First published on The Big Smoke.
December 16, 2020
In 1983 — when USA Today began changing the way, and what, newspapers covered as “news”, when Reagan’s deregulation started enabling the consolidation that would become mega media mergers, eventually leaving the U.S. with almost no locally-owned newspapers and television stations — I walked away from newspaper reporting as a career after only six years.
In that short time, I exposed discrepancies in federal loan subsidy application handling, local political manipulation of the federal bidding process, the impact of the Reagan administration’s first major union busting move, a medical clinic’s prescription misuse and inappropriate use of federal funds, a local coal baron’s questionable financial dealings and tax avoidance, and a local agency’s conflict of interest — all while reporting for very small newspapers. My stories resulted in state and federal investigations, tens of thousands of dollars in back taxes paid, contracts terminated, and Flight Service Station siting changes.
But, after a year of watching major metropolitan newspapers, including my own employer, remake themselves in McPaper‘s image, I walked away when my boss demanded I go out and cover a non-event (except on the police scanner), that required invading someone’s privacy. If didn’t, he said he would fire me. I quit.
The story I refused to report is one you have read dozens of times since. One that, instead of condemning the system that created the problems, merely makes you feel sympathy for the victim, or treats them as a hero, or vilifies them for crumbling under the weight of a society that deliberately breaks people.
Over the years, my decision was repeatedly validated as television and newspapers became worse about disrespecting everyone’s privacy, more and more mistakes appeared in print and on the air, and entertainment and celebrity coverage drowned out actual news. Bigger and bigger media conglomerates gobbled up local newspapers and television stations, and most media now is owned by a handful of mega corporations. [see two examples at the end of this article]
Now, we have so-called journalists who believe they’re empowered to invade other people’s lives and private property for their clickbait and sixty seconds of infotainment spotlight. They work for companies with right-wing, racist, misogynist, anti-LGBTQ, anti-immigrant agendas and do not care whose lives they destroy to get their “stories.”
When activists politely ask them not to take a photograph or collect video of an event, they scream about freedom of the press and their First Amendment rights. Except most of them have never, apparently, actually read the First Amendment. Because it doesn’t give them any rights at all to invade other people’s lives and steal their stories. It states that:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press” [emphasis mine]
Nothing requiring anyone talk to the press; no mention of allowing the press to invade private property in order to report on an event. Case law, specifically libel and sunshine laws, allow the press to write about public figures and celebrities without worrying about being sued and require government officials, both elected and appointed, to produce information to the press as representatives of their constituents.
But, if a broadcast “journalist” sticks a microphone in your face or points a camera at you, they are invading your privacy without your consent and if you don’t want to enrich them by sharing your information and/or photograph for their broadcast, you have the right to insist they stop and/or walk away. I have done both. As an author and a business owner, I also have been interviewed more than once by a reporter who took the facts I gave them and inadvertently misinterpreted or deliberately twisted them to meet their own narrative, rather than reporting mine.
Too often, people who have watched television footage of victims sobbing, witnesses sharing details, and families wailing their grief, believe they’re obligated to answer questions in front of a camera. But, footage like that is lazy reporting and rarely includes factual information.
Moreover, police view that footage and use it to target activists who protest police brutality and demand their elected officials stop funding military police forces in urban areas; who fight gentrification and sweeping houseless camps during a pandemic; who stand up against armed Nazis marching in our streets.
White Supremacist terrorist groups like the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer use video and photographs posted by media to doxx and menace anti-fascist activists and their families with violence, including rape and death threats.
Right-wing “journalists” edit video to remove any mitigating circumstances, such as self defense. Edited video, claiming a “random lone protester fights with multiple proud boys” led to the arrest of a local Black man who defended himself with a knife in Washington D.C., when dozens of out-of-town white Proud Boys surrounded, trapped, and attacked him. It should be noted, that the Proud Boys, who were openly carrying hand and long guns in violation of D.C. laws, had already vandalized black churches, and roaming mobs of them attacked multiple counter-protesters, reporters, and random passersby with fists, chemical spray, weighted gloves, flag poles, and other weapons. But police arrested the Black man and they will use the edited video against him in court.
Those at home, scrutinizing photographs and video on television, websites, and social media, forget that U.S. law requires a presumption of innocence. With broadcast and print media frantically regurgitating inaccurate, deceptive, and outright deceitful police reports, viewers judge someone guilty before they’re tried, sometimes before they’re even charged with a crime, based on seeing often-doctored video.
Invasively filming and photographing people involved, sometimes only peripherally, in news events puts lives in danger. “Any journalist who has embedded with military forces knows there are times you DO NOT take photos,” investigative journalist Robert Evans tweeted recently. “A picture is not worth life.”
When I was a reporter, I was the first to report a national story from a small town newspaper because I worked to develop relationships with sources and to protect them. But, even back then, one of my sources lost his job because his superiors were able to determine, based on our locations and history, that he had to be the person I had spoken with. Today, with all the surveillance tech available to authorities, those who protest police brutality, evictions during winter and a global pandemic, stolen land, and other forms of capitalistic-enforced inequality are in even more danger from an authoritarian government.
At a recent active eviction defense in Portland, The Oregonian complained about being denied access making “it difficult to provide the public with a full account of the ongoing occupation“. This was after the newspaper printed false information, including calling the event an “occupation”. The only other “journalist” quotes routinely endangers protesters by deliberately filming their faces.
In addition to endorsing Portland’s much-hated Mayor Edward Tevis “Ted” Wheeler, The Oregonian, owned by Advance1, is run by John Maher who also chairs the Portland Business Alliance which heavily funded Wheeler’s election campaign. Urban Housing Development, which purchased the Red House at a foreclosure sale, belongs to the Home Builders Association of Metropolitan Portland (HBA) which is affiliated with the Portland Business Alliance (PBA). HBA and PBA, along with Realtors and developers, also were among the entities behind United for Portland, created in the final months of the mayoral campaign to spend money targeting male voters to discredit Wheeler’s female opponent.
The Oregonian continuously uses language such as “become known as the ‘red house'”. Well, it’s a house. And, it’s red. So people call it the red house — hardly worthy of repeatedly wasting words. The Oregonian also deliberately contrasted the $260,000 the current owner paid at auction in 2018 with the more than $308,000 raised to buy it back via GoFundMe without acknowledging the $20,000 in property taxes also required as part of the proposed agreement, possible legal fees, and the costs of major repairs to the house required after law enforcement deliberately trashed it, including destroying the plumbing fixtures. It faulted the family for failing to pay the mortgage for nearly a year and half without mentioning that they paid the mortgage until it was sold and two different companies demanded payments. Although the family has made it clear how they want to be contacted, The Oregonian called one of the individuals on the phone and then made a big deal about reporting that he hung up, despite the fact that they had specifically asked not to receive phone calls.
Meanwhile, a reporter with KATU, owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group,2 refused to leave the property when asked and kept filming people despite their repeated requests that she not do so. Her camera was knocked from her hand and stomped on to prevent her from further filming. She was injured slightly (although she tried to make it appear worse than it was, including erroneously claiming her hand was broken) when she tried to pull it out from under someone’s foot.
“By treating this like a regular news story you are, inadvertently or not, antagonizing the participants”, an activist who uses the handle @imlaceyimfine, posted in response. “You, and especially your camera, are a threat, whether you believe that to be true or not. The fear your camera inspires in people who have been brutalized and arrested all summer, is very real and in my opinion incredibly valid. Not only are the protesters rightly afraid of retribution, they are also traumatized. Many of them may be triggered by your presence. If you want the story, right or wrong, you need to make allowances for that fact.”
“If you have been following KATU’s limited coverage at the protests or the press conferences, you know they are not capable of telling the entire story,” TeamRaccoonPDX, volunteers who cleans up trash at protest events, noted.
Many of KATU’s reports about the Red House Eviction Defense were inaccurate and/or just a series of quotes from Portland Police Bureau, Multnomah County Sherriff’s Office, and Wheeler. The station played down Wheeler’s and Police Chief Charles Lovell‘s threats against and lies about the family and activists that resulted in racist death threats and attacks by fascists. KATU was among the media breathlessly reporting that the four generations of family fighting to retain ownership of the “infamous ‘Red House'” also own another home.
When an agreement was reached with the city and the barricades protecting the house from police raids were removed Monday, December 14, KATU claimed “those who live in North Portland” — an area that encompasses more than fort-five square miles, 25,883 households, and the University of Portland — were “still concerned” about the few blocks surrounding the house. Sources for this included an “anonymous person” who allegedly lives in “the area” (already defined as North Portland, so, not necessarily anywhere near the Red House) and the Coalition to Save Portland (another entity formed to push Wheeler’s reelection) were still upset about the “occupation”.
During its “coverage”, the station also interviewed another person who doesn’t even live in “the area”, who was upset because some activists legally carried firearms. (This person also complained in that article he was unable to get “the city’s help to get his concealed handgun license”. Licenses to carry concealed handguns are issued by the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office not the city of Portland.)
These few “complaints” ignored numerous neighbors, including businesses, who supported efforts to fight the gentrification that has driven almost all Black homeowners out of a traditionally (redlined) Black neighborhood as well as efforts by activists protecting the eviction defense area to provide food, clothing, and medical supplies to those in need and to help remove graffiti from local businesses.
Other reporters — who respect their sources and do not film them without consent and/or who edit their video to remove information that can be used to identify, arrest, and doxx someone — had no difficulty providing accurate coverage of the events.
“This Oregonian article is nonsense. I’ve been at Red House nearly everyday since Tuesday. I’ve taken pictures & interviewed people without issue,” tweeted Garrison Davis a young, dedicated, and effective journalist who has covered protests in Portland since they started in May. “You don’t need to film 24/7 to “accurately” report. Write, take notes, it’s in the name, ‘Journal(ism)’.” Unlike reporters who pretend to be objective while working for right-wing media owned by oligarchs, Davis makes no effort to hide which side he sympathizes with.
“It’s not a matter of being objective, it’s really about being transparent,” Andrew DeVigal, chair in journalism innovation and civic engagement at the University of Oregon, told Portland Monthly.
“Not choosing a side, when one side is oppressed, means choosing, through inaction, the side of the oppressor”, freelance journalist Lady Rosie G. Riddle points out. “if you’re not an anti-fascist FIRST and press SECOND, then chances are, you’re helping fascists.” As she and numerous other BIPOC journalists and pundits state repeatedly, “objective journalism upholds white supremacy.”
If you do not believe that statement, compare any mainstream coverage of Portland BIPOC protesters in trying to prevent a local family from losing its home in winter, in the middle of a pandemic, while providing food, clothing, and PPE supplies to any in need, to the coverage a few years ago when heavily armed, out-of-state, anti-government white men took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, threatened local residents and law enforcement, and did major damage, including removing fences and plowing roads in defense of two men who had pleaded guilty to arson further.
1The Oregonian/OregonLive is owned by S.I. Newhouse-founded Advance which also owns Condé Nast (Architectural Digest, Allure, Ars Technica, Bon Appétit, Epicurious, Glamour, GQ, House & Garden, Teen Vogue, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Vogue, Wired, and more), American City Business Journals (BizEquity, The Business Journals, Bizwomen, etc.), among others and is also among the largest shareholders in Charter Communications, Discovery (HGTV, Food Network, TLC, Animal Planet, Cooking Channel, American Heroes Channel, Now This, Thrillist, to name a few) and Reddit.
2KATU is owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group which owns 190 television stations in 88 markets that are affiliated with all major broadcast networks plus 23 regional sports network brands. In May, 2020, it paid the largest civil penalty by a broadcaster, $48 million, to the Federal Communications Commission for violating the FCC’s sponsorship identification rules as part of its attempt to acquire Tribune Media. In addition to slanting its reporting to the right, Sinclair requires talent at its subsidiary stations to spout pro-Trump propaganda and right-wing opinions such as “comparing removal of Confederate statues to destruction of archaeological treasures“. The Guardian calls it ” the most dangerous US company you’ve never heard of”.