The political and militia showdown that's been unfolding around Oregon's state Capitol is a stunning news event by any modern standard. After fleeing the state in order to prevent a quorum that's needed for a vote on climate change legislation, Republicans are being aided by right-wing militia members who are promising to lay down their lives for the on-the-lam legislators. It was the threat of militia violence over the weekend that forced the Oregon State Police to close down the Legislature, while one Republican official went on the record warning about looming bloodshed. Yet the disturbing story about Republicans and armed, radical right-wing extremists disrupting government functions remains wildly underplayed in the press.
Partnering with armed militias in order to wage war against lawfully elected public officials and to attack a democratic government is a clear case of insurrection, and that's what's happening in Oregon. But the coverage remains scarce and perfunctory.
The New York Times ran an article on June 20 about the "tumult" surrounding Oregon Republicans who fled to Idaho, but only posted a one-paragraph update to the piece when fringe militia groups, according to the Oregon State Police and its superintendent, threatened “the safety of legislators, staff and citizen visitors" to the statehouse. "The Superintendent strongly recommends that no one come to the Capitol," the department announced on Saturday. This is stunning. White right-wing radicals in the Pacific Northwest unleashed threats of violence against Democrats for trying to pass climate change legislation, and the Times couldn't be bothered to publish a stand-alone article about the disturbing drama?
In an online CNN report, the fact that militia threats against Democrats closed down the statehouse wasn't mentioned until the ninth paragraph. Cable news coverage badly underplayed the Oregon story, given the radical events that unfolded and what they said about the dangerous actions of the Republican Party in the age of Donald Trump.
Between June 17 and June 24, there were fewer than 60 mentions of the story on cable news, according to the monitoring site TVeyes.com. As for Oregon stories that included a mention of "militia," there were fewer than 10 cable news reports.
The story may have been underplayed, but news-consumer interest remains high.
Three days after The Washington Post published a brief article titled "Threats from militia provoke shutdown at Oregon capitol, a day after GOP lawmakers fled," the piece still ranked as the paper's most-read story in the politics section.
At least one Democratic U.S. senator was able to describe the radical standoff with clarity in a way most of the press would not. "The official position of the Oregon Republican Party is that it supports a violent confrontation between a right wing terrorism group and state police because they are afraid to vote on a climate bill," tweeted Hawaii’s Brian Schatz.
To flip the script, if Black Lives Matter activists of color had forced a state capitol to shut down because of reported threats of violence against Republican legislators, do you think that would be covered as Very Big News for days on end, with virtually every elected Democrat being forced to answer for the activists' radical behavior? The answer, of course, is yes. So why the reluctance to loudly trumpet the Oregon story about radical Republicans? The press clings to its preferred narrative about how the GOP is filled with honest brokers who are waiting to work in good faith with Democrats.
How did the Oregon madness unfold? Democrats, who hold a supermajority in the Oregon Senate, had scheduled a vote on the cap-and-trade climate bill last week, but needed at least 20 senators present in order to have a quorum for a vote. When all the Republican senators fled the state, Democrats were not allowed to pass the bill. In response, Democratic Gov. Kate Brown, citing a provision in the state constitution that allows the state to “compel” absent lawmakers to attend legislative sessions, sent out state troopers to bring them back. The legislative session will end June 30, but the governor has said she's prepared to call a special session in July if the Republicans don’t return this month.
The story took a dangerous and ominous turn when far-right militia groups let it be known that they would be protecting the Republican lawmakers. "We have vowed to provide security, transportation and refuge for those Senators in need,” the Oregon Three Percenters wrote in a Facebook post. “We will stand together with unwavering resolve, doing whatever it takes to keep these Senators safe." One Oregon militia source told The Daily Beast that their members were “willing to put their own lives in front of these senators’ lives.” The source noted that the militias would defend the Republicans “at any cost.”
And let's be clear: These groups are dangerous. The Oregon Three Percenters previously joined an armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016. "The standoff began to unravel when authorities fatally shot the group’s spokesman and arrested key leaders as they headed to a community meeting," the Associated Press noted.
The open militia threats in Oregon came as one Republican state senator, Brian Boquist, made an explicit promise of violence if Republicans were forced by law enforcement to return and vote. "This is what I told the superintendent,” Boquist said, referring to Oregon State Police Superintendent Travis Hampton. “Send bachelors and come heavily armed. I’m not going to be a political prisoner in the state of Oregon. It’s just that simple."
The Republican Party under Trump continues to careen toward a dangerous and lawless place—and that should be treated as very big news.
Eric Boehlert is a veteran progressive writer and media analyst, formerly with Media Matters and Salon. He is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush and Bloggers on the Bus. You can follow him on Twitter @EricBoehlert.
This post was written and reported through our Daily Kos freelance program.