Temporary plywood outside the Portland courthouse.

Terry H. Schwadron

April 13, 2021

There was a small fire — again — in Portland, Ore., over the weekend, another in a series of skirmishes with federal immigration agents protesting national policies.

Here is how Breitbart News reported it: “Antifa rioters in Portland, Oregon, set a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement building on fire while agents remained trapped behind blocked doors. The fire began after rioters smashed windows on the upper floors of the building. Antifa continued its months-long siege of the ICE facility in Portland on Saturday night. Videos posted on Twitter show the violence perpetrated by the Antifa rioters as they smashed windows and eventually set a fire on the front of the building while ICE officers remained trapped behind blocked doors.”

Sounds bad: Scary Antifa, trapped federal agents.

Here is what the Portland Oregonian, which covers the city, reported about the same incident: “Federal officers forced a group of protesters away from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement building in the South Waterfront late Saturday after people in the crowd set fires that ignited the building’s temporary plywood barricades. Video posted online showed officers in crowd-control gear emerging from the compound to scatter protesters and pull burning debris away from the building. The fire was extinguished quickly and didn’t appear to spread.” The plywood is seen in the accompanying photo.

According to the paper, the agents appeared to use crowd control munitions and physically push protesters back in the video clips posted to social media. Portland fire crews extinguished small bonfires outside of the building. Oh yeah, the protests have been going on for months about the nature of customs enforcement policies.

Objectionable, sure, but not as bad as the first account: No danger to agents, no violence, plywood outside the building, no big problem to snuff out.

The difference here is an added layer of political underpinning, a need to lay blame. It’s a stoking of emotion, not understanding. And more and more parts of American life, from public health masks to bridge repairs, are falling into the political haze.

Truth here is again somewhat ephemeral. Increasingly, it is who is telling the story rather than the story itself that defines the lasting image.

It’s a Habit Now

The fire news is just an illustration, of course, but we’re becoming inured to the habit, which is why audiences alternately seek out Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity on the one side or Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell on the other for affirmation of what they would like to see reported. Facts are sifted, not entirely made up, but overlaid with guest interviews, arch questions and suggestions and body language to push through a political sieve that leaves an impression.

At least with Donald Trump himself, who addressed GOP supporters over the weekend in an effort that either is about a continuing need or a search for political relevance, there is no guessing. He simply makes up whatever fact pattern fits best with his heaping of self-serving adulation, going back again and again to his victimhood at the hands of voters who did not select him for a second term.

But the pattern is there. More routine police stops, confrontations and a killing of Black men driving emerged this week as well, including in the county where the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin in underway in the death of George Floyd from a police knee on his neck. But what we’re hearing in the news, in the now constant circulation of body cam footage, are alternative versions of reality.

We hear the same ping-pong of explanation about the effectiveness of one vaccine or the other, about whether the most horrific effects of children crossing the desert borders are being held in cages or in overcrowded dorms, about whether the pandemic is over because Florida has decided it is tired of dealing with it all. We’re bombarded with politically tinged charges that Democrats now are sending American jobs overseas, when the opposite seems true, and whether Republicans passed the coronavirus aid bills, which they refused to support.

A friend forwarded an article based on would-be effects of Team Biden outlawing guns — which they haven’t, by, um, a long shot — that posited that planned gun confiscation rather than, say, race and hate or the appropriate role of government in our lives, are at the base of what is becoming an extended civil war threatening to tear apart the nation.

Those Jan. 6 Trump-supporting insurrectionists at the U.S. Capitol weren’t promoting votes on gun legislation. They also weren’t leftist Antifa or a cheerful crowd.

We Are Truth Sifters

The pressure is on us to determine not only what is True, but what Makes Sense.

We should be able to listen to news and get, well, news. We can also get commentary, but why not expect that the comments are based on what actually happened. That’s usually bad enough. But video “evidence,” which ranges from a talking head saying it was so to events captured from a single viewpoint and perhaps edited to underscore the main point, are making us dismiss the news as biased.

Last week, Rep, Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., attacked The New York Times, my former employer, for attacking him over sexual assault charges. The Times didn’t do that; the FBI and Justice Departments are conducting their investigation, and The Times was just the first to report that the investigation had been underway long enough for Gaetz to have approached the White House with a request for a preemptive pardon. Does clarifying this make Gaetz any less a federal target for investigation?

The extended testimony being broadcast from the courtroom trial in Minneapolis should be instructive about the differences between a truth that this officer did something morally and professionally wrong and whatever truth is required for a jury to apply that knowledge to what is required by law for conviction.

Truth doesn’t come easily.

I do know that getting through the events of the day has become exhausting, which, rather than overturning the country, is prompting large numbers of people I know simply to turn away from all of it to focus on the issues before them that they can address personally.

Sure, unless it is a baseball game score — even then one view will be that team A squeaked by while another is that it was an expected romp — look at several accounts; they are easy enough to find. See if you can click on the links to original documents and read the court decision or the government report or even political statement involved before drawing a conclusion about what it All Will Mean. Think about what the sources were for the information being presented, and whether whoever is presenting it actually has done any work to verify it.

That is the hard work for journalists, not the show of asking questions at a press conference as if it is the presentation by the royal opposition. That is the hard work for newsmakers as well — to persuade — and not just to offer a photo op that tells the story of how immigration is swelling from the deck of a river gunboat.

A fuller understanding only comes with a little bit of rigor. Otherwise, you’re likely accepting someone else’s view of the world as imposed on the beginnings of fact-finding.