The Imbalance of Coverage in American Protests


Cameron Speltz
Staff Writer

On Jan. 2, an armed citizen militia took over a federally owned building in a remote corner of Oregon, and, as of press time, remains there to this day despite law enforcement’s numerous attempts to remove them.

The group overran the headquarters of Malheur Wildlife Reserve in rural Burns, Oregon in a show of solidarity with a pair of ranchers that were re-sentenced to prison — unjustly, according to the group — on arson charges. Though many in the militia are heavily armed, and some have even threatened violence against law enforcement agents, the vocal leaders of the group claim that their occupation of federal land is merely a protest on for improved civil liberties in America.

An interesting feature of this event becomes apparent when you peruse the media’s coverage, as well as public opinion, of the occupation. While no mainstream news outlets actively endorse the Oregon occupiers — and often make their disdain for the protesters’ far-right politics clear — none outright bash them either. The protesters are universally depicted as peaceful complainants, with some sources even going as far as to defend them from criticism. For example, the Los Angeles Times recently ran an op-ed entitled “Are the activists occupying Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon ‘terrorists’?” (The answer provided: no.)

Compare this neutral portrayal of the Burns occupation to the coverage and response to the Black Lives Matter protests that have been springing up across America. The BLM protests have been largely peaceful and certainly have not involved armed militias (unless you count those of the police). Nevertheless, the response from the media has been overwhelmingly negative, with commentators from various sources depicting the BLM protestors as hooliganist thugs or delusional millennials — or perhaps just as bad, raising the digression of “all lives matter!”

Worse still is the difference in response from law enforcement to the events in Burns verses the law enforcement response to the various BLM protests across America. On Jan. 6, peaceful — and unsuccessful — talks were held between the county sheriff and the protesters, which Reuters described as a night of “pizza, rifles and tension.”

Far from involving pizza, on the other hand, the response to the BLM protests has been drastic and explosive. In late Dec. 2014, a protest in the Minneapolis, Minnesota Mall of America was met with a heavily armed, fully militarized police force.

How is it that the forcible occupation of Burns, Oregon is receiving almost spin-free coverage and non-violent police response, while the peaceful protests of the BLM campaign are met with almost paramilitary operations? This discrepancy has not gone unnoticed. Thought the media is by and large silent on the issue, social networks, namely Instagram and Twitter, are alive with discussions of the hypocrisy of the media and law enforcement.

Frequently, the users on these platforms point to the obvious culprit of the discrepancy: institutionalized racism. Rapper Talib Kweli, for example, posted a picture of the Mall of America incident with an eloquent comment claiming that “it seems that when armed white men make a stand, police remember their training and focus on deescalation out of respect for life.”

Though racism may certainly be a central component of the inconsistency in responses, the past may also be able to offer an explanation for the difference in tone.

In late 1992 and early 1993, two analogous events ensued between ideologically charged fringe groups and the U.S. government. In 1992, at the site of Ruby Ridge in Idaho, two men resisted arrest efforts by the FBI, the U.S. Marshals Service, and the ATF while safeguarded in a remote cabin. The result was three dead. In 1993, in the infamous Waco, Texas, a fortified compound was placed under siege. When the smoke cleared, 76 were killed.

Perhaps the underwhelming rebuttal from the media and from law enforcement in Burns is a result of the media is avoiding sensationalist coverage of the event, in order to refrain from escalating the tension of the showdown. And likewise, maybe law enforcement is not storming the Malheur Wildlife Reserve that was occupied because doing so in the past has resulting in massive loss of life.

Of course, both of those hypotheticals are nothing more than possibilities, but they might be true, and if they are, then they show that the entities of media and government are capable of changing their responses to peaceful protest. Those mere possibilities are enough to give me hope that change is possible, and BLM and other inevitable future protests will be able to express themselves.