Attacks on media covering the protests are simply following the president’s rhetoric

Your Monday Poynter Report

June 1, 2020
Category: Newsletters

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Police brutality. Racial injustice. Storefronts burning. More than 100,000 dead from the coronavirus. Massive unemployment. A country in complete disarray.

You would think President Donald Trump had enough concerns to deal with, and yet his attention Sunday afternoon was on … the media?

He tweeted: “The Lamestream Media is doing everything within their power to foment hatred and anarchy. As long as everybody understands what they are doing, that they are FAKE NEWS and truly bad people with a sick agenda, we can easily work through them to GREATNESS!”

For his entire administration, Trump has continually bashed the media — calling it “lamestream” and “fake news” and, worse of all, “the enemy of the people.” Perhaps then it should come as no surprise that the media was a target for violence and attacks all over the nation during its coverage of the protests.

Even before Sunday night, the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker documented 68 cases of incidents involving the media during the George Floyd protests. Poynter’s Katy Byron started a widely-shared Twitter thread that relayed cases of journalists being targeted by either police or protesters.

Most troubling were incidents involving the police going after journalists. A CNN reporter was arrested live on the air in Minneapolis. A reporter in Louisville was shot with pepper balls by police. A Denver photojournalist was also shot with pepper balls fired by police. Two Los Angeles Times reporters were hit with tear gas and rubber bullets in Minneapolis.

And then there was this disgusting moment: a member of the press lying on the ground in Minnesota callously sprayed by a cop with pepper spray.

Those are just a handful of high-profile incidents involving the media and police.

Bellingcat, an investigative journalism website, wrote “US Law Enforcement Are Deliberately Targeting Journalists During George Floyd Protests” and listed the most egregious examples.

Meantime, protesters also attacked journalists. A news photographer from the Chicago Tribune was shoved to the ground and had her equipment stolen. A Fox News crew was chased and punched by protesters in Washington. A photojournalist for KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh was attacked by protesters before being rescued by the CEO of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Journalists across the nation were hit by flying debris and many TV vehicles were vandalized.

Why is the media the target of these attacks?

In responding to Trump’s tweet, The Atlantic CEO Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted, “Statements like this one from the President of the United States endanger the lives of reporters.”

Clearly, the health and, potentially, the lives of journalists were in danger over the weekend, and continue to be as they cover these protests.

While there is no way of knowing the motivation of every single attack against the media, how can one not question if Trump’s constant assaults on the press play a role in the disrespect and disregard toward the media? When the leader of the free world disrespects the press, why should we expect citizens to respect them? For years, we’ve warned there would come a day when Trump’s words would move beyond rhetoric and carry over into real-world violence. The past few days have seen those fears come to fruition.

Why isn’t the president showing support for one of America’s most democratic institutions? At a time when the media is under attack from all sides, why not tweet something sympathetic and ask for their protection instead of repeating his same old song about the evil media?

As far as journalists under attack, let’s be clear about something: While protestor-on-journalist violence is an outrage and should be condemned, any attempts to portray it as being “equally bad” as police attacks on journalists miss the mark. Police are there, in part, to protect the rights of those who want to peacefully protest. The media’s role is to chronicle those protests. Thus, the police are there to protect journalists, not attack them.

How important are these rights? So important that our Founding Fathers made them the very First Amendment. By attacking the media for merely doing its job, the police are, effectively, attacking the First Amendment.

Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said in a statement: “These attacks not only endanger our free press, but also threaten our democracy and the essential role that journalists play in safeguarding constitutional rights.”

And here’s a troubling question: If police are attacking the media, which is capable of going public about them, how are they treating everyday citizens who are legally protesting?

“Many of these attacks were captured on live broadcasts,” Brown said. “The video evidence showing journalists under police assault simply for doing their jobs is harrowing. We strongly condemn these actions and will be contacting law enforcement in each jurisdiction to demand a full explanation and accountability for officers who knowingly targeted journalists.”

We often point to these kinds of transgressions against a free press in the rest of the world where there are dictatorships or authoritarian governments. Sadly, we are seeing these infringements right here in the United States of America. And it’s because the president is OK with it.

What should the media do?

A protester shouts in front of a fire during a protest in Los Angeles on Saturday. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

If you’ve turned on your TV over the past five days, you’ve seen protests from dozens of cities across the country. It can be hard to watch, but it’s critically important, too.

Covering these protests aren’t as simple as turning on a camera. The point of the protests, of course, is to give voice to those protesting — whether those voices are talking about the death of George Floyd, police brutality, racial inequality or other injustices. But there’s another aspect to the protests, and that includes confrontations, violence, fires and looting.

So I asked my Poynter colleague Al Tompkins — a journalist and teacher with more than 30 years experience —  what’s the media’s role in this? How should we be covering it?

“When we are at our best, journalists document and report truth,” Tompkins told me. “That means we report the grievances and demands of protesters, we report their peaceful demonstrations and we report the violent overreactions, too. We report the honest and professional response of police and political leaders and we report the overreaction and lawless cruelty when it happens, too.”

Tompkins told me he has seen remarkable examples of coverage showing peaceful marches, protesters stopping others from looting and productive conversations between citizens and police officers. But the scenes that often get the most attention are burning buildings and looting.

“I am waiting for the public cry, that always happens after a few days of civil disturbance, that will sound like, ‘If you would quit covering them they would quit protesting,’” Tompkins said. “And, of course, if we did not show violence or disobedience, there would be the rightful accusation that not covering looks an awful lot like endorsing such actions.”

On CNN’s “Reliable Sources” Sunday, Errin Haines, editor-at-large of The 19th*, said, “I think that is part of the risk. I certainly can understand that cameras are drawn to things like fires and destruction of property. Those are very dramatic images. But showing those images without centering the peaceful protesters, reminding people that that is the majority of the reason that protests are happening — that any incidents of rioting or looting are a distraction.”

Haines said that it’s important to return to the central questions, like why are black people getting killed by police?

Jane Coaston, senior politics reporter for Vox, told “Reliable Sources” that the media’s primary role is to explain how we got to this point.

“This isn’t a sport,” Coaston said. “This isn’t something that we can just observe and then comment on later. We have to add in the necessary context about how we got here, why this has happened, why violence has erupted and how we can do something about it.”

Inside one protest turned ugly

On Saturday, as I sat in my home in St. Petersburg, Florida, I was interested, specifically, in the protests going on near where I live — in nearby downtown St. Pete, as well as in Tampa and Clearwater. By late afternoon, it appeared that all the protests were moving along peacefully.

Then it changed. Early Saturday evening, things turned ugly in Tampa as people set fire to a gas station and sporting goods store, broke into a diamond and jewelry store and tried to breach a shopping mall near the University of South Florida.

I followed most of this on local TV and through the tweets and updates from reporters at the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times. So, on Sunday, I reached out to one of the Times’ reporters, Divya Kumar, about her coverage. There were, of course, hundreds of journalists in the thick of these protests all across the country. But Kumar’s reporting is an example of just what it was like everywhere.

“I don’t know if I have the right words quite yet to put everything in its proper context,” she told me.

Kumar was one of many Times’ journalists covering the story. I asked her if there was ever a time when she felt scared as the crowds grew and tone changed.

“Our coverage was truly a team effort, and editors and reporters were constantly checking in on each other,” Kumar said. “I think all this made it feel less scary, and remembering that we are reporting on what our community is living through.”

Kumar provided some dramatic tweets with video, including a gas station set on fire and protesters confronting police. Her colleagues also shot video while standing between police and protesters, such as this tear gas video by the Times’ Josh Fiallo.

“I did worry at times if each individual tweet would provide adequate context or if they were giving a full enough picture, but hoped to put our readers at the scene as best as possible,” Kumar said.

But, despite the dangers, Kumar said, “After the fact, I felt grateful to be working as a reporter right now covering this moment in time, and hope local journalists across the country are able to continue to do their jobs and be the eyes and ears of their communities.”

A scary warning

Protesters march in St. Paul, Minnesota. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Ugh. No one wants to hear this right now, but on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb said he expects the protests across the country could lead to a rise in coronavirus cases.

“There’s going to be a lot of issues coming out of what’s happened in the last week, but one of them is going to be that chains of transmission will have become lit from these gatherings,” Gottlieb said “This country isn’t through this epidemic. This is continuing to expand but at a much slower rate. But it’s still expanding, and we still have pockets of spread in communities that aren’t under good control.”

Extreme measures

Doesn’t it seem like President Trump’s battle with Twitter was like a month ago? It was actually just last week. Late last week, at that. Anyway, that led to this intriguing New York Times column from Maureen Dowd, who encouraged Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to take the extreme measure of shutting down Trump’s Twitter feed.

She wrote, “C’mon, @Jack. You can do it. Throw on some Kendrick Lamar and get your head in the right space. Pour yourself a big old glass of salt juice. Draw an ice bath and fire up the cryotherapy pod and the infrared sauna. Then just pull the plug on him. You know you want to.”

Random thoughts from the weekend

CNN’s Van Jones. (Photo by Jason Mendez/Invision/AP)

  • Each time Van Jones appeared on CNN, going all the way back to Thursday night, he was must-see TV. His comments — way too voluminous and important to reduce to a matter of sentences — were insightful, thoughtful and as powerful as anything seen on TV recently. If you can go back and hear his comments, do so. When he talks, we’d all be wise to shut up and listen.
  • CNN’s Jake Tapper hosted a special COVID-19 memorial show Sunday afternoon. He had various religious figures, including a Southern Baptist minister, an African Methodist Episcopal bishop, a rabbi and a Muslim Iman. He asked each guest to lead a prayer. The special also featured a performance of “Amazing Grace” by the Harlem Gospel Choir. Good stuff.
  • One final thought on CNN. The network’s coverage since protesting really started to take off last week has been nothing short of sensational. They’ve had the perfect balance between showing live protests and interviewing various commentators. That led to coverage that not only focused on the reporting of the minute, but the context of the moment.
  • I was highly critical of Fox News’ lack of coverage going back to Thursday night when they ran reruns of Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham instead of showing live coverage of protests in Minneapolis. Fox News’ coverage did improve as the weekend progressed, although their choice of guests wasn’t always the best. For example, Mark Fuhrman as a guest on Ingraham’s show to talk about race and police? Really?
  • Speaking of Fox News, the attacks on a Fox News crew by protesters Friday night in Washington, D.C., were reprehensible and disgusting. Period.

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Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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