When Buzzfeed’s Joe Bernstein isn’t busy slandering PewDiePie or doxxing a 14-year-old girl for having edgy YouTube content, he writes the occasional profile. Recently, he set his sights on Andy Ngo—a prominent journalist who frequently gets in harm’s way as he documents the activities of Antifa. Ngo has been doing this work for a long time, and he’s good at it. He’s part of the new alt media that with backpack and bus pass goes after a story with nothing but cell phones, GoPros, and apps.
Bernstein travelled to Portland and managed to document the moments leading up to and after Antifa’s violent June 29th assault on Ngo. While conceding that the attack was unprovoked, and that Ngo was a helpless victim, he is hesitant to give Ngo the credit he deserves for his excellent journalism. Bernstein was fair at times (by Buzzfeed’s standards), but what’s striking about his article is that it reads like a last-minute rewrite done to accommodate for the inconvenient fact that Antifa brutally assaulted Ngo during the course of its writing.
Language that reveals Bernstein’s original bias still peppers the piece: “I was in talks to shadow him at the upcoming demonstration, which I thought might be a good way to illustrate how Ngo constructs an incendiary political narrative out of a narrow selection of facts.”
Bernstein suggests that Ngo lacks integrity where Antifa is concerned. Then real violence happened and Bernstein found out the facts didn’t support his supposition. To his credit, Bernstein tells the truth about the assault itself: “Nothing he did that day suggested that he planned or even secretly wanted to be assaulted, which has been a common enough refrain in the days since from some on the left. The attack was not provoked.”
But without missing a beat, he pivots to a position of typical Buzzfeed-style victim-blaming: “Ngo has been building to a dramatic confrontation with the Portland far left for months, his star rising along with the severity of the encounters.”
Bernstein writes almost apologetically about Ngo’s Antifa attackers, referring to them as a “leaderless activist group … that has been skillfully transmogrified by the conservative media into one of the gravest threats facing Americans in 2019—the rampant id of an already irrational left.” It’s almost as if an Antifa member didn’t firebomb a federal immigration facility just last week.
Bernstein is right to profile Ngo. This is a new kind of journalism that intones the old standards, but also has to create new ones. But he speaks of Ngo’s work in low key insults: “He is willing to make himself the story and to stream himself doing it. … I’m not even sure Ngo is a troll.” The fact that Bernstein is so obsessed with Ngo’s “star” status is very telling.
Bernstein talks about the Ngo attack footage like its akin to a wannabe it girl’s attention-grabbing sex tape as opposed to police evidence of a criminal assault. In new media, the journalist is as much a part of the story as the story itself.
No one is fooling themselves anymore into believing that there is true objectivity. The presence of a journalist while covering a story or event absolutely changes that story, it changes the behaviour of the actors in the story, and the individual journalist’s perspective colours the way the story is reported. The public is too smart to not know when their story is being told, and to get in on the action.
Journalists of the alt and new media aren’t fooling themselves into believing that they are separate entities, flies on proverbial walls, they know they’re as much a part of what they’re covering as the story itself. The best they can do is be as objective as possible with regard to their own perspective, and Ngo, even when bleeding and cut up, excels at observing the story, his place in it, and his perception. Bernstein minimizes Ngo’s freelance work by calling it “Uberized” and geared to “inflammatory content.”
Reporting is not the same beast as it was in the 20th Century. Newsrooms are consistently decimated. Writers get paid based on clicks. Freelance journalists go out there and do the work the mainstream media won’t do, and then are shamed for it. New media writers have to earn readers’ trust that the mainstream media has so casually tossed away. The reporter is both the conduit and the brand, and every word they write is their own, for which they alone are accountable.
Bernstein writes, “Since then, Ngo has maintained a running list on Twitter of alleged hate crimes that have turned out to be fabrications, exaggerations, or committed by minority groups against other minority groups. The entries in the list, which now run to well more than a hundred, have been retweeted hundreds of thousands of times.”
This seems to be a very dubious thing for a person purporting to be an objective journalist to point out. The goal of journalism should be to report truths, no matter how inconvenient. And in this current age of social panic, documenting hoaxes is vital work.
Bernstein goes on to describe Ngo’s methods as “unsafe, inimical to good journalism, and border on propagandistic,” but then adds: “he’s not a grifter.” Bernstein’s heartless rendering of Ngo’s ordeal and sliming of his professional work is maddening to behold. Especially since it’s rendered in such a glib tone.
What is the point of a journalist trying to take down another journalist? Bernstein doesn’t attack Ngo for errors, for misreporting, or for any professional reason, but merely because he doesn’t like his style or his presumed ideology.
As Claire Lehmann quite rightly points out, these kind of journalist-journalist hit pieces are likely to continue. It’s a symptom of the fact that the established outlets are rapidly dying. They don’t know what to do about it, or how to compete with the lean, hungry new outlets, so they attack. “As the media industry contracts, you will increasingly see journalists focusing their criticism on other journalists. Normal readers will increasingly switch off, leading to further contraction.”
If you want to take someone down, outshine them. There’s no call for this kind of professional discourtesy. But the old heads don’t feel a kinship with the new writers. And the new writers are too busy trying to stake a claim to reach out to the more established crowd.
Bernstein concludes with a confession:
If I’m being honest, I wasn’t only thinking about his safety. I was afraid of being the reporter who did not prevent Andy Ngo from being beaten. I was also, if I’m being really honest, afraid of being the reporter who prevented Andy Ngo from being beaten. I realized very clearly that anyone documenting the scene at that moment had the power to put me in any public context they wished to, had the power to change my life. I was aware how that would be good content, and how that might feel like violence.
It’s a stunning admission. It’s rhetorically clever because Bernstein is painting himself as a flawed and conflicted character. But it also reveals his cowardice, and his depressingly progressive tendency to equate language and narrative with actual violence.
Bernstein claims that he doesn’t want to be part of the story, but he’s aware of the fact that he has no control over it. He’s part of the story whether he wants to be or not. The time when there was a fourth wall between journalists and their subjects is gone. We’re all documenting, and we’re all documented.
In the end, Bernstein comes off jealous of Ngo’s journalistic acuity and popularity. His reporting on Ngo’s reporting is shallow and careerist. He dwells on Ngo’s rising star paragraph after paragraph in a way that suggests that he’s reflecting on his and his outlet’s fading limelight. It’s not a good look, but it is a look that Buzzfeed wears often these days.