The Media Today

The police abuse the press. Again.

June 1, 2020

On Friday night—as mass protests sparked by the deaths of George Floyd, in Minneapolis, and Black Americans in Kentucky, Georgia, and elsewhere convulsed America—anchors with wave 3 News, the NBC affiliate in Louisville, Kentucky, were conversing on air with Kaitlin Rust, a reporter who was out covering protests in the city, when Rust cried out twice. “I’m getting shot,” she shouted. Police, Rust said, were firing pepper balls at her. wave’s camera zoomed in on one officer, who cocked his gun and fired multiple rounds back at the camera. 

It was a stomach-churning scene, but not an incongruous one; as the weekend progressed and the protests continued, police officers abused journalists in cities across America. Some—like Omar Jimenez, the CNN reporter who was cuffed live on air Friday morning—were arrested for doing their jobs; others, like Rust, became targets for police weapons, sometimes clearly deliberately. In Minneapolis alone, at least a dozen reporters faced some form of violence. On Friday, Linda Tirado, a freelance photographer, lost her left eye after she was struck by what she believes was a rubber bullet fired by police. On Saturday, MSNBC’s Ali Velshi, two video journalists with Reuters, a CBS News crew, and Tom Aviles, a photojournalist with local station WCCO, all likewise reported being struck with rubber bullets; police also forced Aviles to the floor and arrested him. Officers teargassed a group of journalists including Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Carolyn Cole, of the LA Times; pepper-sprayed and arrested the writer Simon Moya-Smith; and shot out the car window of Ryan Faircloth, a reporter with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, while he was driving, propelling shards of glass into Faircloth’s face and arm. Michael Anthony Adams, of Vice, filmed on his phone as police raided a gas station where he was taking shelter. Adams can be heard yelling “PRESS” at an officer advancing toward him with a gun; the officer can be heard replying, “I don’t care, get down.” A second officer then pepper-sprayed Adams in the face.

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It wasn’t just Minneapolis. In New York, police arrested Christopher Mathias, of HuffPost, and Keith Boykin, a commentator on CNN who was documenting proceedings with his phone. In Las Vegas, police arrested photojournalists Bridget Bennett and Ellen Schmidt, who were on assignment, respectively, for Agence France-Presse and the Las Vegas Review-Journal. In Detroit, police pepper-sprayed journalists with the Free Press and slapped away a phone that one of its reporters was using to record. In Los Angeles, Cerise Castle, of the radio station KCRW, was hit with a rubber bullet, and another journalist, Lexis-Olivier Ray, said an officer hit him in the stomach. Yesterday, police in Des Moines, Iowa, pepper-sprayed, then arrested, Andrea Sahouri, of the Register. According to the paper’s account, Sahouri could be seen on local TV, “wailing in pain,” her hands zip-tied behind her back.

It wasn’t just the police—in cities across the country, including Denver, Pittsburgh, Phoenix, and Seattle, reporters were attacked by protesters, too. In Washington, DC, demonstrators attacked a team from Fox News and struck Leland Vittert, a Fox correspondent, with his microphone. In Atlanta, protesters vandalized CNN’s headquarters; the building also houses a police precinct, but according to CNN, anti-media chants could be heard. Unsurprisingly, media critics blamed President Trump’s rhetoric for the wave of anti-media violence. Also unsurprisingly, Trump poured gasoline on the fire, tweeting Saturday that “Fake News is the Enemy of the People.”

Trump’s rhetoric clearly doesn’t help. But there are much deeper issues at stake here—especially when it comes to police violence against reporters. Law enforcement have long targeted journalists covering protests. In 2014, for instance, at least eleven reporters were arrested while covering unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, while others faced threats and attacks; oftentimes, as The Intercept founder Jeremy Scahill noted yesterday, reporters at protests are “unfamous journalists from non-corporate outlets,” so their mistreatment goes unremarked upon. Too often, so does the routine abuse of protesters in America. Many of the journalists targeted this weekend reported that police attacked them even though they were prominently waving their press badges; that’s monstrous, but really, the badges are irrelevant. Wesley Lowery, who was himself arrested while covering Ferguson for the Washington Post, tweeted yesterday that the “ ‘escalating war on the freedom of the press!’ narrative” misses crucial context. “Journalists are not a specially protected class of First Amendment users,” he wrote. “It is no *more* outrageous for a reporter to be targeted with tear gas or rubber bullets or arrest than it is for a citizen peacefully assembling & chanting (no matter how angry) to be met with that same force.”

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In other words, journalists are people first. The context of these protests—and the racist violence that occasioned them—means that covering them is, inevitably, much more dangerous for journalists of color than it is for their white colleagues. On Friday, CNN’s Josh Campbell, who is white, reported that police in Minneapolis allowed him to stay put at the same time that they were arresting his colleague Jimenez, who is Black; on Saturday, police in Detroit interrogated a Black reporter from the Free Press while leaving his white colleagues alone. As several journalists of color attested over the weekend, having to cover repeat instances of police brutality is emotionally traumatizing, too. “In journalism school they teach you the importance of removing yourself from the story,” L.Z. Granderson wrote in the LA Times on Saturday. “But there aren’t any courses on managing your mental health when you are repeatedly reflected in gut-wrenching stories.” Amanda Barrett, of the AP, wrote of her anger, as an African-American journalist, at having to “explain, again and again, how dehumanizing this all is.”

Despite what our colleagues of color have been saying for years, the clear history of police abusing protesters and the press, and the shocking videos involving Jimenez, Rust, and others, too many outlets continue to cover the police credulously. This weekend, that manifested in ways large and small. Official narratives about the protests—around “outside agitators,” for instance—percolated through coverage, even though many of them were misleading, or at least lacking in nuance. (To cite one especially egregious example, the Minnesota State Patrol claimed that Jimenez and his colleagues were released “once they were confirmed to be members of the media,” despite the journalists’ repeatedly having identified themselves as such during their live-on-TV arrests.) More broadly, the routine police violence often felt off-center in the weekend’s grand narratives. A New York Times tweet referring passively to police abuse, but actively to violence committed by protesters, was perhaps an accident, but was held up as telling regardless. Some outlets were forthright—online, Slate won plaudits for its headline “Police Erupt in Violence Nationwide”—but such framing was far from ubiquitous.

The protest wave we’re seeing is complex and multifaceted, and thus very hard to cover. Any full account, though, must centrally note the misconduct of police officers—both in the killings of Floyd and other Black Americans, and in the demonstrations that have followed—because police officers are the actors that the state has authorized to commit violence. That demands sharp scrutiny, not fuzziness or credulity. It’s hard to imagine a better reminder of our role here than the particularly widespread abuse of journalists that we witnessed this weekend—whether that was a product of the geographical scale of the protests, Trump-inspired brazenness, the fact some of the abuses were captured on camera, or something else entirely. The video of the Louisville police officer taking aim at a news camera tells a thousand words.

Below, more on the police, the protests, and the press:

  • “Officials say…”: For CJR’s Fall 2019 print magazine on disinformation, Alexandria Neason explored how police departments plant false narratives in the press. “In cases of police brutality, law enforcement still has the upper hand: American culture, including the press, gives cops the benefit of the doubt,” Neason wrote. On Friday, Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, discussed the current protests with Neason and Danielle Belton, editor in chief of The Root, on our podcast, The Kicker.
  • A satirical eye: For the Post, Karen Attiah imagines how Western media would cover the Minneapolis protests if they were happening in any other country. “In recent years, the international community has sounded the alarm on the deteriorating political and human rights situation in the United States under the regime of Donald Trump,” Attiah writes, satirically. “Now, as the country marks 100,000 deaths from the coronavirus pandemic, the former British colony finds itself in a downward spiral of ethnic violence.”
  • On Jimenez and CNN: Doreen St. Félix, a TV writer at The New Yorker, reflects on the on-air arrest of Jimenez and his colleagues. “CNN made its employee’s ordeal a story,” she writes. “The network has spoken out on behalf of its reporter, and in defense of journalism, but we would be remiss not to interrogate how it has wrung the injustice that Jimenez experienced for high-drama TV.… CNN makes a spectacle of its own act of watching, which is not the same as neutral investigation.”
  • An unprecedented year? In light of the protests, many observers have compared this year to 1968, but that’s not quite right. On Friday, Peter Baker, of the Times, noted on PBS that 2020 has already also been compared to 1998 (impeachment), 1918 (a pandemic year), and 1929 (the Great Depression). Taken altogether, Baker said, 2020 looks increasingly like “a great national trauma.”

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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.