A CNN news crew was arrested early Friday morning by Minnesota State Police officers while doing a live, on-street report on a violent night of protest in Minneapolis.
The arrests of journalists are all too common in recent years, but rarely are we all able – because it happened on air – to see it unfold.
Within hours, CNN reported, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz told CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker that he deeply apologized for what happened. The crew was later released.
The apology is not enough. If those police officers acted without justification, they should be held accountable.
The First Amendment’s protection for a free press has no meaning if it does not prevent journalists from being shackled as they report breaking news to us, on our behalf.
Correspondent Omar Jimenez and the two members of his CNN production team were handcuffed on-air as Jimenez was speaking “live” around 6 a.m. ET, reporting on a night of violence in the wake of the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, on May 25 while in city police custody.
Jimenez can be heard telling police the crew is standing where authorities instructed them to locate, and offering to follow police instructions to a new location ̶̶ even as riot gear-clad officers, silent and without explanation, clap them one-by-one in handcuffs and confiscate their camera.
As CNN later reported, there’s another layer to the story: “CNN’s Josh Campbell, who also was in the area but not standing with the on-air crew, said he, too, was approached by police, but was allowed to remain. ‘I identified myself … they said, ‘OK, you’re permitted to be in the area,’ recounted Campbell, who is white. ‘I was treated much differently than (Jimenez) was.’”
This was not an isolated incident.
The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker group, a coalition of more than two dozen press freedom groups to create a centralized repository for research and statistics, documents 63 instances in the past three years in which journalists were arrested while reporting the news. Forty of those journalists were covering protests. The Freedom Forum is a member of the research coalition.
The nonprofit and nonpartisan group Electronic Frontier Foundation reported that in 2016, nine journalists covering violent protests around President Donald J. Trump’s inauguration were arrested. EFF also said that police “arrested reporters covering the Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri” and that “90 journalists were arrested covering Occupy Wall Street protests between 2011 and 2012.”
In West Virginia, in 2017, a reporter was arrested in the state capitol for shouting questions to the U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services in a public hallway. The journalist was charged with disrupting a government process, but prosecutors found no crime had been committed and refused to move forward with the charge.
There’s a name authorities use for what happened in Minneapolis: “Catch and release.”
The technique works like this: A reporter asks an inconvenient question, or a TV crew is present to document police as they deal with a demonstration, protest or crime scene. The journalists are taken into custody and removed from the scene – stopping their ability to report. Later, authorities “drop” the fictional charges and issue a bland apology, knowing that the objective was accomplished of keeping the public’s representative from gathering and reporting independently on the news, leaving only the official account.
A side benefit for government: Sometimes the arrest controversy overshadows or distracts public attention from the very police actions on which the journalists would have reported.
No doubt some press critics will find reason to cheer the arrests in Minneapolis – if only out of spite. Those misguided souls need to remember that since the nation’s founding, we have found good reason to distrust – or at least seek independent verification – of official accounts and even sworn testimony. That includes the Pentagon Papers’ disclosure of decades of deliberate government misinformation about the Vietnam War and a tactic identified in the 1990s of New York police officers “testilying” – making false claims about suspects resisting arrest, for example, to justify police violence, to name a few.
Our freedoms under the First Amendment cannot be sustained if those who practice those freedoms are threatened with shackles for doing so.
Most of us won’t ever stand in the streets while reporting on violent protests. But we need the people who do that on our behalf in order to know whether police and other officials are acting in our best interests or their own.
When Jimenez and his colleagues were marched away, so were all Americans – and as long as we have a First Amendment with meaning, that is unacceptable.
Gene Policinski is a senior fellow for the First Amendment at the Freedom Forum, and president and chief operating officer of the Freedom Forum Institute. He can be reached at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter at @genefac.