On Sunday, August 27, in downtown Berkeley, I witnessed thousands of protesters raising their voices against a planned white supremacist “Patriot Prayer” rally. In my decades as a documentary filmmaker of activism and now an academic studying movements and media, it was one of the most positive, diverse and unifying gatherings I ever experienced.
While I’m not naïve about the press, I was still shocked by the headlines in the San Francisco Chronicle the next day: “Masked anarchists violently rout right-wing demonstrators in Berkeley.” The accompanying photos also matched this slanted coverage. Sure enough, this was echoed in the Los Angeles Times: “Violence by far-left protesters in Berkeley sparks alarm.” That narrative ricocheted around social media with video.
It was certainly true that after the “Patriots” marched into the crowd that Antifa responded with force. Now, we can debate the strategy of Antifa, but that isn’t really my point in this post. Rather, the narrow focus on what was in the end a relatively minor scuffle left the larger world with the impression that this had been “mayhem” and a “riot.”
What the news coverage missed: accuracy
That’s dangerous not just because it’s incorrect. the virtual blackout of the broader event was what struck me. None of the national mainstream news I saw represented the diversity of people and tactics that day. Fundamentally, the focus on violence feeds into the false narrative pushed by the far-right that there is some equivalence by extremists on the right and left.
The old trope of “If it bleeds, it leads” applies not just to the choice of events the media covers but how they cover an event. Focusing on violent stories is nothing new in journalism, from murders to disasters. And certainly the last decade’s decimation of newsrooms, leaving only a fraction of reporters left to cover events like this, could have played a factor.
But many of the outlets that sent reporters hovered around the center of town, rather than gathering the gamut of the people there. News trucks assembled at least four hours before the main rally, so they had time to get the real story. Or perhaps, it was the weekend or photo editor that made the mistake. Regardless, what was missing with much of the news media coverage of the Berkeley protest was accuracy. They were sensationalizing a small slice of what happened and crafted it into the entire story.
Frustrated about the disconnect between what I saw first-hand and the reporting, I posted a series of tweets that went viral.
I was at the #Berkeleyprotest yesterday. I got my PhD at Berkeley, and I'm a media and movements scholar. I need to say a few things.
— Dr. Jen Schradie 🗽🗼 (@schradie) August 28, 2017
Given the continued negative perception of that day, I was moved to expand and write about what I saw and heard that day. Here is what happened from my perspective.
As I climbed up the stairs from the downtown Berkeley BART station, I had to adjust my eyes to the light. On this rare sunny morning without the usual summer fog, I was surrounded by a throng of people with a jubilance that matched the bright day.
At the top of the stairs, volunteers directed the steady stream of people to one of several gathering points, depending on which march they wanted to go to. Most people were headed to the University of California, Berkeley, campus, so when I decided to go to another march at Ohlone Park, just north of downtown, I figured the numbers would be small, in comparison.
But when I approached the park, I saw a large number of protesters. They were gathering for the rally before the march to the main rallying point downtown where they would meet up with the other marches for a large rally. The first group I saw was a group of about 30 Jewish activists who prayed and sang while holding their signs that read, “Black Lives Matter” and “No Zionism. No Fascism. No Racism.” Throughout the day, I would see many different types of affinity groups like this one that came from a broad slice of Bay Area life.
Students, labor, anti-racist, religious and many other groups and individuals marched and converged to the center of Berkeley to fight white supremacy.
Here are a just a few of the “violent protesters” I saw as I walked around to the various marches and contingents:
Here are a few examples of the folks who came out to fight white supremacy. pic.twitter.com/hze2CfKRwV
— Jen Schradie (@schradie) August 28, 2017
— Jen Schradie (@schradie) August 28, 2017
Everyone else who had braved the heat that day, including a Holocaust survivor, was not included in the coverage I saw. Sure, a few outlets did a good job, such as the local Berkeleyside, but that is not what got the most clicks and hits.
Yes, Antifa was there in force, but they were not the only ones. And they were there in coalition with a wide range of groups and activists. When a few Patriot Prayer guys walked into the main rally with their arms up in what many of my colleagues told me looked like a Nazi salute, Antifa quickly chased them. I was in a position to see them run out of the rallying area to a side street in pursuit. But the main event continued while others were still marching into the main square where thousands of people had arrived from all walks of life.
Context really is everything
As a former documentary filmmaker, I understand the desire to want to get the tantalizing shot, but these photographers became part of the story that I’m now telling. Reporters were chasing anti-fascists who were chasing fascists.
When we get to the editing room we need to put it all in perspective, but much of the news media did not. Just like as a sociologist, I can’t make generalizable claims about an outlier, the news media should not embellish a few incidents and make it into an entire story. Context is everything.
After I posted the Twitter thread critiquing the slanted media coverage, many of the initial comments focused on my media analysis. But eventually, most of the comments centered around the Antifa tactical decision of violence, which simply detracts from the broader issues people are protesting/counter-protesting.
So it’s not just traditional news media that has this biased tendency, but people in general then recycle this distorted coverage on social media. Many of the videos that circulated were not of the historical numbers protesting racism in Berkeley but of attacks.
And this news/social media tendency to focus on even a hint of violence (i.e. Antifa’s masked outfits) crosses ideological lines. This is not something that was just circulating among right-wing groups (though it was in force), but of the left, as well. Distortion is not only a tactical decision by news editors – but also of ourselves as to what we gravitate toward reading and reposting.