Fox News and other right-wing media were aghast last week about a story from the ongoing protests and civil unrest in Portland, Oregon, in which a crowd supposedly burned a stack of Bibles as a widely seen political statement — which now turns out to have been a vastly exaggerated event, further enlarged and distributed by Russian propaganda.
The New York Times reported Tuesday that what actually occurred was that just a few individuals out of thousands present seemed to have used a single Bible, or possibly two Bibles, among other pieces of kindling to start a fire: “None of the other protesters seemed to notice or care.”
The story about a supposed mass fire of Bibles originated, however, from the Kremlin-financed news channel RT, and was spread by its online video service Ruptly with a deceptively edited video.
Apart from the Ruptly videographer, only one other journalist — a local television reporter — heard about the Bible burning, and noted it with a single sentence in a lengthy report on that night’s protests. The story, by KOIN, the local CBS News affiliate, also reported that a group of women calling themselves Moms United for Black Lives Matter attempted to put out the fire — a detail not included in the Ruptly video, which was edited to string together a number of clips from the night. (A New York Times reporter had observed a truck offering free Bibles at the protests earlier that night, though it was not clear whether it provided the book that was burned.)
The Ruptly video was further tweeted by Ian Miles Cheong, a right-wing Twitter personality based in Malaysia, who wrote: “Left-wing activists bring a stack of Bibles to burn in front of the federal courthouse in Portland.” As the Times notes, Cheong was “wildly exaggerating what the Ruptly video showed.” There was no actual stack of Bibles being burned, let along a crowd of people bringing them to a bonfire for a public burning.
Nevertheless, his tweet was in turn picked up by American conservatives including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Donald Trump Jr.
“The Portland video represents the Russian disinformation strategy at its most successful,” the Times wrote. “Take a small but potentially inflammatory incident, blow it out of proportion and let others on the political fringes in the United States or Canada or Europe spread it.”
For example, The Federalist ran an article on August 1, headlined “As They Turn To Burning Bibles, Portland Rioters Show Their True Colors.” The New York Post ran a piece headlined “Protesters burn Bible, American flag as tensions rise in Portland.”
And the story got plenty of pickup on Fox News.
On the August 2 edition of Fox & Friends Weekend, co-host Pete Hegseth discussed the Bible-burning story with a Republican congressional candidate in Oregon, and even tried to grill House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC) after he compared police brutality against demonstrators to what was done to the civil rights marchers he remembered from the 1960s.
“Everyone’s for peaceful protests,” Hegseth said. “They’re burning Bibles in Portland, instead of holding them on the bridge like the peaceful protesters did in the 1960s. How do you make that comparison?”
“Well, I don’t know anything about burning Bibles,” Clyburn replied.
“That’s another thing that’s out there,” Hegseth said.
On the August 3 edition of The Daily Briefing, Fox personality Greg Gutfeld told anchor Dana Perino that this supposed Bible-burning event was an example of “cancel culture” on the left.
“The suppression of speech is now fully accepted,” Gutfeld said. “When we were laughing about the burning of books — it actually happened this week. They actually burned books. I believe they burned the Bible; it was either in Portland or Seattle. It didn’t get a lot of press, though, because you know, it was the Bible. But imagine if it was, like, an updated version of The Joy of Sex, then it would be leading CNN.”
And on that same day’s edition of Fox Business’ The Evening Edit, host Elizabeth MacDonald lambasted leading Democrats for “staying silent about this violence” in ongoing protests. She went on: “Now, outrage is coming in nationwide over protesters in Portland, Oregon, burning Bibles and an American flag, using that as kindling for bonfires outside the federal courthouse there.”
The next morning, on the August 4 edition of Fox & Friends, Fox Nation host Lawrence Jones told Hegseth: “Average-day Black people don’t believe in this stuff. I mean, it really should’ve got America’s attention when they started to burn Bibles.”
And on the August 5 edition of The Evening Edit, MacDonald spoke with former pro football player Herschel Walker, and the two of them tied the burning of a Bible to the practice of current NFL players kneeling during the national anthem.
On that night’s edition of Fox Business’ Lou Dobbs Tonight, guest Robert Woodson not only agreed with the eponymous host’s description of Black Lives Matter as “a Marxist organization,” but he added that they “are breeding terrorists, and they’re making their intentions quite obvious now. … In Portland, Oregon, they just last night rioted, burned an American flag, and dumped a bunch of Bibles on the flames.”
Woodson also acknowledged that a group of Black Lives Matter-affiliated mothers doused the fire, but he claimed this as “highly symbolic” evidence that “Black America is waking up to their being used.” He also revived another trope — that the BLM movement is “hostile to the nuclear family,” which is really a right-wing myth meant to split support off from that movement through an anti-LGBTQ agenda.
On the August 6 edition of Fox News’ The Five, Fox Nation’s Jones called the Bible-burning “the biggest dead giveaway” that other elements in the protests were “hijacking what most of us want, which is a conversation on race in America, and how we can move forward, one country, equal justice under the law. That’s not what they stand for; they’re using us as a shield — those are white anarchists in the middle of that street.”
On that night’s edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight, the host declared this event — along with the closing of churches as part of the coronavirus lockdowns — part of a supposed attack on Christianity in America.
“They were allowed to burn a stack of Bibles in Portland, Oregon last weekend,” Tucker Carlson said. “Try that with a Quran and see how long you remain free — you'd be in prison immediately.”
On the August 7 edition of Fox & Friends, co-host Ainsley Earhardt told New York City’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan: “You know, it saddens me when I see graffiti on the side of a church, or when you see images of people burning the Bible. And maybe as Christians, we haven’t done our part to teach them about Christ.”
And later that day on Outnumbered, Jones further declared: “I would also note that one thing that should be a telling point for people. When you see people in the middle of the street burning Bibles, you should think, is that really what Black moms would support? Because in the Black community, the Bible is the center of everything in our life. This is not Black people doing this. These are people with their own agenda.”