“I’m getting shot!” screamed local Louisville TV reporter Kaitlin Rush while live on air. An anchor back in the studio asked who the pepper-ball gun-wielder was targeting. “At us! Directly at us!” she replied.
The gun-wielder? A police officer.
In the mayhem surrounding the nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd, some of those targeted – by both police officers and the protesters – are news reporters.
The attacks have been widespread. Some may be indiscriminate. Others most assuredly are not.
While covering a peaceful protest, MSNBC host Ali Velshi and his team were pelted with rubber bullets fired by police officers despite the news crew repeatedly identifying themselves as members of the press. “We put our hands up and yelled, ‘We’re media!’” Velshi said. “They responded, ‘We don’t care!’ and they opened fire a second time.”
A Fox News team was chased and harassed by as many as a dozen protesters outside the White House. Veteran reporter Leland Vitters and his crew were punched and hit with projectiles as they fled, and a Fox News camera was broken when a member of the mob tried to grab it. Another news team caught the incident on video.
“In a situation like this, even if [police are] clearing an area, we have got to ensure that there is a safe spot for journalism to tell the story,” Democratic Gov. Tim Walz said at a recent press briefing. “The issue here is trust. The community that’s down there that’s terrorized by this, if they see a reporter being arrested, their assumption is something is going to happen that they don’t want to be seen. And so that is unacceptable.”
The number of incidents against the news media during these protests is alarmingly high. A freelance photographer in Minneapolis was shot by police in the eye by a rubber bullet. Her doctors believe she has permanently lost sight in that eye.
A veteran cameraman for the local CBS affiliate in Minneapolis was arrested while covering ongoing protests, while other journalists were fired at with tear gas and rubber bullets after the 8 p.m. curfew took effect. (Media are exempt from the curfew.)
Protesters in Kansas City vandalized and set fire Sunday night to a news vehicle owned by the local NBC affiliate. Fortunately, in that case, no one was hurt. Journalists employed by the USA Today network of newspapers were not so lucky.
The incidents against journalists have prompted sharp rebuke by nonprofit media organizations. “This country has laws that protect journalists for one, simple reason: Without a free press, we will have no democracy,” wrote the Minnesota chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. “And then there will truly be nothing left.”
Added Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, “The numerous, targeted attacks that journalists reporting on protests across the country have faced from law enforcement over the last two nights are both reprehensible and clear violations of the First Amendment. These attacks not only endanger our free press, but also threaten our democracy and the essential role that journalists play in safeguarding constitutional rights.”
CNN published its own analysis admonishing police tactics while noting that the norms regarding press access at protests, crime scenes and other newsworthy events are generally well-established.
Peaceful protests and a press freely covering such protests are hallmarks of the nation’s First Amendment freedoms. Violence – whether by police officers or protesters – is not.
Robert D. Lystad is the Executive Director of the non-profit Campaign for Free Speech, based in Washington, D.C.