Why the 'War on Journalists' in Ferguson?
Two more journalists were arrested last night in Ferguson and briefly detained before being released. Three others were detained without being arrested. Media organizations have expressed growing alarm at the detentions, pointing out that the police are interfering with the ability of reporters to do their job.
In response to the arrest of two journalists last week, 48 media organizations sent a letter to law enforcement authorities expressing "deep concern over the unwarranted detention" of the reporters and "other reports of police intimidation and harassment of journalists in Ferguson." Last week, the ACLU obtained a court agreement, signed by the city, St. Louis County and the Missouri Highway Patrol chief, stating that ‘the media and members of the public have a right to record public events without abridgment unless it obstructs the activity or threatens the safety of others, or physically interferes with the ability of law enforcement officers to perform their duties."
Pancho Bernasconi, the vice president of news for Getty Images, similarly condemned Olson's detention on Monday: “We at Getty Images stand firmly behind our colleague Scott Olson and the right to report from Ferguson,” Bernasconi said in a statement. Olson was released after a few hours.
Meanwhile, all three cable networks ditched their regular programming for breaking news from Ferguson late into the night on Monday and early Tuesday morning. MSNBC hosts Chris Hayes and Craig Melvin had rocks thrown at them while reporting on air, and CNN’s Don Lemon was pushed back by police while reporting from the front lines of the protests.
Despite appearances that the police are trying to smother the story by targeting reporters, the reality is far more prosaic:
In a news conference late Monday night, Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson said authorities would continue to arrest journalists due to the chaotic nature of the protests.
"I'm going to tell you in the midst of chaos, when officers are running around, we're not sure who's a journalist and who's not," Johnson said, according to an audio recording. "Yes, if I see somebody with a $50,000 camera on their shoulder, I'm pretty sure. But some journalists are walking around, and all you have is a cellphone because you're from a small media outlet. Some of you may just have a camera around your neck."
"So yes, we may take some of you into custody," he continued. "But when we do take you into custody, and we have found out you're a journalist, we've taken the proper action. But in the midst of it, we cannot — in the midst of it, in the midst of chaos, and trying to move people on, we have to be safe. ... And we are providing protection for journalists. We had, we had a journalist who was trapped in the midst of that gunfire, in the midst of that chaos. And we're providing protection for them. We took journalists back to their trucks."
Reporters are trying to cover a riot where there are no battle lines. By definition, it's a melee -- a free for all, with people running around coming in contact with the police who, themselves, have lost formation. There's gunfire, tear gas, sound canon -- total chaos.
It is unrealistic for reporters to think that police approach anyone not wearing blue during a riot with anything but suspicion. This is especially true when they are under gun fire, and Molotov Cocktails and rocks are being thrown at them. It appears that many of the detentions have occurred when reporters either got in the way or were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
On the other hand, there have been some questionable actions by police directed at reporters, like the incident mentioned above at the McDonald's last week where two reporters were roughed up and dragged off to jail.
I'm not sure what it is that reporters want. Do they want the police to protect them when they wander into a free fire zone? The police have a lot more important things to deal with than act as bodyguards for reporters. Do reporters think they should have free rein to run around a riot ignorantly, putting themselves and the police who try to assist them in danger? The desire to cover the story under such trying circumstances is admirable, but it's clear that there are many reporters in the streets who haven't a clue what they're doing.
That ignorance is going to get one of them killed unless they're more careful.