On June 29, 2019, a journalist named Andy Ngo was assaulted while covering political demonstrations on the streets of Portland, Oregon. He was almost certainly beaten by vigilantes from Antifa, an inchoate national gang whose activities were classified as “domestic terrorist violence” by the Department of Homeland Security during the Obama administration. Ngo suffered a potentially life-threatening head injury.
The general reaction from the establishment media, when they have bothered to cover the story, has been to blame the victim. There is no evidence Ngo provoked the attacks against him other than by committing acts of journalism. But to many in the media, Ngo has the wrong politics—and his sudden notoriety rankles.
The animosity toward Ngo is such that elements of the press now suggest he was complicit in the violence of the far-right groups that engage in street brawls with Antifa. The public evidence of this charge is remarkably thin. Yet major media outlets uncritically laundered the claim from an activist working for far-left groups. Whether ironic or hypocritical, the media’s behavior toward Ngo and Antifa corrodes not only our political discourse but also the standing of American journalism.
From the outset of his career, Ngo has been no stranger to controversy. He first came to public attention in April 2017 after being fired from Portland State University’s student newspaper, the Vanguard. Ngo had posted video clips of a student interfaith panel discussion from his personal Twitter account. One tweet, stating that “the Muslim student speaker said that apostates will be killed or banished in an Islamic state,” went viral and became the basis for a Breitbart News story.
By Ngo’s account, published at National Review, Vanguard editor in chief Colleen Leary confronted him with the Breitbart article and referred to his “history” of affiliation with conservative media. Leary told Willamette Week that she fired Ngo because his tweet was a “half-truth” that “incited a reaction and implicated the student panelist.” She denied her decision was political but added, “It was reasonable to ask about Breitbart collusion because he has [worked with the network] before.” Ngo denied contacting Breitbart about his tweet, and he had declined a previous offer to write there.
Until recently, Ngo was an editor and photojournalist for Quillette, the heterodox, libertarian-leaning online journal that frequently highlights the follies of political correctness, especially in academia. He also crowdfunds his journalism through the Patreon website.
Ngo’s work often chronicles the excesses of left-wing activists in his home town of Portland. The gentle satire of progressive culture on the TV sketch show Portlandia notwithstanding, the real condition of the City of Roses is less funny. In particular, Portland has tolerated decades of occasionally homicidal conflict involving far-left gangs and the far right. More often, there is street brawling—usually spontaneous, but occasionally erupting from organized demonstrations and rallies.
Portland’s subculture of political violence now includes Antifa, a decentralized far-left movement. The name pays self-flattering homage to a German Communist paramilitary front group that engaged in street fights with Nazis during the early 1930s. Antifa and its far-right opponents carry a whiff of Weimar inasmuch as both often come to rallies prepared to fight.
Antifa’s belief that preemptive violence is justified to silence groups it deems fascist can be traced equally to predecessor groups in Portland.
Antifa members admit they have adopted tactics—dressing in black, wearing masks, and resisting being photographed—that permit them greater “freedom” to commit illegal acts. These tactics also are borrowed from violent anarchist groups active in the Pacific Northwest during the early 2000s. It is no coincidence that one of the first groups to use the Antifa name in America was Portland’s Rose City Antifa, founded in 2007.
The candidacy and presidency of Donald Trump has inspired Antifa to raise its profile. In recent years, Antifa and other activists have forced the Portland city council behind closed doors and forced Mayor Ted Wheeler from his home. Threats from anti-fascist groups forced the cancellation of the city’s popular Rose Festival parade over its inclusion of the Multnomah County Republican Party.
Ngo and his work have become especially well-known to members of Antifa and other far-left groups, who have not been shy in expressing their hostility. In November 2018, while reporting on a far-right rally and left-wing counter-protest, Ngo was harassed by people wearing Antifa’s black, masked garb. Ngo’s video recording contains threatening comments, including: “That’s an expensive camera equipment you got there” and “Thank God you got all these cops around, huh?” A masked woman sprayed Ngo and his equipment with silly string, despite police warnings.
The following month, he was harassed and threatened by Antifa while covering dueling protests in Seattle. As Ngo wrote for the Daily Wire: “The irony of a mob of mostly white ‘anti-racists’ harassing a gay Asian-American journalist was lost on them.”
Ngo was back for May Day demonstrations in Portland by left-wing groups demanding open borders. A masked protester again sprayed Ngo’s equipment with silly string until a reporter from the Oregonian intervened. According to Ngo, Antifa members gloated about prior damage inflicted on his camera. Ngo further claimed that a masked protester punched him in the abdomen, but a police liaison refused to act, saying it would be an “escalation.”
An escalation is exactly what Portland experienced at the end of June 2019, when hundreds of left-wing anti-fascists and dozens of right-wing protesters clashed in the city’s downtown area. Rose City Antifa organized a counterdemonstration to a rally staged by the right-wing Proud Boys (who also have a violent reputation). Five protesters and three police officers were treated for injuries at the scene, while three people were hospitalized after being attacked.
One of those sent to the emergency room was Andy Ngo, who reported via Twitter: “Attacked by antifa. Bleeding. They stole my camera equipment. No police until after. waiting for ambulance. If you have evidence Of attack please help.” He followed up: “On way to hospital. Was beat on face and head multiple times in downtown in middle of street with fists and weapons.” Jim Ryan of the Oregonian recorded part of the attack, in which Ngo was punched by Antifa members, sprayed with silly string, and pelted with eggs and vegan milkshakes made available at the demonstrations. After a CT scan, Ngo was diagnosed with a subarachnoid hemorrhage, a potentially fatal bleeding in the space between the brain and surrounding membrane.
At a time when the profession of journalism believes itself under political siege, not least from President Trump, a journalist being beaten on the street of a major American city by a violent political gang might seem newsworthy. Yet the establishment media ignored or downplayed the attack on Ngo, while more progressive journalists and outlets added insult to his injuries.
Broadcast television gave the “Battle of Portland” approximately 17 seconds of coverage, with no mention of Ngo. On cable, CNN provided five and one-half minutes of reasonably even-handed coverage overall, though its Reliable Sources program, devoted to covering the media, spent a mere 47 seconds criticizing the attack.
When other media outlets covered Ngo’s beating, common themes emerged. Ngo and Quillette were identified (inaccurately, according to Quillette founder Claire Lehmann) by the Associated Press and others as conservative, seemingly for no other reason than to signal that the story should be viewed through an ideological or partisan lens.
Media outlets and journalists also suggested or stated that Ngo in some sense deserved to be beaten. The New York Times claimed that Ngo “has a history of battling with anti-fascist groups,” though the violence came entirely from the far left. The Times added: “The conservative journalist has built a prominent presence in part by going into situations where there may be conflict and then publicizing the results,” as though the Times does not do this also.
Charlie Warzel, a writer-at-large for the Times, allowed that “violence should be unacceptable” before arguing that Ngo assumed the risk of a beating and complaining that people like Ngo are documenting political violence as ammunition for the culture war. (He also claimed: “Talking about this like it’s a 20th century protest is stupid,” although NBC’s Bill Monroe famously called television “the chosen instrument of the revolution” during the civil-rights era.) Similarly, Dan O’Sullivan, who has written for Rolling Stone and VICE, tweeted (and later deleted): “Andy Ngo is not a journalist, and in any event he went there hoping for exactly that outcome and for tweets like this. And yeah, he was asking for it.”
A writer for BuzzFeed News shadowed Ngo at the demonstration and conceded that “nothing he did that day suggested that he planned or even secretly wanted to be assaulted.” The writer nevertheless asserted, “It would be a mistake to think this violence came out of some vacuum-sealed ideological intolerance toward conservatives. Ngo has been building to a dramatic confrontation with the Portland far left for months, his star rising along with the severity of the encounters.”
In the weeks since the “Battle of Portland,” left-leaning media have gone further in their efforts to discredit Ngo. The Portland Mercury published a story suggesting Ngo witnessed members of the far-right group Patriot Prayer planning violence on May Day but never reported it. (Ngo’s lawyers have notified the Mercury that they consider the story defamatory.) The same story published a claim by an undercover anti-fascist who believed that Patriot Prayer protects Ngo and vice versa. These claims were regurgitated by larger media outlets, including the Daily Beast and Rolling Stone, who implied that Ngo’s recent departure from Quillette was related to the Mercury story (which Lehmann denies).
It was left to Robby Soave at Reason magazine to note that the 20-minute undercover video at the heart of this story “does not even establish that the group of right-wing agitators planned an attack—let alone that Ngo was aware of such a plot.” In the video, members of Patriot Prayer look as if they had anticipated a possible fight, which would be obvious from the fact that some are wearing helmets and goggles and carrying objects that could be used as weapons. Given that Antifa claims the right to attack their opponents preemptively, it would be strange if far-right protesters did not anticipate it.
The groups that brawl with Antifa clearly seek confrontations. Yet the comments on the video at issue are ambiguous about instigating violence. Moreover, Ngo spends the video at the periphery of the group, preoccupied with Twitter. Ngo conceded that he smiled “out of pity” at a comment that Patriot Prayer was outnumbered because he views the demonstrations as “futile.” He further admitted his focus on recording imminent conflict excluded the broader context captured on the undercover video.
It’s fair game to characterize Ngo as biased. But using a source who admittedly was providing information to far-left groups like Antifa and greatly overstating the video evidence suggest that the criticism has little to do with the reliability of the narrator.
Nor do the objections that Ngo is self-promoting or “weaponizing” journalism hold up to scrutiny, in light of Antifa’s oft-expressed hostility to most media coverage. During 2017’s melee in Charlottesville, in which Heather Heyer was killed by a white supremacist, a counter-protester punched journalist Taylor Lorenz in the face for livestreaming the event. A CBS photojournalist also was attacked by a counter-protester in Richmond, causing a concussion and requiring four staples in his head.
A year later, Antifa protesters aggressively blocked NBC News correspondent Cal Perry from photographing their march in Charlottesville. Antifa also tried to stop ABC reporter DeJuan Hoggard from filming, and they cut his audio cable. In Washington, D.C., Antifa threw eggs and launched bottle rockets at journalists and police.
Andy Ngo was absent from these other attacks on journalists. He was similarly absent from Antifa-involved clashes in Berkeley and other places, including Chicago, Philadelphia, Houston, Alabama, and Nebraska.
Many journalists resent Ngo’s politics, ethics, and sudden success. Yet the establishment media’s approach is the same when Ngo is out of the picture. Antifa is a subject that major media outlets tend to cover once, as a box to be checked. Far-left attacks are treated as isolated incidents rather than episodes in an ongoing story. They are not to be covered like violence from the far right or white nationalists. Andy Ngo covers the story that way—and the media do not like it or the mirror he holds up to them.
The establishment media’s lopsided approach to political violence ultimately damages both our politics and journalism. Politics are supposed to function as nonviolent dispute resolution. Weimar-style street brawling is a signpost on the path to the collapse of normal politics, one we ignore at our peril. Pretending that groups such as Antifa are not a problem is a tactic that will be noticed by at least half the country, accelerate the vicious cycle of our political discourse, and desensitize partisans to political violence of all stripes.
Turning a blind eye to left-wing violence may have the corollary effect of burning up whatever moral and institutional capital the establishment media have left. The media will be seen as knuckling under to—or even embracing—Antifa’s core beliefs. After all, many progressives already believe hate speech is no different from physical assault, which is the root of Antifa’s belief in preemptive violence.
To blame Andy Ngo for injuries he suffered while reporting on Antifa, even if one finds him biased, is to tacitly accept Antifa’s general demand that its members are not to be photographed or identified on threat of violence. No respectable journalist would accept that demand from the Ku Klux Klan. Those who accept it here will similarly lose public respect. The establishment media need to do the right thing covering left-wing violence, if only out of self-interest. Whether they will is another story.