrative was, all from the Antifa black bloc saying, the protesters are beleaguered. Were the feds inside shooting things out at the protesters? Hell, yeah. Mostly hours after the protesters had been shooting stuff at them, but that was not the story that was getting disseminated,” Rommelmann says. “The story that was getting disseminated was, ‘People on the right bad, people on the left good.’ Well, when I would try to bring some balance to this, I had my phone stolen. I was called a fascist and that continues to this day, because of the narrative that’s seeped out in the mainstream media.”
Making matters worse, the media readily adopted the simplistic and inaccurate framing of protest violence because it fed into national political narratives. “There seemed to be this sense, amid the massive pro-Trump/anti-Trump environment of last year’s protests, that if you said one eenie-weenie bad thing about the violence, it meant you were, at best, anti-protest movement, and at worst a racist,” Rommelmann says. “This caused the cognitive dissonance we saw on both ‘sides’: Fox News shouting, ‘SAVAGES COMING TO YOUR TOWN!!!’ and the CNN anchor in Kenosha standing in front of an absolute conflagration and saying, ‘It’s really mostly peaceful.’”
More broadly, many news outlets downplayed the left-wing violence associated with the broader protest movement that swept the country in the wake of the murder of a black man, George Floyd, at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer. According to data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project—an independent organization that receives funding from the State Department, German Foreign Office, and University of Texas—during the peak months of the protests last summer, there were 11,541 “civil-society incidents.” Of those events, 1,101 devolved into some form of violence or rioting, and 933 of the violent incidents directly involved events affiliated with Black Lives Matter.
The organization’s data is pulled from media reports, so this figure is likely understating the problem. Nevertheless, many news outlets reported on the findings as if they absolved BLM and the left of violence. “About 93% of racial justice protests in the U.S. since the death of George Floyd have been peaceful and nondestructive, according to a new report,” reported CNN. “The findings, released Thursday, contradict assumptions and claims by some that protests associated with the Black Lives Matter movement are spawning violence and destruction of property.”
Counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen, a senior adviser to Gen. David Petraeus and one of the architects of the “surge” in Iraq, said those stats were more in line with the levels of violence seen in war zones, writing that:
[T]he argument that the protests have been ‘largely peaceful’ may be true, but it is also irrelevant. Only a tiny minority – 2 to 5 percent – of individuals in insurgencies, civil wars, or criminal gangs actually commit violence. In Iraq during the ‘Surge,’ my team started from the assumption that 20 percent of insurgents would prove so irreconcilably violent that they would never negotiate and must therefore be killed or captured. We were off by an order of magnitude – the true number was not 20, but 2 percent.
Even as outlets including the Guardian and the Washington Post published articles dismissing left-wing violence — including a Post fact-check piece last summer declaring, “Who caused the violence at protests? It wasn’t antifa” — others attacked the journalists trying to cover the protests.
In May, the left-wing publication The Intercept published a lengthy feature headlined “Meet the Riot Squad: Right-Wing Reporters Whose Viral Videos Are Used to Smear BLM,” which identified a “tight-knit group of eight young journalists” who travel around the country and report on street violence. The article highlighted instances where reporters critical of left-wing protesters shared video of street violence that appeared to be either selectively edited or missing important context. This is bad journalism for sure, but it’s also a problem endemic to social media. All journalists covering breaking news—not just those dedicated to covering antifa—have been incentivized to rush to get viral clips online or share clips they’ve been given without knowing the context, and examples of it are widespread.
The article was quickly denounced by a founder of The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald, who resigned from the website during the 2020 presidential campaign citing censorship of his work and “ideological homogeneity.” “This is what so much ‘journalism’ is now,” Greenwald tweeted. “They believe that the real menaces are individuals who have politics or ideology different than their liberal orthodoxies. So these reporters are now like criminals to them because they report for right-wing sites, thus this targeting.”
Robert Mackey, one of the Intercept article’s co-authors, tweeted in response: “These journalists are public figures, already familiar faces on the most-watched prime time shows on the most-watched television news network in America; what is overlooked is how their reporting and video is used by Fox to distort the real scope of violence at BLM protests. … There have been assaults on some conservative video journalists by left-wing protesters who view them as propagandists, attacks I reported and showed in the video and denounced forcefully in my article. The claim that I intended to promote more attacks is false and repulsive.”
Facing similar criticism from the left, Andy Ngo has been dogged by accusations that he should not be treated as a legitimate journalist because critics accuse him of having reported misleading information and not reporting on antifa objectively. An article in the Columbia Journalism Review referred to him as a “discredited provocateur.” Ngo does much of his reporting on Twitter and social media, in part due to a lack of interest in antifa from the broader media. Leftists on Twitter complained that the social media platform labeled him a journalist on the site’s curated newsfeed, so in response Twitter relabeled him an “author.”
Twitter’s move prompted an editorial in the New York Post defending Ngo’s reporting. “How is he not a journalist? Indeed, that he’s doing the work that establishment outlets skip out on makes him more of a journo than the members of the press who turn a blind eye to Antifa’s violence,” the paper wrote.
Ngo’s reporting has always made it clear that he’s critical of antifa. Moreover, if making the occasional error or having a point of view is disqualifying for a journalist, the New York Times and Washington Post — and the vast majority of reporters and editors in the country — would have their press credentials revoked. The criticism of Ngo is particularly galling when one considers that his main point of view is that “political violence is wrong.” And while Ngo’s nontraditional, social-media-heavy approach to reporting might be disdained by traditional media outlets, he has distinguished himself by authoring a best-selling book on antifa and having a track record of breaking several major stories.
Ngo, however, remains undeterred. In June, when a reporter from the left-leaning sports site Deadspin was among those demanding Twitter stop calling Ngo a journalist, he responded. “My detractors do this because they want to take away the one thing that all decent people agree on: press freedom is sacred,” Ngo wrote. “Who the far-left defines as ‘press’ are those who write what they approve of. Anyone else is a ‘provocateur’ deserving of intimidation and violence.”
This article was written by Mark Hemingway for RealClearInvestigations.