The Oregonian newspaper is facing backlash following its decision to publish an op-ed defending far-right group Patriot Prayer and its founder Joey Gibson. The article followed a harrowing week of attacks on communities in the United States—acts of violence that many say were made possible in part through the rampant spread of hate speech and misinformation on media platforms.
In an opinion piece published Sunday, Oregonian columnist Elizabeth Hovde noted that a sparsely attended Patriot Prayer rally at Washington State University–Vancouver a few days prior was without violent incident, and lauded Gibson as a proponent of peace. "There was zero violence at the rally, as no groups showed up to offer it," Hovde wrote. That fact alone was evidence enough for Hovde to conclude that past altercations between Patriot Prayer and antifa could be blamed solely on the leftist group. "Gibson didn't look like the harasser and violent bully I've been reading about, even if he attracts white nationalists and violent counter-protesters," she wrote. This, despite strong evidence suggesting both groups have, in the past, been responsible for inciting violence.
The outcry from public officials and journalists was swift and harsh. "[T]here is no misunderstanding [of Gibson]," Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler tweeted on Monday. "There is no place for hate, extremism, and violence in Portland or anywhere. Hard to find common ground with groups who embrace all three." Among the many journalists who spoke out against the Oregonian's decision to publish the op-ed was Corey Pein, a freelance writer living in Portland. "As journalists, our first obligation is to the truth," Pein tells Pacific Standard. "The publication of a column that ran defending the actions, intentions, and character of a man who has repeatedly invited armed Nazis to our city, putting many lives at risk, is a betrayal of that basic obligation."
Oregon civil rights advocates felt similarly. "We oppose the publishing of the article because it's an attempt to sanitize Patriot Prayer and, by extension, Joey Gibson," says M. Zakir Khan, board chair of the Council on America-Islamic Relations advocacy group's Oregon branch. "Patriot Prayer has been responsible for several acts of violence: jumping a black teenager in Vancouver, beating up a man while shouting homophobic slurs, jumping people in Portland, killing two men, maiming another and yelling persistent Islamophobic things at Muslims."
Patriot Prayer also has ties to the Proud Boys, the Gavin McInnes-founded right-wing organization that made headlines earlier this month when several of its members allegedly perpetrated violent attacks against antifa activists in New York. Proud Boys members have frequently participated in Patriot Prayer rallies, according to reports; the two groups also share some members, including Tusitala John Toese, who was arrested last year for allegedly assaulting a counter-protester. (Patriot Prayer's Gibson did not respond to a request for comment.)
The controversy over Hovde's Oregonian piece comes as fears continue to mount over the media's role in empowering white nationalism. Most recently, many blame outlets like Fox News and Breitbart for the rampant mischaracterizations of migrants traveling to the U.S.–Mexico border—the very people who are shown to have inspired the gunman in the attack that killed 11 Jewish Americans in Pittsburgh on Saturday.
Many similarly fear with the Oregonian controversy that the paper is sanitizing and—by virtue of publication—promoting hateful, potentially violent rhetoric. Portland's Resistance, an advocacy group defending communities of color and immigrants, has boycotted the Oregonian's advertisers in a bid to pressure the paper to ban far-right voices from its editorial pages, and to end its relationship with Hovde.
"The issue is giving white supremacist organizations a platform to organize, recruit and sustain themselves. The Oregonian's love letter to Joey Gibson ... [is] complicit in the rise of right-wing violence," says Gregory McKelvey, Portland's Resistance founder.
Many other activist groups across the country are similarly working to block other media platforms they deem to be perpetrators of hateful rhetoric and actions. CAIR, for example, is running a campaign to stop the GivingFuel fundraising platform from hosting a funding page for Patriot Prayer. "We encourage the public and the press to get involved in efforts to deplatform hate," Khan says. Others are looking at boycotting companies that fund Fox News.
It's not only activists who take issue with the Oregonian offering space for unchallenged views of the far right; journalism ethics experts also cast doubt on the paper's editorial judgment.
"This observer says it was a peaceful event. I don't have corroboration, but let's take her at her word," says Gabriel Kahn, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California. "The absence of violence at a public event is not the only criterion at stake here. The other is contextualizing Gibson and his group properly. The letter makes it sound like a Boy Scout group gathering. From the commenters, I gather that's not really their main thrust."
The Oregonian's publishers had an ethical responsibility to better contextualize Hovde's piece, Kahn says. "The publisher has an obligation to point out that context [Patriot Party's background], rather than publish it as is, which contributes to a normalization of behaviors that, frankly, should not be part of the mainstream."
That obligation does not preclude publication, he adds, but rather demands more engagement with the writer's ideas from the editors. "Important distinction: That doesn't mean that they should be silenced. It just means that we need to frame the discussion properly."
In a statement emailed to Pacific Standard, the Oregonian defended its decision to publish the piece, but it seemed to agree with some of Kahn's assessment regarding the absence of context. "Hovde's column wasn't hate speech or a call to violence," wrote Oregonian editorial pages editor Laura Gunderson in the statement. "It was simply a reflection of what she saw. It would have benefited, in hindsight, with more context from Gibson's Portland protests. We wrote the headline, not Hovde, and it missed the mark. We also regret the timing of the column, which was edited on the Friday before the shootings in Pittsburgh."
Still, Gunderson views the paper's publication of the column as a function of free expression.
"An Opinion page that readers universally agree with is neither advisable nor attainable," Gunderson wrote. "We hope readers stop and think about what they read on these pages and robustly debate the views expressed there. As always, we invite letters to the editor and commentaries in response."