Role of free press misunderstood as protests roll on

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Journalists are in the business of being a witness to history — and, on occasion, are inescapably part of it.

So is the fate of nearly two dozen journalists, from New York to Oakland and Nashville to Milwaukee, who have been caught up in the past two months in police actions against “Occupy” settlements in parks and city squares.

Journalists also are reported to have faced violence from some Occupy demonstrators in at least three cities, including Oakland, where a cameraman for KGO-TV suffered a concussion.

And then there was “Happy Valley,” where Penn State students, angered by the Nov. 9 firing of head football coach Joe Paterno, rolled a TV news van onto its side during a night of protest and mayhem.

The presence and effectiveness of journalists in such volatile situations rests on both the formalities of law and the informal understanding in our society of the function of a free press.

What’s disturbing in these recent news reports — and particularly in videos of police moving to hit, spray or arrest photographers and writers without provocation — is an apparent breakdown of law and that tacit understanding.

The latest example came Nov. 15 in New York City, where nearly a dozen journalists were detained or arrested,  and where multiple news organizations complained about reporters and photographers being held blocks away from police action against the Occupy Wall Street protests in Zuccotti Park. In one report, police helicopters were said to have hovered over areas where police were evicting demonstrators, preventing TV news choppers from offering video from overhead.

Americans have come to expect such tactics and assaults from dictators and despots elsewhere, not from law enforcement and fellow citizens here.

We have the First Amendment’s legal guarantee of a free press, and its shield against journalists being silenced by government. And while journalists have no more legal rights than other citizens at demonstrations or other public events, there also is the long-standing recognition that the right to freely publish news depends on the right to freely gather it.

All of which can put the newsgatherers right in the middle of disputes and demonstrations.

As police were moving journalists in New York City away from one scene, a TV photographer was clubbed on-camera by a police officer. Amid the chaos, a demonstrator is heard shouting that with “each new ‘macing’ video … each new depiction of police abuse on the First Amendment. … You should be proud of that police, you are participating in our media publicity campaign.”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg — founder of the massive multi-media news operation, Bloomberg News — defended the New York Police Department’s policy of closing some news events to news media. “The police department routinely keeps members of the press off to the side when they’re in the middle of a police action. It’s to prevent the situation from getting worse and it’s to protect the members of the press,” he said.

Another New York official voiced a different view: “American foreign correspondents routinely put themselves in harm’s way to do their jobs, in some of the most brutal dictatorships in the world. And their NYC colleagues deserve the freedom to make the same choice,” Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer told the Associated Press. “Zuccotti Park is not Tiananmen Square.”

The last word may well have come from that New York TV cameraman: Back at work after the knock-down, he could be heard on video saying to other officers, “I’m just trying to do my job. … I’m just trying to do my job.”

Also see: Police crackdowns at Occupy sites stir debate

Arresting journalists with demonstrators hurts us all


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