A wave of attacks on journalists covering US protests is driving growing anxiety in the media, with some blaming President Donald Trump for creating an atmosphere that encourages violence.
Over the past week, media watchdogs have logged scores of incidents of police violence against journalists — with crews shot at, beaten, kicked, pepper-sprayed, or arrested — with many incidents captured on camera.
An open letter to law enforcement endorsed by 18 press freedom organizations including the National Press Club and Committee to Protect Journalists called for a halt to “the deliberate and devastating targeting of journalists in the field.”
A tally by media watchdog groups cited 192 press freedom violations during the latest wave of protests including 131 assaults, of which 108 were by police. The tally included 31 arrests, 46 firings of rubber bullets, 30 cases of damage to equipment, 30 incidents of tear gas, and 17 pepper sprayings.
Some media advocates say Trump’s persistent bashing of the mainstream press has opened the door to attacks by undermining the credibility of journalists covering the protests following the police killing of a black man in Minnesota last week.
“This definitely creates an atmosphere where you are likely to see attacks on reporters,” said Len Downie, a former Washington Post executive editor who is a professor at Arizona State University and authored a study earlier this year on the Trump administration and the media.
Downie said that while Trump may not explicitly encourage violence against the press, his harsh rhetoric “deepens the divide” over credibility. “The country is split between those who believe the president and those who believe the press,” he said.
‘I’m With the Press!’
Some stunned journalists took to Twitter recounting mistreatment, while others posted videos.
“After showing my badge and yelling ‘I am with the press’ a @RichmondPolice officer sprayed pepper spray in my face and shoved me to the ground. Had 3397 on his helmet,” tweeted radio reporter Roberto Roldan of Richmond, Virginia.
One video showed an Australian TV crew being pushed to the ground by police near the White House in Washington.
How many journalists have been attacked this weekend? Vice reporter gets pepper sprayed in the face while on the ground shouting “press” and holding up his ID card. pic.twitter.com/KZdlaeCv0i
— Alex Kantrowitz (@Kantrowitz) May 31, 2020
“This is alarming,” said National Press Club president Michael Freedman. “The instances I’ve seen have all included journalists playing by the rules, and we hope officials on the other side play by the same standards.”
Patricia Gallagher Newberry, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, said Trump’s attacks have had a “harmful effect.” Instead of attacking the media, elected officials “should speak out in defense of journalists and call on the community to protect journalists,” Newberry said.
“This is not supposed to happen in the United States of America. We have press freedom built into our Constitution. So to see police and protesters attacking the storytellers is shocking, is disheartening, is illegal and it is really disturbing.”
Making Things Worse
Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, also highlighted the importance of the Trump attacks on media. “While Trump didn’t make covering US protests dangerous, he has made the situation worse,” Simon wrote in a column for the Columbia Journalism Review.
“It is certainly possible that the president’s anti-media rhetoric has emboldened local police, who are attacking and arresting journalists at a pace not seen in recent history. And it is also possible that some protesters who have attacked journalists are Trump supporters motivated by his denunciations of fake news.”
When journalists are attacked, societies are attacked.
No democracy can function without press freedom nor can any society be fair without journalists who investigate wrongdoing and speak truth to power.
— António Guterres (@antonioguterres) May 30, 2020
The latest incidents come with many media outlets taking an economic hit from the virus pandemic while struggling to keep readers informed on critical issues.
Media advocates say the shocking incidents underscore an erosion of respect for the constitutional guarantees of free press in recent years.
“The scenes that played out across the country over the last week cannot be covered from a ‘safe’ distance,” said Jon Schleuss, president of the NewsGuild, the union representing thousands of journalists.
“Reporters and photographers understand the risks and don’t expect special treatment. But attacking them for newsgathering is an unconstitutional attack on all Americans.”