February 29, 2016

Chris Morris, a photographer for TIME magazine, was hurled to the ground by a Secret Service agent Monday at a rally for presidential candidate Donald Trump at Virginia’s Radford University.

The incident began shortly after a student protest broke out, according to a video recorded by Independent Journal reporter Joe Perticone. On the video, Morris can be heard telling the agent “Fuck you.” The agent responds, “What?” A moment later, Morris is slammed to the ground and can be seen kicking the agent away.

The incident began after Morris repeatedly engaged with the agent, although he never made an attempt to leave the press pen, according to Perticone.

While Morris did not try to leave the cordoned-off press pen, his repeated engagement prompted the unidentified agent to initiate the physical altercation. The agent then shoved Morris, who swatted his hands back. At that point, the agent threw Morris to the ground.

Morris got to his feet, continued his exchange with the agent and at some point touched the agent’s throat. Morris said he touched the agent’s neck in an effort to show Trump’s press handlers how the agent choked him.

After agents escorted Morris from the rally, Morris told CNN’s Jim Acosta he was “not going to press charges” against anyone. Morris tells Acosta that he “stepped 18 inches out of the pen” before the agent “grabbed me by the neck and he started choking me and he slammed me to the ground.”

Morris “expressed remorse for his part in escalating the confrontation,” according to TIME magazine.

Morris has faced adversity while on assignment before. He is an honored photojournalist who has covered politics and wars around the globe, according to his portfolio. A first-person testimonial published in 2014 recounted how he took photos in the middle of a crossfire that killed “several civilians.”

The Secret Service should “provide security and de-escalate confrontational situations, not create them,” said Melissa Lyttle, the president of the National Press Photographers Association. If Morris was just trying to step out of the press pen while covering a newsworthy event, the agent “clearly overreacted,” she said.

Lyttle then laid much of the blame for the heated confrontation at the Trump campaign’s feet:

“We also note that reporters and photographers are generally allowed to move around at other political events, but it appears that the Trump campaign has a strict policy requiring journalists to remain inside a closed in press area while others admitted to the event have no such restrictions,” she said. “The NPPA believes that this is another bald faced attempt to control the media and the message and limits meaningful press coverage of these events. While the press may not have any greater right of access than the public they should have no less right either.”

“Additionally, statements by Mr. Trump regarding his disdain for the press and for photographers in particular may have contributed to this incident and should be remedied immediately.”

Trump’s campaign has run afoul of the press at rallies before. TIME notes that, unlike many other campaigns, Trump has “a strict policy requiring reporters and cameramen to stay inside a gated area.”

Previously, Poynter reported that many photojournalists have been singled out for verbal ridicule while covering Trump events. Brad Zucroff, a professional photographer, was covering a Jan. 21 Trump rally when the candidate began yelling at him, he said in an email.

Trump actually yelled at me personally at his rally I covered at the South Point Hotel and Casino. Here’s a picture of him yelling directly at me and telling me and another photographer to my right, to get up on the stage with him and shoot pictures showing the crowd. I didn’t…. I’m not his monkey.

Zucroff continued:

As I’m sure you’re familiar, all of the the press are placed in a pen in the very back of the room — the still photographers and TV cameras are on risers to shoot over the crowd. During the speech, the still photographers are taken by a campaign “press wrangler” in small groups of three or four down in front of the crowd in what’s called the “buffer,” to shoot closeups and wide angle pictures of the candidate.

Just as I arrived, he said: “Here’s some more of these little bloodsuckers now,” and pointed down at the four of us. The crowd of more than 3,000 loudly cheered him, and jeered us. So, that’s when he started yelling at me personally to get up on the stage to show the big crowd. A pretty macabre moment to be sure. First time in a long time I’ve actually felt in danger while shooting pictures on assignment. In the picture above, the women kneeling inside the buffer in front of the angry crowd, looking right at me with the bemused look on her face, is the campaign’s press wrangler.


Jan. 21 — Las Vegas. (Brad Zucroff/Polaris; used with permission from photojournalist)

Jan. 21, 2016 — Las Vegas. (Brad Zucroff/Polaris; used with permission from photojournalist)

Go to 28:23 in this video to see the incident Zucroff described.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NX4bhM0c3Hk]

The NPPA called on the Secret Service to “thoroughly investigate” the incident in Virginia and “make sure its agents are better trained in handling the media while protecting the candidates.” That’s good advice.

It’s also good advice for journalists to keep in mind that when a federal agent tells you to move, that is not the time to start swearing at them. And it is never a good idea to grab a Secret Service agent by the neck. A veteran journalist with Morris’ long distinguished resume should know that.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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