An insider's view: The wall between student activists and student journalists

Tension over who should tell student activists’ stories led to a physical and emotional clash that changed the movement’s story into a new one that no one wanted to tell.

Melissa Click, right, an assistant professor in Missouri's communications department, confronts Schierbecker and later calls for "muscle" to help remove him from the protest area in Columbia, Mo. Protesters credited with helping oust the University of Missouri System's president and the head of its flagship campus welcomed reporters to cover their demonstrations Tuesday, a day after a videotaped clash between some protesters and a student photographer drew media condemnation as an affront to the free press. (Frame grab from video provided by Mark Schierbecker via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
Frame grab from video provided by Mark Schierbecker, Melissa Click, an assistant professor in Missouri's communications department, confronts Schierbecker and later calls for "muscle" to help remove him from the protest area. (Mark Schierbecker via AP)

The human wall fought back. It thrust its hands in the air to block the camera’s view, and they pushed the circle out, attempting to take ESPN freelancer and journalism student Tim Tai with it. Storm Ervin, one of the 11 original protesters, told Tai to step back.

“There’s not a law for that,” Tai said.

“Not a law? How about humanity? How about respect?” Ervin replied.

“How about documenting this for all posterity?” Tai responded.

“We don’t want you to tell our story,” Ervin said. “Not if you’re going to act like this.”

The filmed interaction added a new layer to the day’s stories, of which there were already plenty: minority students taking down the university president and campus chancellor and the end of grad student Jonathan Butler’s hunger strike. This time though, the story was about the media, something that neither camp expected nor wanted.

Students stand in a tent encampment set up by protesters following an announcement that University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe is resigning. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
Students stand in a tent encampment set up by protesters following an announcement that University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe is resigning. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
The night of the resignation announcement, the cold air filled more with exhaustion than celebration. Poster board signs with “NO MEDIA” drawn in Sharpie surrounded the periphery of the site, and protesters inside spoke about media like the main enemy. And for some, they had been.

Prior media reports unfairly characterized the protesters and misidentified the source of the group’s anger, junior Delan Ellington said.So when the protesters began their movement, one that quickly captured the nation, they decided to control their message. Twitter replaced reporters in disseminating news, and though they granted local media some access, the only reporters allowed free reign were a group of documentary students.

This frustrated reporters. Senior Nick Colbert, a protester, spoke slowly as he described reporters showing a “sense of entitlement.” He understood they had a job, but said their desire for the story overshadowed what was happening emotionally.

“With each click is another cha-ching, another dollar sign,” he said.

Colbert and other protesters emphasized they didn’t ask reporters not to take photos at all; they just couldn’t take photos of certain moments. Emotional reactions to Wolfe’s resignation was one of those moments.

One woman that night described feeling like the reporters were out to get their names on the front page rather than get their stories right.

“You have the same rights as me,” the one woman said, “but if I ask you to get out of my face, then what’s my right?”

On the other side of Jesse Hall’s beaming white dome, just a half-mile away from the campsite, reporters made a different makeshift home out of Shakespeare’s Pizza, right across the street from the Columbia Missourian office.

Jack Witthaus, a Missourian reporter, covered the movement once the tents went up. The local media respected the “no media” policy from the get-go, but when the national media parachuted into the scene on Sunday, things shifted.

Reporters were everywhere, all with their steno pads ready, and tripods standing and pointed cameras.

“There were so many people,” Witthaus said. “It was hard to be comfortable.”

And on Monday, when allies created the human wall, things got hectic. Witthaus saw protesters shove Tai and try to take away another’s equipment. He saw another friend, Michael Cali, get a backpack thrown in his face.

Cali, a junior journalism student, was freelancing for the San Diego Union-Tribune and said he and other photographers were pushed back further and further from the campsite — 150 feet, maybe 200.

He insists no reporters pushed their way into the circle or invaded protester’s personal space — at least none he saw — and the majority of the protesters took no issue with Cali or his work. But for those who did mistrust the reporters, Cali said he understands the animosity.

“Historically there’s been media that have been bad about [coverage of minority groups],” he said. “But that’s the danger you take when you do something public. You’re not always going to like the coverage of it, but that doesn’t give you the right to stop the press and try to control who says what.”

At one point, a protester stopped Cali saying, “You don’t care about my story,” so Cali put his camera away and said, “I won’t report this. I won’t take any pictures. But I want to know your story.” “No comment,” the man replied, the same response many protesters gave reporters.

After the protest, Witthaus walked the half-block back to the newsroom. It didn’t matter that his Twitter was blowing up or that his name was in the Drudge Report. It mattered that everyone yelled at him; it mattered that his friends were threatened.

“It was emotional out there,” he said. “There was a lack of understanding from both sides. I blame everybody.”

Overnight, Twitter exploded with support for Tai and the other reporters, while Professor Melissa Click — the untenured assistant communications professor caught on camera asking for “more muscle” to force reporters out of the circle — became the villain of journalists and first amendment lovers.

Things changed on Tuesday. At the campsite, the “NO MEDIA” signs were lying flat on the grass. People with ABC News and St. Louis Post Dispatch logos on jackets were scattered about the campsite.

Protesters handed out fliers reading:

      
  1. "Media has a 1st amendment right to occupy campsite
  2. The media is important to tell our story and experiences at Mizzou to the world
  3. Let’s welcome and thank them!”

Now, the reporters had access. Reporters were greeted by protesters’ apologies for excluding media and emphasis that this was “a teachable moment” for the group. Junior Darneisha Coleman said she felt intimidated by journalists the day prior. Some of this she credited to the large amount of people in the small amount of space.

Now though, Coleman seemed more at ease with the smaller, less aggressive presence of the day’s reporters no longer encircling the camp but scattered throughout.

But the damage had already been done. The focus was on the reporters denied access.

As Joel Dalton, a graduate student involved in the protest, described it, he and the other allies formed the human wall to protect students of color. He didn’t know he was being filmed, and he surely didn’t know people would react they way they did. Dalton received a flurry of disapproving, sometimes hateful, messages following the video’s posting — a few of which have been from local reporters.

One privately messaged Dalton, telling Dalton to educate yourself before “inciting violence on people,” while another posted a public status expressed disappointed in him. “The same Bill of Rights that gave you the right to assemble also gives the press freedom. You should be able to respect that.”

The comments shook him, but he said he was more worried about the staff and faculty in the video, specifically Professor Click and Janna Basler, the director of Greek Life. “Our institution isn’t interested in protecting them,” Dalton said.

Click had previously stood alongside the original 11 protesters at the Homecoming parade, which became a defining moment in why the Concerned Student 1950 wanted Wolfe out.

“They should receive attention for protecting students and students’ experiences,” Dalton said.

Dalton was right to be worried. The criticism against Professor Click and Basler was relentless and sometimes dangerous. The Journalism School’s executive committee met to vote on whether Click should lose her courtesy appointment at the School of Journalism. Before the vote, Click resigned. Click’s name also vanished as the head of the student newspaper’s publications board.

After the video went viral, Missourian news professor and editor Katherine Reed tweeted about the video, saying “shame on you” to Basler and Click.

By this point, Reed’s anger had become a deep disappointment. She explained that the two were in a position to “negotiate a really constructive outcome to the situation that some might call a clash of rights.” Instead, they participated in physically pushing Tai back  — not conduct befitting a faculty member, Reed said.

Reed wasn’t calling for Click’s resignation, though. Emotions were running high. “We don’t need to be so precipitous in our conduct all the time,” she said. Reed just wanted them to apologize, which both have since done.

On the other side of campus, things weren’t going well for Basler, either.

Director of Student Affairs Mark Lucas, or just “Dr. Mark” in student circles, said Greek Life switched their phones over to voicemail by 10 a.m. after already having 50 voicemails, many of which were racist messages, rape threats or death threats against Basler. Dr. Mark sent the worst to police.

Dr. Mark’s eyes were bloodshot when he came out of his office in the early afternoon on Tuesday. The day featured a whole array of emotions for Dr. Mark and his staffers dealing with the intense backlash against Basler, who’s had a clean record since she was hired in 2001.

He watched the video twice and never saw the violent assault that outraged others on social media. What he saw was a staffer protecting students.

“Students are our mission statement,” Dr. Mark said. “How we support them looks different on an everyday basis.”

I was curious then if supporting students was a written part of Basler job description, written in her contract, to which Dr. Mark replied that she doesn’t have a contract. No one in the Department of Student Affairs does. Anyone could be fired at any time.

Both he and Angela Dahman, the student affairs marketing communications director had been trying to communicate with Basler all day, but by midday, she stopped responding. “I’ve told her to stop checking Twitter,” Dahman told Dr. Mark.

Dahman, kept glancing at her phone as she spoke with me until our meeting was cut short as she yelled that Basler’s home address was now posted online.

The next day, Basler was placed on administrative leave, and Greek Lifes' council wrote a statement and students created a petition in support of her.

The day after the protest, I met with Tai. His eyes rarely strayed from the glow of his iPhone screen. Back when we were freshmen at The Maneater, Tai was always a quiet guy who said more on Twitter than real life. Now, he was doing so on both.

“I don’t wish this on anyone else,” he said. “Not anyone I like.”

Tai covered Ferguson last year, and despite the tear gas and threat of arrest, this situation has been more stressful. He saw the video on YouTube right as he was filing his photos and was instantly mortified. He didn’t tell his editor until the video blew up and people asked for his comment.

He explained the situation in a text to his editor Tim Rasmussen, asking if ESPN had a policy for the situation. Rasmussen gave him approval to comment and said the newsroom supported him.

Very quickly, he became the reluctant figurehead for journalists standing their ground for their first amendment right.

Famed reporters like the Los Angeles Times’ national reporter Matt Pearce and Sports Illustrated media columnist Richard Deitsch offered their support, while national media emailed and called constantly requesting interviews.

Just before ours, Tai had gotten off the phone with Click, who personally apologized and then released a public statement.

Tai would go back and have fewer “little pissy shouting matches” if he could, but he doesn’t regret standing up for his right to report.

“There’s a lot to learn on both sides,” he said. “There has to be a balance between both the interests of both the journalist and the subject.”

Jillian Deutsch is a senior journalism major at the University of Missouri and editorial assistant at The Riveter Magazine.

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