It's been a rough summer for independent Portland journalist Andy Ngo: Antifa activists beat him up at a June 29 rally, and now many in left-of-center media have accused him of being complicit in a far-right attack that took place some weeks earlier.
But despite widespread insistence that Ngo knew members of the far-right group Patriot Prayer were about to instigate violence, the underlying evidence is incredibly thin. At worst, new video footage reveals Ngo to be inattentive and preoccupied with his phone at key moments. This information strengthens concerns about the selectivity of Ngo's reporting, but falls far short of proving that he knew about a planned attack.
"The accusations are defamatory and they're false," Ngo told Reason. "I'm seeing myself being un-personed."
On August 26, a member of Patriot Prayer known pseudonymously as "Ben" revealed to the Portland Mercury that he was actually an undercover antifa activist who had taken it upon himself to inform his fellow antifa members about the activities and whereabouts of area right-wing extremists.
Ben surreptitiously recorded 18 minutes of video footage showing several right-wing protesters in the run-up to a violent scuffle between Patriot Prayer and antifa that took place at Cider Riot, a left-wing sympathetic restaurant, on May 1. The owner of Cider Riot has sued Patriot Prayer's leader, Joey Gibson, for trespassing on private property, and Gibson and five of his group are facing felony charges for inciting a riot. Ben's video was submitted as evidence by Cider Riot's legal defense team.
The video, as well as Portland Mercury reporter Alex Zielinski's description of it, has led to widespread denunciation—not just of Patriot Prayer, but also of Ngo, a former reporter for Quillette who is known for documenting confrontations between right-wing and left-wing groups in the Portland area.
Many in the media have said Ngo is biased against antifa, and in favor of far-right groups like Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys. Critics say that Ngo selectively edits his videos of the scuffles to make it seem like antifa activists are the aggressors. Some of these critics have a point, and in his conversation with Reason, Ngo conceded that he's gotten things wrong, and has been overly focused on covering moments of physical confrontation between the two groups.
"There's some merit in some of the criticisms of things that I've gotten wrong," he said. "I want to become a better journalist and better reporter on these things."
But Ben's video—which shows Ngo in the company of a small group of Gibson's associates immediately prior to the Cider Riot battle—is being widely cited in the media as evidence that Patriot Prayer did indeed conspire to attack Cider Riot, and that Ngo was tacitly involved. The coverage all but brands him as a co-conspirator.
This clip, shot right before Patriot Prayer arrived at Cider Riot on May Day, is the clearest evidence I've seen supporting the claim that PP & leader Joey Gibson were intent on instigating a fight that afternoon. https://t.co/G1iM9XUDi2
— Alex Zielinski (@alex_zee) August 22, 2019
"Right-wing writer Andy Ngo is with the PP group the entire time as they plan out their attack," wrote Zielinksi on Twitter. "He smiles as they joke about being outnumbered. There's no way he couldn't know the group was planning on instigating violence against people at Cider Riot."
Reacting to the Portland Mercury article, as well as same-day news that Ngo would be leaving Quillette, Will Sommer of The Daily Beast wrote that Ngo "witnessed activists from the far-right group Patriot Prayer planning a violent confrontation" and that he was "standing next to the far-right activists as they planned an attack on their political opponents." His article was headlined "Right-Wing Star Andy Ngo Exits Quillette After Damning Video Surfaces," and carried the subhed: "The writer and photog is out of a job after being caught in incriminating undercover footage with right-wing activists. His former employer insists the two events aren't related." Sommer did not respond to my request for comment.
What was so "damning" and "incriminating" about the video was largely unexplained, though Sommer did include a quote from Quillette Editor in Chief Claire Lehmann, who explained that Ngo's departure had nothing to do with the new video footage, and had been agreed upon by both parties some weeks ago. (Lehmann confirmed this to Reason.)
Other media outlets followed the Portland Mercury's lead in asserting that Ngo clearly overheard Patriot Prayer planning violence, and smiled and laughed in response.
"Video has surfaced of Ngo smiling and laughing with members of the far-right group Patriot Prayer shortly before they allegedly orchestrated an attack on a group of antifascists at a leftist bar in a separate incident in May," wrote Vice.
The Williamette Week went even further, asserting that Ngo "is coordinating his movements and his message with right-wing groups." As evidence, the paper cited an audio recording of one of the Proud Boys concluding that Ngo's June 29 injuries were a result of him declining the Proud Boys' protection. "Andy Ngo was fucking told that if he wanted protection from the PBs [Proud Boys], he went in with us and he went out with us," said the man. The Williamette Week apparently took this as evidence of collusion between Ngo and the far-right, when it was really evidence of the opposite.
In any case, the message coming from left-of-center media was clear: Patriot Prayer planned the Cider Riot attack, Ngo was tacitly involved, and Ben's video proves it.
The problem, of course, is that the video—which mostly depicts a small group of people standing around, discussing which side of the street they should walk on when and if they approach antifa, and conversing with the undercover Ben—proves no such thing. I have watched it from start to finish at least five times, and it does not even establish that the group of right-wing agitators planned an attack—let alone that Ngo was aware of such a plot. Indeed, the Portland Mercury article that received such rave reviews from The Daily Beast, Vice, Media Matters, and others makes little effort to explain what was so damning about the video, and Zielinski spends much of her article lionizing Ben's actions without offering any independent scrutiny of his claims. Ngo says she did not reach out to him before publishing the article, and she confirmed this in an email to Reason. When asked about some of the claims in her piece, Zielinski said, "I can tell you're concerned with my coverage on a larger scale, and I'm sure my response won't change that."
Media Matters' summary of the article contains the thrust of the new information provided by the video:
As the group waits, they discuss their weaponry. A few men try to guess which way the wind's blowing to avoid getting "spray" in their eyes, presumably when they use it against members of antifa. Another man holds a thick wooden dowel, and practices swinging it like a baseball bat. A woman carries a red brick in her hand. Some don goggles, helmets, and tactical gloves.
Ben captures someone telling a person on speakerphone, "There's going to be a huge fight," and gives them directions to Cider Riot.
Ngo doesn't film any of the conversations, and smiles when the group cracks jokes.
"He overheard everything," Ben recalls, "and said nothing."
The video does make it look like the members of Patriot Prayer were prepared for a fight—some do have weapons—and perhaps eager for one to take place. But it does not establish they intend to initiate a fight, and many of their comments could be understood along the lines of this is what we will do if a fight breaks out. "There's going to be a huge fight," could be a prediction instead of a command. One woman states to Ben that "if you get sprayed, I've got the water," which would suggest that she was thinking defensively rather than offensively.
I do not mean to excuse the actions of Patriot Prayer, whose members and associates deliberately seek out conflict with antifa for no reason other than to portray their adversaries as violent. Nor am I claiming that Patriot Prayer were the victims in the eventual confrontation. Individual members may well have been responsible for inciting a riot. But Ben's video does not constitute footage of a riot being planned.
Regarding Ngo, while the claims being made about him do contain "kernels of truth," as he concedes, there is a vast chasm between what the video actually shows versus what it is alleged to show.
Far from being engaged in conservation with Gibson's associates and intently involved in what they are saying, Ngo appears in the video only occasionally, and is mostly in the periphery, pacing and incessantly checking his phone. Ngo told Reason that he was scanning the internet for reports from other journalists pertaining to the earlier violence of the day, during which Ngo was punched in the stomach. He was much more interested in his social media feed than the conversations around him.
"The people are milling around for like probably an hour," he said. "I was just like, nothing was happening. I wasn't paying attention to what was being said because there's just a whole bunch of different random conversations. I didn't see any evidence of a violent conspiracy to launch an attack."
Ngo said that contrary to some of the media reports, he never laughed at what Patriot Prayer folks were saying. He admits he responded with a faint smile "out of pity" when someone mentioned that antifa had them outnumbered.
"On a good day they're outnumbered like 10-to-one," said Ngo. "It's futile, really. I view these demonstrations that they're doing in Portland as futile, so that's why I smiled."
Ngo told me he had no idea they were headed to an antifa hotspot until they drew near to Cider Riot.
"I was preoccupied on my phone," he said.
I asked Ngo if he noticed that one of the women was clutching a brick. He said he didn't see it.
"At that point, where those people are standing was pretty far from Cider Riot. There was nothing going on, so I wasn't in the space to sort of look out for like, 'What are people having in their hands?' and all that."
I pressed Ngo on why he recorded moments of violence between antifa and Patriot Prayer, but turned his camera off during quieter moments like these.
"When antifa shows up in the downtown setting within the black block as a group, that setting, they're coming at least for immediate physical confrontation," said Ngo. "I guess I see those things more easily, so I think that's a fair criticism. I should have noticed [things like the brick]."
It's one thing to criticize Ngo's reporting, and I agree with his critics that the singular focus on antifa's violence can create a false impression that they are always the instigators. It's quite another to imply that he is actively in league with antifa's enemies—a strong claim that is unsupported by the new video. If this footage shows anything, it's that Ngo was buried in his phone and missed out on an interesting story. It does not show that fascist aggression brought a smile to his face.