February 3, 2017

Publishing during wartime, part VII: Enter the Black Bloc, exit discernment


Student demonstrators at UC Berkeley protesting an appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos

It was no surprise, but one has to wonder what the muckety-mucks at Simon and Schuster thought yesterday when Donald Trump made it official: He’s a huuuuge supporter of hate-speech monger Milo Yiannopoulos, just like they are.

So much so that he threatened to take away federal funds from the University of California, Berkeley because student protestors there had shut down a Yiannopoulos appearance.

Nor was it a surprise to learn from that thuggish tweet that Trump lacked the intellect to discern between censorship and protest — as seen in his accusation that students were blocking “free speech.” But again, one has to wonder what S&S execs and their supporters amongst the elite of the book industry thought upon seeing Trump so precisely — and so publicly — aligned with their own repeated-ad-infinitum conflation.

Of course, even some media smarties had trouble avoiding that conflation simply because the protest this time took place in Sproul Plaza, where some significant 1960s-era speeches took place — i.e., the “cradle of free speech,” as a New York Times story put it (and in its lede, no less). The detail made for the kind of cheap irony that has been the substance of so much Trump “reportage.”

But coverage of the protest was further muddled by the fact that, while 1,500 peaceful demonstrators showed up, a far smaller group of Black Bloc activists (or, as per the Times story, “demonstrators wearing ninja-like outfits”) also showed up, and broke some windows and set several fires around the plaza. The fires — framed to look like huge infernos — immediately became the image representing the protest. Indeed, many stories focused on the violence much more than what the protest was about — as in this CNN story, where the headline says it all: “Berkeley protests of Yiannopoulos caused $100,000 in damage.”

Hell, The Who used to do more damage than that in a single hotel room, but it didn’t cause anyone to stop talking about their music. Yet stories covering the inauguration day protests in Washington took a similar turn to that of the Berkeley protest. It’s as if the mainstream is waiting for the Black Bloc to show up to turn the story away from what it’s actually about, as well as from the notion that violence can perhaps be a symptom of a far worse form of violence. It’s as if the reporters were eager to say: the Black Bloc has nothing to say that’s valid; the protestors are just a bunch of kids who are anarchists.

Thus, not only was there little more than glancing mention of why the students were protesting Yiannopoulos—because of his racist, sexist, and homophobic incitements—there was even less in the way of investigative reporting on what, exactly, Yiannopolous is up to — with the notable exception of this San Francisco Chronicle report, posted the day before the event:

UC Berkeley officials are warning the hosts of a Wednesday night event featuring right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos that his campus speech may be used to target individual students in the country without documentation. “We are deeply concerned for all students’ safety and ability to pursue their education here at Cal beyond Milo’s speech,” the university’s Office of Student Affairs said in a letter Tuesday to the Berkeley College Republicans, the students hosting the event. “Milo’s event may be used to target individuals, either in the audience or by using their personal information in a way that causes them to become human targets to serve a political agenda.”

School officials based their warning on a report that first appeared in Breitbart News (and which I refuse to link to, but it’s in the Chronicle story).

It is, for once, a cheap irony you didn’t see in most of the rest of the mainstream, though — that is, that Yiannopoulos, an immigrant from England, wants to harm immigrants just as much as Trump does. (He’s also a gay homophobe, yet find the words “self-loathing” in any article about him.)

Instead, even the Times story seems to be inspired by the violence to conflate the very point of the protest with censorship, going out of its way to weight its report with representations of the smaller group of students present at the protest — Yiannopoulos supporters. For example, it features a member of the event-organizing Young Republicans, who says, “I’m tired of getting silenced, as many conservative students are. If we support freedom of speech, we should support all speech including what they consider hate speech.”

Which is to say that, in the end, the Times has given the weight of its story to the supporters of hate speech.

But as I say, most of the coverage did the same, seeming to reinforce what Yiannopoulos himself said, as quoted in a Washington Post report: “The Left is absolutely terrified of free speech and will do literally anything to shut it down.”

On the one hand, it’s mindful of the coverage of innumerable protests in the tumultuous sixties, in which the focus of the institutional media was always on any violence great or small, reducing coverage of what sparked such violence to a minimum. And by the way, that focus is always going to be on the violence of the protestors, and not of the police — did you even know, for example, that police in Berkeley fired tear gas and rubber bullets at the protestors? The Post story reported it, but few others did.

And then there’s the odd fact that major media did not cover the story of the Seattle Yiannopoulos protest — where the violence occurred the other way around, and a Trump supporter literally shot an anti-Yiannopoulos protestor …

Maybe not quite so intentionally, the Post report nonetheless got at the actual heart of the story in a photograph that accompanied the text — a photo of a banner carried by protestors saying, “This is war.”

Meanwhile, back in the canyons of New York City, by day’s end, Simon and Schuster had yet to change its stance or issue any further statement on the continuing and worsening violence at its author’s pre-publication events — nor did it show any sign of unease at finding itself so publicly aligned with the interests of Donald Trump and his now-acknowledged minion in charge of hate speech.
See part one, Publishing during wartime
See Publishing during wartime, part II
See part III, Protest of S&S and “gaslighting” is growing
See part IV, Learning from history
See part V, The violence begins
See part VI, The growing resistance
See part VII, Enter the Black Bloc, exit discernment
See part VIII, Enter the rainmaker?
See part IX, The flying monkeys multiply, but so does the opposition
See part X, Chickens, roosting

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives