In the wake of the shooting death over the weekend of a supporter of the far-right group Patriot Prayer in Portland, Oregon, The New York Times, USA Today, and MSNBC are papering over the intrinsically violent nature of the group, its ties to white nationalism, and its history of staging armed confrontations against anti-fascist activists. This lapse is part of a larger pattern of mainstream media coverage that shies away from calling out right-wing extremism.
Patriot Prayer’s typical playbook, as the Southern Poverty Law Center has documented, is to “assemble a ready-to-rumble crew with out-of-town violent extremists, then troll through the urban center in hopes of confronting left-wing protesters, ensuring violence eventually will break out.” Patriot Prayer has repeatedly organized public events in Portland with the Proud Boys, a group described by its founder Gavin McInnes as “foot soldiers” for the right. An attendee at a 2017 “free speech” rally organized by Patriot Prayer went on to murder two people and injure another in a hate crime attack a month later — only for the group to still go ahead with a planned “Trump Free Speech Rally” a week after that — and was sentenced this year to life in prison. Another frequent Patriot Prayer rally attendee and a member of the Proud Boys has posted threats online against the mayor of Portland.
The fatal shooting this weekend in Portland occurred shortly after a pro-Trump caravan traveling through the city confronted counterprotesters downtown.
The New York Times’ article about the shooting identified the victim in the subheadline as “a man affiliated with a right-wing group,” but the connection was not explained until the 12th paragraph: “The man who was shot and killed was wearing a hat with the insignia of Patriot Prayer, a far-right group based in the Portland area that has clashed with protesters in the past. Joey Gibson, the head of the group, said Sunday he could not share many details but could confirm the man was a good friend and supporter of Patriot Prayer.”
But then in the 22nd paragraph, the reader was presented with a description taken from the group itself: “Patriot Prayer, a local group that says it promotes Christianity and smaller government, has repeatedly clashed with activists in Portland.” With that introduction in place, only then were further details provided of what Patriot Prayer’s activities mean in practice: “The group has at times operated alongside militia groups, and the Southern Poverty Law Center has reported that some Patriot Prayer events have drawn white supremacists. Last year, Mr. Gibson, the group’s leader, was charged along with others with rioting after a brawl in the city.”
The rioting charges as well as a civil lawsuit stem from a May 2019 incident in which Gibson and others allegedly planned a confrontation at a local bar, called Cider Riot, where left-wing activists were holding a May Day celebration.
The Portland Mercury reported on the lawsuit:
Videos posted to Twitter by bystanders show members of Patriot Prayer approaching Cider Riot's outside patio dressed in armor, wearing helmets, and wielding batons. After shouting insults and hateful language at the patrons, one man in a MAGA hat sprays the people sitting on the patio with mace, kicking off a violent melee.
According to the lawsuit, Gibson “facilitated and refereed a street fight" between two people on the street outside of Cider Riot. Not long after, the suit claims, another Patriot Prayer member named Ian Kramer, “used a baton to crack a Cider Riot patron on the head, knocking her unconscious." She allegedly suffered a “serious vertebrae fracture."
For a group that officially claims to champion free speech, Gibson had also been organizing another event to oppose the bar’s screening of a documentary about LGBT activist Marsha P. Johnson. The lawsuit notes that “he introduced Cider Riot as ‘Antifa central'” in a Facebook livestream of the incident, “then asked his followers to look into the business, its owners, and its landlord. He then told his audience that ‘If they cared about Portland… take care of this establishment.’” Gibson responded to the lawsuit by saying that “maybe Cider Riot should stop co-hosting parties” for the local anti-fascist group.
Patriot Prayer’s Facebook page has also been a center of hate speech, including violent threats against Muslim groups. In January 2019, Patriot Prayer gathered outside the Portland offices of the far-left Industrial Workers of the World labor union, with participants yelling such messages as, “Get them dirty Muslims out of our country.” Another attendee told a counterdemonstrator, “We’re gonna hurt you.”
None of the above information made it to the Times reporting.
On its part, USA Today, uncritically gave this description from the group’s Facebook page in its article on the shooting:
Patriot Prayer is a right-wing group “about fighting corruption, big government, and tyranny using God for strength and the power of love,” Gibson wrote on the group's Facebook page.
Based in Washington, the group has rallied Trump supporters for demonstrations in Portland since 2017.
A separate explainer piece in USA Today also conveyed Gibson’s description of the group as “a loosely organized band with a distaste for big government but lots of love for the red, white and blue.” The final sentence of the piece ended in a rather abrupt manner: “Counterprotesters confronting Patriot Prayer and other right-wing groups such as the Proud Boys and the Three Percenters is nothing new to the city” — obfuscating the clear association between Patriot Prayer and white nationalists such as the Proud Boys, and its instigation of violent altercations in the city.
Late on Monday afternoon, MSNBC featured a largely sympathetic interview by NBC News correspondent Erin McLaughlin in which Patriot Prayer founder Gibson described his late friend as “one of the nicest guys that you'll ever meet.” Gibson continued: “Anyone that knows him, it doesn't matter if you're far-left, or whatever, you’re conservative, no one would ever want to hurt this guy, he’s one of the nicest guys I’ve seriously ever met in my entire life.”
The segment did not include any questions to Gibson about Patriot Prayer’s long record of violent activities in Portland.
Correction (9/3/20): An earlier version of this article referred to a 2018 news report that the FBI had described the Proud Boys as an “extremist group.” The FBI clarified later in 2018 that it did not apply that label to the Proud Boys organization, but that their “investigations focus solely on criminal activity of individuals — regardless of group membership.”