The Media Today

The attacks on press freedom in Portland

July 24, 2020

This week Dave Miller, who hosts a daily talk show on Oregon Public Broadcasting, interviewed “two very tired people”: Tuck Woodstock and Sergio Olmos, both independent journalists. Since late May, daily protests in solidarity with Black lives and against police brutality have taken place in Portland. Local outlets have often sent reporters, but not to cover every protest; mainstream national outlets mostly ignored Portland until last week, when OPB reported that federal agents in unmarked vehicles were snatching protesters off the streets. By contrast, freelancers like Woodstock and Olmos have been out night after night, documenting the scene.

Miller asked Woodstock and Olmos about the power balance between protesters and law enforcement, the ethics of livestreaming (The Oregonian has reported that federal agents are using live online videos to surveil and make arrests), and the physical threats that reporters face. “I’ve been out there for the majority of the last fiftysomething nights,” Woodstock said, “and I have never once felt unsafe by the actions of a protester. But I have, almost every night, felt unsafe by either the actions of Portland police or the federal law enforcement.” Without the institutional backing of a newsroom, freelancers in Portland have helped equip one another with protective gear—helmets, gas masks, Kevlar. “As independent journalists, we’re not getting a paycheck, so we’re really risking it just in the hope that people will compensate us for it,” Woodstock said. Local and federal officers had been violent for a while, Olmos added, but in recent days federal agents raised the risk level, pointing assault rifles and handguns at reporters. “It is as dangerous as it’s ever been out there,” Olmos said.

ICYMI: Transnationally Asian

Horrifying stories of law enforcement abusing reporters have emerged from Portland. Officers have routinely teargassed and beaten journalists. A federal agent, in full military getup, knelt on the back of Rian Dundon, a photojournalist on assignment for the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Two other photojournalists—Jon House, of the Portland Tribune, and Alex Milan Tracy, who works for wire services—were struck by federal officers’ impact munitions. Mike Baker, who’s been covering the protests for the New York Times, reported that a federal agent punched him in the head. Yesterday, The Daily, a Times podcast, featured a dispatch from Baker in which he can be heard choking on tear gas. Another reporter, Eddy Binford-Ross, was shoved against a wall, and said that a federal agent cocked a gun at her. Binford-Ross is seventeen and has been covering the protests for her student paper, the South Salem High School Clypian. “I feel like the protest could go downhill very fast,” she told Katie Shepherd, of the Washington Post. “I think it’s incredibly important that people continue to be out there every night reporting on this.”

On Wednesday, the US Press Freedom Tracker observed that, since May 26—the day after Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis police officer, killed George Floyd, a Black man, igniting protests nationwide—it has received fifty-two reports of journalists being abused in Portland, including eight physical attacks by law enforcement and five arrests. (In late June, local police arrested three reporters—Cory Elia and Lesley McLam, who are podcast hosts at the community radio station KBOO, and Justin Yau, a freelancer—on a single night.) According to the Press Freedom Tracker’s figures, since Floyd’s death, the only area that’s been less safe for reporters appears to be the Twin Cities, Minneapolis and Saint Paul.

In recent days, journalists on the ground have spoken about the toll of militarized police aggression. Sandi Bachom, a video journalist, said on Twitter that she has covered hundreds of protests where tear gas was used—and none could compare to the continuing attacks by officers in Portland. On Tuesday, Mathieu Lewis-Rolland, a photographer who doesn’t normally cover hard news, told BuzzFeed that the previous night’s scene was “the most horrifying thing I have ever experienced.” He added, “I’m supposed to be taking pictures of music festivals and weddings this summer. Instead I’m having federal officers point AR-15s at my fucking face.” On Wednesday, Karina Brown, who has covered protests in Oregon for years, and has written about the recent violence for Courthouse News Service, wrote in an op-ed that her treatment by law enforcement holds “an echo” of sexual abuse she experienced as a child. “Don’t those fuckers know I’m sacred?” Brown asked, of agents in Portland who taunted and chased her. “That every one of us out there is?”

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On Wednesday, the city of Portland banned local police from targeting journalists and observers from non-journalistic groups that monitor police conduct, and from cooperating with federal agents. Jo Ann Hardesty, a city commissioner, told The Oregonian that the order was necessary because Chuck Lovell, Portland’s police chief, had recently told her that he didn’t believe journalists enjoyed special protections under the Constitution, and should be subject to the same dispersal orders as protesters. In court this week, lawyers for the federal government expressed a similar view. Yesterday, a federal judge disagreed, issuing a two-week restraining order that will bar federal officers from targeting, threatening, or dispersing journalists and legal observers in Portland.

That ruling is welcome. But it’s worth remembering, as Wesley Lowery and others have pointed out in the past, that reporters enjoy the same First Amendment rights as everyone else, including protesters. We shouldn’t rely on legal exemptions to stand outside that dynamic; the state isn’t just crushing journalism in Portland, it’s crushing speech writ large, and our coverage must urgently reflect that. In her op-ed Wednesday, Brown wrote that, in the eyes of traditional journalists, she should have kept her terror facing police and federal officers to herself. “But to me, objectivity in journalism creates a disembodied voice,” Brown wrote. “It fails to come from both everywhere and nowhere and instead encapsulates the perspective of the powerful rather than afflicting it. I come from somewhere. I come from right here.”

Below, more on Portland, protests, and race in America:

Other notable stories:

  • When the pandemic hit, causing a devastating decline in advertising, BuzzFeed furloughed seventy-four staffers. Now, Bloomberg’s Gerry Smith reports, fifty of those staffers—ten of whom worked at BuzzFeed News—have been laid off. According to CNN’s Kerry Flynn, the New York Post also made cuts yesterday: it laid off roughly twenty-five staffers, including some who had previously been on furlough. The ad collapse isn’t just affecting news outlets—Twitter, too, has taken a hit. Yesterday, Jack Dorsey, its CEO, said he’s now considering adding a subscription component to Twitter. CNN’s Brian Fung has more.
  • The Google News Initiative, which established a relief fund in April, has since distributed nearly $40 million to more than 5,600 local outlets worldwide. Yesterday, Google outlined how recipients—including the Lawton Constitution, in Oklahoma; El Diario, in Argentina; and Narcity Media, in Canada—have used the cash, “from ensuring basic reporting needs and giving emergency stipends to allow reporters to cover the crisis, to driving audience engagement and generating subscriptions.”
  • For CJR, Sonam Vashi profiles the National Immigration Detention Hotline, which is run by a pro-migrant advocacy group and acts as a link between detention centers and the outside world. The hotline is “one of the only methods journalists have for gaining firsthand accounts from inside facilities that remain a national scandal,” Vashi writes.
  • Recently, Michael Cohen—Trump’s former fixer, who flipped, and is now writing a book about him—was sent back to jail after refusing to agree to a gag order—a condition of his home confinement. Yesterday, a federal judge ruled that probation officers’ decision to return Cohen to jail amounted to retaliation and infringed on Cohen’s First Amendment rights. Cohen will now return to home confinement.
  • On Monday, Fox’s Tucker Carlson falsely claimed on air that the Times was planning to publish his home address, and threatened to broadcast the addresses of a Times reporter, photographer, and editor. Within hours of Carlson’s tirade, the reporter faced a barrage of online threats; someone tried to break in to the home of the photographer. The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple has more details.
  • On Wednesday, Katie Robertson and Ben Smith, of the Times, reported on allegations of bullying and sexist behavior by Troy Young, the president of Hearst Magazines. Initially, Young offered a statement that was largely received as a non-apology. Yesterday afternoon, he emailed staff with a more sincere apology; later, he resigned. Steven Swartz, Hearst’s CEO, characterized Young’s departure as a mutual decision. The Times has more.
  • For CJR, Brett Murphy—who writes a newsletter called Local Matters, which aggregates investigative stories from across the US—observes that, despite the economic toll of the pandemic, many local outlets are still doing outstanding work. “Today’s public health and civil rights crises have given rise to remarkable feats of local accountability journalism,” Murphy writes. “Such fast-twitch work shows readers where to channel their attention, ire, and activism.”
  • Recently, The Day, a British news site for schoolchildren, published an article criticizing remarks made by J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, about trans people and gender. In response, Rowling threatened legal action. The Day has since apologized. Rowling recently signed a high-profile open letter warning of “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.”
  • And baseball is back. Last night, the Nationals faced the Yankees, and current events loomed large: the players took a knee in solidarity with Black lives, fans were barred because of the pandemic, and Dr. Anthony Fauci threw out the opening pitch. (I am British, and even I would have done a better job.) Rain curtailed play, but the Yankees won, 4–1. The press covered the weirdness.

Related: The mystery of Tucker Carlson

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.