Since two reporters were detained by a heavy-handed Ferguson police last week, the media has been a part of the story of frustration, violence, and racial tension in Missouri. Most journalists and media professionals were, however, able to craft and observe moiety between themselves and the protesters they were covering. The distinction between reporter and subject has begun to blur.
This is a complex subject. The media has both a right and a responsibility to report from the ground in Ferguson. The press is correct to challenge authority, to broadcast images that the local police do not want seen, and to serve as a check on the power of law enforcement and the military. The media’s presence may have already acted as a fail-safe and prevented acts of excessive policing which would have only exacerbated an already tense situation and cast the entire crowd control effort in a negative light.
With that said, it is also clear that the press is no longer serving as objective chroniclers of the proceedings. In many ways, the media appears to believe that it is an active participant in the events in Missouri. What’s more, the press appears to be relishing this role.
On Monday, CNN’s Don Lemon, occupying a position on the front of a line of protesters which was being pushed back by police, adopted the incredulous tone of one of the protesters with whom he clearly identified when he, too, was physically removed by officers.
“You can see what’s happening,” he said as he was being cautiously moved. “We’ve been standing here all day. They told us to come here. I can’t move. I’m not going to resist a police officer.”
As night fell and the violence in Ferguson again erupted, police understandably – if not regrettably – began to allow the distinction between peaceful demonstrator and rioter to become confused. While this is a lamentable condition, and one that was far less excusable earlier in these protests, the escalating violence against police justifies it today.
During the cable news networks’ live broadcast of events in Ferguson last night, in which reporters filled the hours with increasingly frenetic prognoses about the worsening situation in Ferguson, it was impossible for the media to not become part of – if not central to – the story in Missouri.
“People are angry man, they are real angry,” MSNBC’s Chris Hayes after he was hit with a rock thrown by protesters.
“I have a pit in my stomach over where this is headed if something doesn’t change,” he later tweeted ominously.
Some of the media disagree. During the protests last night, the police asked the press to separate from the protesters. Many did not comply.
Even CNN’s Jake Tapper, a true professional and a consummate reporter, could not help but be swept up in the moment.
“These are armed police, with — not machine guns — semi-automatic rifles, with batons, with shields, many of them dressed for combat. Now why they’re doing this? I don’t know. Because there is no threat going on here. None that merits this,” Tapper observed. “Absolutely there have been looters, absolutely over the last nine days there’s been violence, but there is nothing going on on this street right now that merits this scene out of Bagram.”
“What is this?” He asked. “This doesn’t make any sense.”
Yes, the police and National Guard called in to quell what has been a situation characterized by coordinated violence against police officers did mount a display of overwhelming force, even before columns of peaceful protesters, in order to serve as a deterrent. Was this tactic called for last week? That is debatable, but most – including myself – would have said no. Is it justified this week? Without a doubt, it is.
“Our officers came under heavy gunfire,” said Police Capt. Ron Johnson, reporting that two people suffered gunshot wounds and four officers were wounded from projectiles hurled at them by protesters. “These are not acts of protesters, but acts of violent criminals.” He asks that protesters demonstrate during the day, because agitators use the night to execute attacks on police.
ABC’s Steven Portnoy reported that the protests have become a beacon for individuals looking to start violence, with many coming from as far as California and New York. The press cannot expect to be treated in a way that acknowledges their distinct status while the police are in fear for their lives.
None of this is to say that the police have comported themselves well throughout this ordeal, and few seem to have learned from their mistakes. In the same way that the Huffington Post’s Ryan Reilly and The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery were detained without reason in by law enforcement, a Getty photographer was arrested because, as he said, “the media is required to be in a certain area.”
Crowd control requires managing the press just as it does for protesters, and it is the height of irresponsibility for reporters to create the conditions, as some have, which would force police to view them as a threat proportionate to that of the protesters. While police would be well-advised to avoid making martyrs of journalists, even if some appear to welcome that condition, there is only so much leeway law enforcement can provide.
What is going on in Ferguson is complicated, but the press may no longer be playing a helpful role. In fact, they could be inflaming a tense situation even further. While that is debatable, what is indisputable is what the media has become: part of the story.
UPDATE: It is worth noting that, later on Monday night, Tapper and his crew traveled to a less peaceful part of the city where he and the rest of the crowd were exposed to tear gas. He did not express any reservation about the police tactics in this instance, suggesting that he was not supportive of the protesters’ methods.