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|September 11-17, 2008
The crime of journalism
Dozens of reporters were arrested while covering the Republican National Convention. What does that mean for America?
by Pamela White
Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, believed a free press was essential for protecting liberty. He was unequivocal in his assertion that democracy — and the safety of a nation’s citizenry — depended on newspapers that were free to act as society’s watchdogs and keep the public informed. It was a perspective he tried repeatedly to hammer home as he worked with the other Founders to shape the future of the United States.
“If I had to choose between a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government,” he wrote, “I would choose newspapers without a government.”
James Madison shared Jefferson’s point of view and pushed for protection for the press in the Bill of Rights. His efforts were not wasted but are woven into the First Amendment, which reads:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
It ought to concern citizens across the nation, then, that an estimated 60 reporters, press photographers and videographers were arrested — some of them repeatedly — while attempting to cover the protests outside the Republican National Convention (RNC), held last week in St. Paul, Minn.
While reporters and TV networks covered the convention inside the Xcel Energy Center without hindrance, reporting the story that the political establishment wanted the American public to see, those who took to the streets to report on protests faced the repeated risk of arrest in “sweeps,” during which the arresting officers made little or no effort to distinguish between protesters and media. In addition to arrests on the streets, there were reportedly pre-emptive raids against alternative media groups, in which people were detained and cell phones, computers and cameras were searched and sometimes confiscated. Some reporters, even credentialed media, were arrested on suspicion of felony rioting, though they were doing their jobs at the time.
As of press time, some members of the Minneapolis City Council have called for an independent investigation with public hearings in an effort to determine whether police acted appropriately or whether they overstepped their bounds.
“Through the Republican National Convention, we have seen and heard a number of disturbing reports of actions taken by law enforcement, including the Minneapolis Police Department personnel, against journalists, observers, medics, bystanders, people engaged in peaceful protest and others,” two council members said in a prepared statement.
In addition, local and national journalists and media reformers delivered a petition with 50,000 signatures demanding that St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman drop all charges filed against journalists in connection with covering the convention and protests.
But now that the convention is old news and the 24-hour news cycle has moved on, where is the public outcry?
“The thing with the conventions is that so much news comes out of them,” says Richard Karpel, executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN), an organization of which Boulder Weekly is a member. “Issues like this get buried under a slew of Sarah Palin moose-hunting stories.”
Perhaps reporters should have been paying better attention. If they had, they might have realized that the RNC was not going to go as smoothly as the DNC.
The first reported law-enforcement action against members of the media occurred on Sat., Aug. 30, when members of I-Witness Video heard a knock on the door of the house where they were staying on Iglehart Avenue in St. Paul. According to various reports, the person at the door was an FBI agent, who asked to speak to someone who wasn’t home at the time.
A short time later, officers armed with a search warrant and assault weapons, broke into the house through the attic with guns drawn and placed the people inside in handcuffs, detaining them for a couple of hours while they searched through cell phones, notebooks, cameras and computer hard drives.
A reporter’s notes and photographs are part of a reporter’s work, containing information about sources, including addresses, phone numbers and other information. Most states have “shield” laws that protect journalists from having to reveal such information to law enforcement. Whether the search warrant violated Minnesota’s shield law is uncertain, and, regardless, I-Witness reporters had no opportunity to challenge the legality of the warrant, which had the wrong address and was actually for the house next door.
Amy Goodman of the radio program Democracy Now! had just arrived in St. Paul from covering the Democratic National Convention in Denver when she received a text message about the raid.
“They came in with AR-15s and with a pistol drawn on these producers,” Goodman told Boulder Weekly. “One of our producers was there — Elizabeth Press — and she put the camera above her head, she was so afraid they would say they thought it was a gun.”
Goodman rushed with her crew from the airport to the house and managed to interview I-Witness Video reporters Eileen Clancy and Mike Whalen over the back fence after the next-door neighbor invited media in her yard.
But why would police detain reporters and search their work materials?
Goodman says she thinks the reason for the raid is pretty obvious.
“[I-Witness Video are] the ones who pulled together hundreds of videotapes of the RNC in 2004 that led to the exoneration of many, many of the 1,800 people who were arrested,” Goodman says. “The police would tell one story, and the videotape would tell another story. So the police of Minneapolis/St. Paul knew well who they were. I saw the warrant. The warrant, which was for the house next door, was for cameras and cell phones and hard drives.”
Goodman says police later surrounded I-Witness Video collective members again when they moved to a new address.
“They really harassed I-Witness Video, and I-Witness Video is very well known,” she says. “The police certainly know them in New York because they know how many millions they’ve had to pay out for false arrests.”
And the purpose of the raids?
“Whatever [police] were trying to do, they were effectively hindering their work.”
What’s particularly alarming about the I-Witness Video raid is that the convention hadn’t started yet and the reporters were in a private home, not even present at a protest. It was a “pre-emptive raid,” Goodman says, and had nothing to do with committing a crime.
“It’s like Minority Report with Tom Cruise and pre-crimes — before someone commits a so-called crime,” she says. “I think the crime is journalism. We have to fight against the criminalization of journalism. We are there to bear witness.”
The right to gather news
It was while bearing witness on the floor of the convention that Goodman heard that two of her producers — Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Nicole Salazar — had been arrested on the street while trying to cover protests.
Goodman immediately left the convention and ran to the location where Kouddous and Salazar had been arrested. The video clip posted on various sites on the Internet, including Democracy Now!’s website, shows what happened next.
Goodman approached the line of riot-gear-clad police and asked to speak with their commanding officer. She demanded repeatedly to know why Kouddous and Salazar had been arrested and demanded that they be released, while the officers made no attempt to address her questions but rather pushed her back, told her to leave — and then pulled her through their lines and arrested her.
“I came up to them, and I said, ‘I’d like to speak to your commanding officer. My producers are credentialed and they should be freed,’” she says. “And they just ripped me through the police line. They twisted my arm behind my back. They handcuffed me with the rigid plastic cuffs that dig into your wrists, and they put me against a wall and pushed me onto the ground. They violated my rights.”
Goodman says she was able to see Kouddous across the parking lot and saw that he was bloodied.
“He was handcuffed, his [press] credentials dangling from his neck,” she says.
Salazar videotaped much of her own arrest, the tape stopping when the arresting officers took the battery from her camera.
“They were coming at her. They were shouting, ‘Face on the ground! Face on the ground!’” Goodman says. “She was shouting, ‘Press! Press!’ and showing her credentials. They took her down. You hear her shouting ‘Press,’ then you hear her scream as they put their boot or their knee in her back and they’re pulling on her leg, and her face is bloodied. And what’s the first thing they do? They pull her battery from her camera.”
The story was similar for other reporters who were arrested, some caught in “sweeps” in which police declared an assembly unlawful, and then began to herd protesters and media toward barricades — one report claims that police blocked people trying to escape by using snow ploughs with their buckets down — where there were mass arrests.
Press who got caught up in the “sweeps” say they felt it was important to stay near the protest in order to see how protesters and police interacted, because that’s what they’d been assigned to cover.
But St. Paul police say reporters’ desire to be in the thick of the action was inappropriate under the circumstances.
“I guess I would ask how you cover a fire,” says Tom Walsh, public information coordinator for the St. Paul Police Department. “Do you run into a fire scene? Do you put yourself between people who are throwing rocks, urine, feces, etc., and the police line? If you check both the Constitution, and both federal and state statutes, there is no special exemption for media. If they are in an unlawful assembly, then it is unlawful for them to be there.”
But that issue might not be as cut and dried as Walsh wants to make it.
In July 1999, a Boulder journalist was arrested by federal officers who were raiding a camp of activists who were blocking an access road at Vail. The activists were hoping to halt the ski area’s expansion and had locked themselves to equipment in the middle of the road. Officers ordered the journalist, Brian Hansen, to leave the area and go to the bottom of the mountain. Hansen explained that he couldn’t report on what was happening from that location because he wouldn’t be able to hear or see what was going on. Federal officers argued that he could find out what happened from their public information officer, but Hansen felt it was his duty to report as an eyewitness.
He was arrested and processed with the protesters. The government had hoped to get a legal precedent that would allow them to keep media at a distance on federal land, but the judge, quoting Thomas Jefferson, threw out the charges, siding with Hansen’s defense attorneys, who argued that removing Hansen from the scene interfered with his First Amendment right to gather news.
“This was not a burning building,” Goodman says of her arrest and those of her producers, rejecting Walsh’s analogy. “It wasn’t in the midst of a riot. This is [Nicole] alone, and they’re taking her down and preventing her from doing her work.”
Sam Stoker, a freelance journalist who reported on the RNC for AAN newspapers was arrested twice, his notes and camera confiscated. His arrest resulted in his story being late and prevented him from utilizing important notes and images.
Walsh denies allegations that police specifically targeted media or any media group. He started to comment on the I-Witness Video raid, but then stopped, saying that it was an “open investigation.”
Susan Gaertner, Ramsey County attorney and gubernatorial hopeful for 2010, says the Twin Cities made an effort from the moment they knew the convention was coming to St. Paul to prepare for the protests in a way that took the rights of the media into account. One of their concerns was not hindering the work of reporters who were arrested.
“The county attorney’s office, as well as the city attorney’s office and the police had met with members of the bar — lawyers who were representing various media organizations, both pro bono and paid counsel — and had procedures in place where if someone from the media was arrested I was called or the city attorney was called and their arrest was handled expeditiously. No member of the media was detained for more than a few hours at the high end.”
While the mainstream press praised police, lauding their “restraint,” the independent press has largely taken a different view.
“This is sort of 1984 with a vengeance,” says Jim Hightower, author and columnist. “It’s against everything that America stands for. I don’t know which part of the First Amendment is confusing to them.”
Hightower also rejects Walsh’s “fire scene” analogy and questions whether police have the right simply to declare an assembly unlawful and then treat the media who stay to cover the ensuing conflict like criminals.
“As Orwell explained to us, when you get to define what is legal, then everything they want to be illegal is illegal,” he says.
The day after her arrest, Goodman attended a police briefing and asked St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington how reporters were supposed to cover the protests if they couldn’t stay with protesters.
“He said, ‘You can embed with the police mobile field force,’” she says. “Well, we’re not embedded journalists. We’re not going to embed with the police. We want to bring it to people from all sides, and we should not have to be embedded, as Fox News was, in order to do our job.”
Reporting, she says, should not just come from behind police lines. The practice of “embedding,” has brought journalism to a low, she says.
“We’re not supposed to be for the state,” she says. We’re supposed to be the Fourth Estate.”
Hightower sees a parallel between the way protesters have been restricted to “freedom cages” — small areas where protests are approved, often far from the politicians whose policies they’re protesting — and the way reporters are being pushed away from police actions.
“It’s the reduction of America to Third World tyranny standards,” he says. “It’s unworthy of our nation and an embarrassment for leaders who are so inadequate that they don’t understand the embarrassment.”
The issue of credentials
Charles Samuelson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, says that his organization is representing about 100 of the 800 people who were arrested during the RNC, including some media.
One disturbing trend he noticed is the tendency by law enforcement to respond differently to alternative media than mainstream media, a bias that even some ACLU members exhibit.
“There are members of our board who say, ‘They aren’t really credentialed media,’ but what they mean is ‘mainstream media,’” he says. “The freelance journalists and photographers who’ve gotten arrested, the videographers who’ve gotten arrested, radio reporters accredited with some little, dinky station in South Dakota — they get treated a whole lot differently than AP photographers and those from local major-market television stations.”
Particularly hard hit by arrests were photographers and videographers, like I-Witness Video, he says.
“The people who are nontraditional are typically not accredited… They are typically the people who have made a career out of taking pictures of the police at their less than finest,” he says. “So police have an incentive to shut those guys down because they make them look bad.”
The credentialing process for media began months ago with an April deadline. Boulder Weekly, along with many independent media outlets like Democracy Now!, received official credentials, which permitted their staff to enter the convention centers. Credentials were not needed to cover protests in the streets. However, many journalists operated on the assumption that if they had credentials, it offered proof to police that they were “legitimate” media.
But that proved not to be the case in St. Paul, where many of those arrested had full credentials.
“When I was standing there, Sharif and I, our credentials hanging from our neck in full view, I said, ‘You see, we’re fully credentialed journalists,’” Goodman says. “And the Secret Service came over and pulled the credential from my neck and took it from Sharif.”
Goodman and Kouddous were not the only media to have their credentials stripped by federal agents, who seemed to think that getting arrested while covering street protests made reporters somehow unfit to cover the convention.
“[Law enforcement seemed to believe that] reporters really weren’t doing their job or they wouldn’t have been arrested,” Samuelson says. “And if they’d been doing their job they would have released the same pabulum everyone else was releasing. Or they would have been inside the convention, because that’s where the real story was.”
Hightower says reporters should have been accorded more respect regardless of whether they wore official RNC credentials or not.
“You don’t need press credentials to have the protection of the First Amendment,” he says.
Boulder activist Carolyn Bninski says she finds the high number of media arrests at the RNC troubling.
“I think it was really frightening because what it means is that police actions can’t be monitored by the media,” she says. “Obviously, then the public isn’t going to know what’s going on, and the story that the police tell is going to be believed. It’s really important that the public does know what is actually happening. That’s the role of the media. The other thing is that what I’m afraid of is that the media is going to become intimidated as part of this police state that we’re moving toward.”
She says she’s not surprised that alternative and independent media took more of a hit in terms of arrests.
“The indie media people are going to try to find out what people think who are against the status quo, so it’s not surprising that they would be the ones that would get arrested,” she says.
Walsh believes the police did all they could to respect reporters’ rights.
“We set out to try to strike that delicate balance between First Amendment and free speech and safety and security for everyone, and I think we did a good job of that,” he says.
But Samuelson questions who was really directing police actions.
“There’s a whole big issue about who was running the show,” he says. “Were the people you saw beating up people just the bobo local police who were just knuckle-draggers for FBI and the Secret Service?”
Samuelson thinks police response was overkill across the board, not just with respect to reporters.
“These guys were just spoiling for a fight,” he says. “I thought it was like WWF when I saw these guys. ‘Are you ready to rumble?’ It’s like, holy shit, we need Jesse Ventura on our side.”
Though he says he doesn’t have proof, Samuelson believes that the federal government was directing police operations.
Walsh dismissed the allegation without comment, except to say that he used to support the ACLU and no longer does.
Samuelson says it’s going to take the Minnesota ACLU a while to sort through the individual cases and to determine what cases the ACLU will tackle and which legal issues they will raise in court.
“There is a list of questions longer than both of my arms put together that we’re looking at,” he says.
The trouble with media
Samuelson doesn’t point his finger at the police alone. He also faults the press for failing to stand up for itself.
“The press bears some burden for this,” he says. “So many of the press stories are ‘he said, she said.’ There is no sense of ‘this person is not telling the truth.’ There are no positions ever taken. The press is very careful not to take sides.”
By attempting to be neutral and refusing to challenge lies, half-truths and ridiculous assertions in their reportage, the mainstream media have lost credibility with the public — and deprived themselves of the very teeth they need to challenge power and protect the First Amendment.
“If I were in the press I’d be tempted to start fighting back,” he says. “Ultimately what happens is that your position as a neutral observer has been totally devalued. And if you do that — if you keep trying to be neutral — you just emasculate yourself.”
Hightower puts it differently.
“I think the second biggest aspect of this story is the abject failure of the media establishment to protect even themselves, much less the larger rights of the people,” he says. “If it was Tom Brokaw who had been cuffed so rudely as Amy Goodman was, I’m just guessing that the networks would have been all over it and expressing grand outrage, but it’s only one of ‘them,’ so who cares?
But instead of covering the protests and media arrests, corporate media dutifully stuck to the script and reported on the convention — which some found boring.
“Here are 15,000 reporters who come to these political conventions in Denver and St. Paul and then they whine on national television that there’s nothing to report on, when here’s their own profession being ground into the dirt — which strikes me as a pretty good story,” Hightower says.
Though many of the press arrests will almost certainly have a similar outcome to Hansen’s ordeal, it will come at a cost, in part because the corporate media won’t stick around to cover the outcome.
“Ultimately these things get thrown out in court, but at great expense to the poorly funded media that does not have deep-pocket, corporate ownership and at a great loss to the public, which is not informed as a result of what is actually taking place,” Hightower says.
In the meantime, Goodman and the other reporters who were arrested now wait for their cases to move slowly through the judicial process. Goodman is facing a misdemeanor charge, while her producers may still face felonies.
“I don’t know at this point what is going to happen. We’re looking at all options,” Goodman says, vowing to fight for her First Amendment rights. “We ought to be able to go on the record without getting a record.”
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