A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.
When I saw Sean Hannity leading his show with “MORE VIOLENCE GRIPS PORTLAND” and scary video from the streets, I knew something was up.
Right-wing media ramped up its coverage of scattered unrest in Portland, Oregon last week at roughly the same time that federal officers descended on the downtown area. Hannity and other Fox hosts evidently decided that a small group of self-described anarchists suddenly deserved national news coverage.
One cynical way to see it: The Trump administration and Fox’s talk shows picked Portland as a new stage for Trump’s “Law and Order” show. Programs like “Fox & Friends” had been prioritizing urban violence over the Covid-19 crisis for several weeks; Portland was just the latest news peg.
Late last week and throughout the weekend, Fox’s banners presented a simple choice: “LAW & ORDER VS ANARCHY.” Trump officials used the same rhetoric to justify the response from federal authorities. “Law and Order – a cornerstone of American society – is under siege in Portland,” Mark Morgan of U.S. Customs and Border Protection tweeted Sunday.
A show of force for Fox’s TV shows?
In an interview on Sunday’s “Reliable Sources” broadcast, The Atlantic staff writer Anne Applebaum suggested that the use of federal force in Portland is “performative authoritarianism.”
The goal, in part, is to generate TV pictures for pro-Trump shows like “Fox & Friends,” she said.
“This is being done partly for the photographs,” Applebaum said. “This is a way of messaging – that ‘we’re in charge, we’re doing something, we’re restraining these forces of violence.’ And that’s designed to appeal to a certain kind of voter who wants to see this control put onto contemporary events.”
Applebaum’s new book “Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism” comes out on Tuesday.
Some viewers commented after the show that the deployment in Portland is more than “performative:” Howard Fineman, the NBC News and MSNBC analyst, tweeted that it “implies the authoritarianism on display in Portland is ineffectual and benign.”
Fineman argued that the display is anything but benign – “they are a fascist vanguard.”
Applebaum responded to him, “The use of paramilitaries is not benign. But neither is it yet ‘fascism.’ It is designed to create pictures that can be used on Fox News, to send a message to voters.”
Portland’s reality check
As I said on Sunday’s “Reliable Sources,” Portland officials are facing some real challenges with protests that devolve into vandalism and violence. But some of the right-wing accounts have been gross exaggerations.
Take it from the reporters who live there: The Oregonian newspaper pointed out that the Fox-type narrative about Portland looks nothing like what actual residents experience day to day.
Eder Campuzano of The Oregonian wrote: “Many people who live in Portland… heard over the past few days from worried relatives in other states who feared that their loved ones in Portland might have been affected by fires or caught in police crossfire as they went about their day. The images that populate national media feeds, however, come almost exclusively from a tiny point of the city: a 12-block area surrounding the Justice Center and federal courthouse. And they occur exclusively during late-night hours in which only a couple hundred or fewer protesters and scores of police officers are out in the city’s coronavirus-hollowed downtown. Those events are hardly representative of daily life” in a city of 145 square miles.
I think we need more journalism like this – more journalism that contrasts partisan narratives with actual lived reality.
The Oregonian even provided a map and some photos of the city to balance out the fear-mongering that’s been going on…
Josh Campbell’s observations from Portland
Watch one of CNN correspondent Josh Campbell’s reports for “CNN Newsroom” here. He tweeted, “Some local reporters, who have been hard at work covering Portland demonstrations since they first began, tell us there was a noticeable shift in protests after Trump sent in the Feds. Protestors want the federal cavalry out now.”
The feds are signaling the opposite – that they may expand this operation to other cities. Per Monday’s Washington Post, Homeland Security official Ken Cuccinelli says the Trump administration would “send reinforcements to other U.S. cities if violence surged.” Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows made similar noises on Fox over the weekend.
The bottom line: “This is July,” Recode media reporter Peter Kafka tweeted. “Imagine the escalation over the next few months, since they have convinced themselves this is a good election strategy…”