Did WaPo reporters conspire with extremists to attack National Gallery of Art?

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File

And if they did, will anyone from the Washington Post face charges over it? Readers might remember this stunt from a month ago at the National Gallery of Art, in which climate-change protesters vandalized a display of an Edgar Degas sculpture. Fortunately, the Washington Post just happened to have a reporter and a photographer on scene that day to capture the crime and its aftermath:

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Protesters smeared black and red paint on the case and pedestal of Edgar Degas’s “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” sculpture at the National Gallery of Art in D.C. on Thursday to bring attention to the climate crisis and demand that President Biden declare a climate emergency.

The protesters — a man and a woman, dressed in black suits — slathered their hands, then crouched down to paint the pedestal on which the ballerina sculpture is displayed. They then stood up and smeared their hands across the clear case protecting the artwork. Police removed the two people in handcuffs and ushered out the people inside the gallery.

Declare Emergency, the climate group that organized the stunt, identified the protesters as Joanna Smith, 53, of New York City and Tim Martin, 54, of Raleigh, N.C.

The Post even got video of the attack as it took place:

The Post credited this to “John Farrell, Jackson Barton/The Washington Post” when it published the video as part of its report. Jackson Barton has been the Post’s “breaking news video editor” for nine months, according to a press release from WaPo’s PR department last August. Quite a scoop — and a coincidence, no?

Er … probably not. A grand jury returned an indictment against Smith and Martin yesterday, charging the pair with felonies for an injury to a National Gallery of Art property (40 US 6303, 6307) and conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States (18 USC 371). Both could cost the two defendants up to five years in prison and $250,000 per count, although they’re likely to get shorter sentences than that if they have no prior convictions.

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But let’s get back to the WaPo’s good fortune in having a reporting team on scene when the attack occurred. Was that just a coincidence? Not according to the grand jury:

And not according to the DoJ either. The US Attorney’s statement put it somewhat more bluntly in his press release yesterday, and in a way that should have some folks at the WaPo offices checking with attorneys. Emphases mine:

The indictment further alleges that Martin and Smith agreed, along with other currently uncharged co-conspirators, to enter the National Gallery of Art for the purpose of injuring the exhibit. Martin and Smith entered the National Gallery of Art armed with plastic water bottles filled with paint.  Martin and Smith handed their phones to other conspirators and waited until patrons cleared the area in front of the Little Dancer. Martin and Smith proceeded to smear paint on the case and base of the exhibit, at times smacking the case with force. Prior to the attack, members of the conspiracy had alerted the Washington Post, and two reporters from the Post recorded and photographed the offense. Additionally, other members of the conspiracy filmed and photographed the offense. Smith and Martin caused approximately $2,400 in damage and the exhibit was removed from public display for ten days so that it could be repaired.

That certainly offers a strong hint that the US Attorney anticipates the likelihood of charging other members of the alleged conspiracy. Who might they be? The members of Declare Emergency, which the Post helpfully fingered as the organizer of the attack, are likely targets for the US Attorney next. But it also sounds as though the prosecutors and the grand jury see the Post reporters as part of a conspiracy too, and for good reason. How else could Smith, Martin, and the other conspirators guarantee that their message would get amplified and their attack make enough news to matter?

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As Ryan Maue detailed on Twitter late last night, other reporter speculated at the time that the Post’s team was involved in the conspiracy and the attack:

As the NYT’s Andrew Revkin allowed at the time, the press often gets alerted and invited to events ahead of time. Those, however, are usually press conferences, social events, and other occasions that don’t involve crimes. Even that, as Revkin comments, makes for a fine line between journalism and PR. Being invited to film a crime and them write about it is pretty clearly a participation in the crime itself and in the conspiracy to commit it.

The indictment hints that the grand jury saw it that way. It certainly sounds as if the US Attorney in DC thinks so as well. But would the DoJ indict reporters for it? Prosecuting the reporters might be a bridge too far politically and legally. The Left will erupt in outrage over any such indictments and circle wagons around their friendly media outlet. Legally, it would be just as fraught. The DoJ would have to prove  — beyond a reasonable doubt — that the reporters knew that the activists intended to commit a crime. They could argue that they were told that the defendants only planned to stage an otherwise legal demonstration in front of the Degas display, and were just as shocked as everyone else when the crime unfolded.

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Is that believable? It would likely be enough for reasonable doubt among jurors, unless prosecutors get testimony or correspondence proving otherwise. (The fact that the grand jury including the media in the conspiracy suggests that they saw evidence to contradict that defense, but so far it’s only implicit.) For the rest of us, YMMV. If that were the case, why didn’t the Post mention it in its reporting? Instead, it doesn’t explain at all why their reporters happened to be on scene, and only notes that its reporting team got detained by police until “The Post’s counsel intervened.” Hmmmm.

Frankly, I’m pleasantly surprised that the DoJ and the local US Attorney are pursuing Martin and Smith this vigorously or even at all, although it’s certainly warranted. The only way to stop these attacks by extremists on public and private property is to create a prosecutorial deterrent that will force recalculation by others inclined to commit similar acts. It also requires, as Maue argued last night, an effort to expose and punish those who are funding such attacks and extremist groups:

They’re still uncharged for now. Who knows what Martin and Smith might do when faced with a real potential for five-year prison sentences and $500,000 in fines? Will they start cooperating? I’d guess that these “climate” extremists are used to a pretty cushy ride in life, and the rude awakening will force some immediate recalculations, assuming the DoJ doesn’t quietly drop the case under political pressure. And if those recalculations go far enough, then perhaps the Post’s counsel will need to “intervene” a lot more, and soon.

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In the meantime, we can add this to the overwhelming preponderance of evidence that the Post is not a media outlet but an activist org, and that this is no longer unusual in this media era. On that note, let’s ponder one last question: How many other media outlets are conspiring — morally if not legally — with such groups to amplify their attacks on art around the world?

Update: My friend Leah Libresco Sargeant disagrees:

If the DoJ attempts to indict the Post employees on the conspiracy charge, that’ll be their defense. The problem here is defining “civil disobedience.” That usually refers to the violation of an unjust law in order to pressure government to change or repeal it. That isn’t what happened at the National Gallery, however; what unjust law was being protested that required this attack on an art treasure to expose it? This was a conspiracy to commit a felonious act of vandalism, an attempt to threaten to take art treasures hostage by extremists to impose an agenda entirely unrelated to art.

YMMV, though, and Leah’s always an interesting read and a thoughtful commenter.

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David Strom 1:20 PM | July 18, 2024
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