At a range rights gathering, the press was in the crosshairs

In the era of social media, far-right activists aim to subvert mainstream journalists.

 

Last Friday, in front of a small crowd of farmers and ranchers gathered in Modesto, California, U.S. Congressman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., said, “It’s a very dangerous time in our nation’s history ... The media is totally corrupt. They won’t cover the truth.” Referring to several reporters mixed in with the 40 or so attendees, he told the gathering, “The media that’s here, that’s covering this right now, I’m sure they’re here to mock you, make fun of you, call you cowpokes … They’re here to perpetuate their brand of politics, which is a socialist brand of politics.” To be heard, Nunes said, his listeners would need to circumvent the mainstream media.

Also on stage with Nunes was Trent Loos, a farmer and radio host from Nebraska and a member of the Trump administration’s agriculture advisory committee. Loos was master of ceremonies at the symposium, and told me he thought the congressman “hit a home run” with his comments that day.

Ammon Bundy speaks during the Range Rights and Resources Symposium in Modesto, California.
Andy Alfaro/Modesto Bee via ZUMA Wire

The audience at Modesto Junior College was assembled for the Range Rights and Resources Symposium, an event to discuss property rights, which in the West often means grazing, water, mining, timber and land rights, and can connote small-government politics. Conservative thinkers on range management and natural resource law networked with Constitutional rights activists and the sons of well-known late Nevada Sagebrush rebels Wayne Hage and Grant Gerber, both of whom spent their lives fighting what they described as federal overreach.

Over two days, several of the 24 speakers echoed Nunes’ derision of a “corrupt” and broken fourth estate. They urged attendees to share information through smart marketing and their own social media channels. As the distrust of mainstream media expands under the Trump administration, the symposium revealed how the four-decade-old Sagebrush Rebellion is making use of social media and alternative online sources to push its message. 

The annual symposium is a direct outgrowth of the 2016 armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, led by Ammon Bundy. Following the 41-day occupation, an ad hoc group of supporters sought ways to continue spreading awareness about what they saw as federal overreach. Thus, the Range Rights and Resources Symposium was born. They held the first event in May 2016 in Layton, Utah, and the second last year in Bellevue, Nebraska.

The symposium also receives backing from bigger players in the Sagebrush Rebellion. A co-sponsor, National Federal Lands Conference, was founded by Utahns Kathy and Bert Smith, whom E&E News once called “Mr. Sagebrush Rebellion,” for his lifelong efforts to turn federal lands over to state control. Bert Smith also helped found the National Center for Constitutional Studies, a nonprofit that distributes the paperback Constitutions that have become a fixture in the shirt pockets of today’s Sagebrush Rebels and far-right activists nationwide. He died at the age of 95 in 2016, two months before the first Range Rights and Resources Symposium.

A small group of public lands advocates, led by the Center for Biological Diversity, protest Ammon Bundy outside the Modesto Junior College Ag Pavillion, and several Bundy supporters stand nearby. | Video by Tay Wiles

The mission of the event’s other sponsor, Protect the Harvest, is to fight the Humane Society of the United States and “to defend and preserve the freedoms of American consumers, farmers, ranchers, outdoor enthusiasts, and animal owners.” The nonprofit’s website states that “extreme special interests in America have evolved into a wealthy and successful attack industry determined to control our farmers, eliminate hunting, outlaw animal exhibitions (like rodeos and circuses), and restrict animal ownership.”

Some presenters cast distrust in mainstream media as an opportunity. “We are the new media,” Kimberly Fletcher, founder of a conservative advocacy group Home Makers for America, said in her speech on Saturday about how to craft resonant messaging around property rights and other issues. “I work for Townhall.com and I will write any truth you send me … Even if the media won’t report it, social media is powerful.” As long as you frame the message right, people will hear you, Fletcher said. She offered a bit of advice on DIY marketing of conservative values, such as:  ‘Individual doesn’t work right now because it makes it sound like Im more important than you. Make it about family, make it about moms. 

Nunes’ deriding of the press found a positive reception with many attendees. Kathy Smith described Nunes, who is also chair of the House Intelligence Committee, as “a straight shooter.” She agreed with his comments at the event: “He sounded like more often than not, he’s distrustful of the mainstream media, doesn’t count on them to tell stories correctly,” Smith said. “It’s really, really unfortunate that so many of us in the American public don’t trust the media either. Thank heavens we have independent media sources and the internet.”

Near the end of the conference on Saturday afternoon, Ammon Bundy took the stage to describe his family’s battle over grazing rights as part of a religious war. In an hour-long speech that often resembled a sermon, Bundy called environmentalists “an enemy to humans,” and said they are driven by a non-Judeo-Christian theology. He also read from the New American magazine, which is published by a subsidiary of the far-right group John Birch Society: “United Nations is essentially a global government under construction. The fact that the U.N. functions as a church for the religion of environmentalists reveals just how dangerous this religion is.” Bundy also said that water shortage and overpopulation are “lies,” adding later: “If anybody wants where my sources are from, I can give them to you; I'll just send you an email later.”

Tay Wiles is an associate editor for High Country News. [email protected]

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