Mainstream media outlets seemed to adopt two different tactics while covering the Feb. 1 protest-turned-riot at University of California, Berkeley, over a speech set to be delivered by a prominent conservative provocateur.
The peaceful protest over Breitbart tech editor Milo Yiannopoulos’ impending speech turned violent when, according to a UC Berkeley statement provided to NBC News, 150 masked protesters set fires on campus and threw fireworks at police. The university promptly cancelled Yiannopoulous’ speech due to security concerns.
Most outlets played up the violence in their headlines. For example, USA Today went with: “Milo Yiannopoulous’ speech at UC-Berkeley canceled as protest turns violent.”
But other publications seemed more preoccupied with the speech getting shut down, like the first New York Times story on the protest that ran with the headline “Berkeley Cancels Milo Yiannopoulos Speech, and Donald Trump Tweets Outrage,” which also referred to President Trump’s tweet threatening to take away federal spending from UC Berkeley over the riot.
If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 2, 2017
Some, like Ashe Schow a campus culture reporter for the website Watchdog.org, believe focusing on the speech’s cancellation shows the mainstream media’s liberal bias peaking through.
“If your focus is on the speech being cancelled but not on it being cancelled because of the protest, that’s a kind of bias. And if the next thing you cover is Trump’s tweet, that’s a whole additional bias,” Schow told MediaFile, referring to that New York Times headline.
Schow thinks that liberal media bias when it comes to “protests on the left” is nothing new. She conceded that some events, like the Women’s March, are covered fairly. But she pointed to what she saw as a lack of coverage of violence perpetrated by Trump protesters on Inauguration Day as an example of the media failing to tell all sides of the story.
“When you think the story is that a right-wing provocateur’s speech got cancelled, it’s a bias,” she said.
Yiannopoulos speeches on college campuses get cancelled all the time, either because the university raises security costs the organizer can’t pay, like at the University of Maryland, or protesters make it impossible to proceed with the event, which happened at UC Berkeley and in January at University of California, Davis.
The Berkeley cancellation was particularly contentious because of the university’s history as “home of the Free Speech Movement” dating back to 1964. The rich history of counterculture “Cal” was fodder for many op-eds, calling for free speech for Milo and even to invite him back to campus in order to “reclaim its position as a beacon of free speech nationally.”
Schow said that in general, violent protests on college campuses are rare. But she thinks, given the media uproar following Trump’s controversial executive actions, we might be seeing more of them in the near future.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if this became more normal under Trump because it’s more acceptable in the media,” she said.
Nanette Asimov, the San Francisco Chronicle’s education reporter, covered the UC Berkeley protest and agreed that the violence was the story more than its result. However, she chalks up the instances of national outlets highlighting the speech’s cancellation over the violence as a matter of prioritizing what they think their audiences need to know.
“If you’re not a local [paper] but you still need to cover it, you’re covering it just once,” Asimov told MediaFile. “So you have to tell your readers what’s going on and some of that might have to dwell on, who is this guy Milo and what is his background? They might have had to do extra duty and pack more stuff into their story.”
She does not buy into the liberal bias theory, saying that in her view, mainstream journalists are “dedicated to independent and fair coverage that is opinion-free.” Asimov believes that implications of bias just prove that journalists are doing their jobs exceedingly well.
“When both sides are accusing you, you should feel proud because you’re being fair and impartial,” she said. “So when people accuse the press of excluding one point of view, they really need to give examples.”
Protests are becoming a mainstay of the Trump administration, and how the mainstream media chooses to cover them will color their perception in the near future and beyond.