A free press was under attack last weekend, in incidents not seen in this number since the height of the modern civil rights movement more than 60 years ago – and we cannot allow it to continue.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, we needed the bravery of journalists – from mainstream publications as well as minority-audience publications – to tell the nation what official reports often ignored, hid or falsified.
We need that same kind of independent, accurate and unblinking reportage today. But attempts to stifle that kind of accountability journalism erupted across the nation in the past three days.
Headlines in newspapers displayed on the Freedom Forum’s daily news-front page app document the violence. From reports by USA TODAY, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and journalism advocacy groups Reporters Without Borders and Committee to Protect Journalists:
- Linda Tirado, a freelance photographer, was shot in the left eye Friday with what she believes was a rubber bullet while photographing street protests.
- Saturday night, MSNBC journalist Ali Velshi was hit in the leg by a rubber bullet, but was not seriously injured.
- Los Angeles Times journalist Molly Hennessy-Fiske said Saturday evening that she and about 12 other journalists were outside a police precinct station when state police teargassed them at point-blank range even though they identified themselves as press.
- Reuters news service producer Julio César Chávez said he and a security guard were shot with rubber bullets Saturday night.
- Reuters photographer Lucas Jackson was attacked Saturday night by a man disguised as medic, who smashed his camera with a crowbar.
- Vice News correspondent Michael Anthony Adams shared video of state troopers approaching him and several other journalists Sunday morning at a gas station where they had taken shelter. He was pepper-sprayed while sitting on the ground as ordered.
In Louisville, Ky.:
WAVE 3 News reporter Kaitlin Rust and photojournalist James Dobson were struck by pepper balls Friday fired at them by a Louisville Metro Police Department officer. “I’m getting shot! I’m getting shot!” Rust screamed on air as the officer aimed directly at her.
Protesters on Friday night smashed through a front door and vandalized CNN’s headquarters. (On Saturday, CNN journalist Omar Jimenez – who was briefly detained Friday by Minneapolis state police along with two crew members – said his crew’s cameraman and producer were hit by rubber bullets there.)
Over the weekend, “a FOX45 news crew reporting from the Baltimore demonstrations outside of City Hall was attacked and chased away by a group of protesters who resorted to violence,” said Scott Livingston, senior vice president of news for the Sinclair Broadcast Group, in an email to The Baltimore Sun.
In Des Moines, Iowa:
Police arrested Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri and charged her with “failure to disperse” and “interference with official acts” while she was covering a demonstration at a local mall that turned violent. She was sprayed with pepper spray while her hands were zip-tied behind her back.
On Saturday night, two reporters for the Detroit Free Press went to emergency rooms after police fired tear gas during protests.
A cellphone being used to livestream news reports was knocked from a Free Press photographer’s hand.
In Madison, Wis.:
Molly Beck and Lawrence Andrea of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, were teargassed and pepper-sprayed early Sunday morning while reporting on protests.
In Fayetteville, N.C.:
Saturday night, Paul Woolverton, a reporter for the Fayetteville Observer, was treated at a local hospital for a concussion after being attacked while shooting video at a looting of a J.C. Penney.
In Las Vegas:
Las Vegas Review-Journal reported photographer Ellen Schmidt and freelance photographer and former Review-Journal employee Bridget Bennett were arrested while covering protests Saturday.
A protester charged CBS 5 and 3TV reporter Briana Whitney Saturday night outside Police Department headquarters during a “live” report, shoving her aside and trying to grab her microphone. Whitney resisted, and then continued her report as the man ran away.
The Pittsburgh Public Safety Department said Sunday that three journalists were injured by protesters. KDKA photojournalist Ian Smith tweeted he “was attacked by protestors downtown” and that he was “bruised and bloody but alive.” He said his camera was destroyed, but “another group of protesters” pulled him to safety.
The mayor late Sunday reversed a police department spokesman’s announcement that during a curfew starting Sunday night, “No media is allowed downtown unless they are inside their place of business. Period.” The initial order received national criticism when it was made public.
In Washington, D.C.:
Outside the White House, protesters attacked Fox News correspondent Leland Vittert and his crew. A security guard with the crew was punched; Vittert was hit with his own microphone.
Understand this: Journalists will not stop reporting even after being attacked.
Journalists have been injured or killed on the job before.
The Freedom Forum’s Journalists Memorial added 11 journalists worldwide who died in 2019 to the memorial’s database, which tells the stories of 2,355 reporters, photographers, broadcasters and other media workers who died while reporting news and information, dating back to 1837.
With relatively rare exception, journalists in the U.S. have been spared the assaults and murder all too common in other nations – though killings in 2018 at a newspaper office in Annapolis, Md., and the murder of two journalists during a morning telecast in Virginia in 2015 remind us all too well how such tragedies can happen.
The only comparable era to what we’re seeing now is the height of the civil rights protests in the 1950s and early 1960s, when reporters were beaten, injured during police action and even faced violent attacks at home. At a 1987 symposium at the University of Mississippi, reporters swapped accounts of being chased into buildings to find refuge, of stink bombs tossed into news offices, of being injured when photographing or reporting for newspapers and television and, in one instance, having a firebomb – which failed to explode – tossed into a family home.
Authorities cannot void the First Amendment at will. They cannot allow rogue officers to spray, gas or fire at clearly identified journalists. Protesters cannot allow anger over injustice to fuel more of it.
Who else but journalists will bring images of police and protesters in many cities finding common ground from Washington, D.C., to Des Moines to New York City, kneeling, marching together, shaking hands? Where else will we see demonstrators applauding when in Portland, Ore., an entire line of riot-clad officers joined took a knee in unison, in support of calls for justice and an end to racial bigotry?
We need journalists on the job, to bring us the news we need to read, hear and see to make our collective lives better. They cannot do that effectively if attacked, jailed or – tragically, in the injury to Linda Tirado – blinded in one eye.
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.