As I was working on book chapters Sunday and planning our move to a new house, a Facebook message from a former student brought me back to reality:
“Did you ever get around to putting that vest in the mail?”
Almost two years ago, I borrowed a bulletproof vest from him so that I could work on my First-Person Target series. I wore the vest everywhere for a week and then did some interviewing to help me understand the issues of guns, safety and fear in this country. I used the vest in November 2018, but I didn’t finish the series until January 2019. I hung onto it in case I needed a sequel or a follow-up piece.
Like the absent-minded professor I am, I eventually boxed it up, addressed it and managed to forget it in the basement for another year. He should get it back, no doubt, but I wondered why he thought about it on that given day. Was he OK?
“I’m doing fine, not covering riots…yet. I was thinking about it and watching the world burn last night and realized I had no idea where it was. But as long as you’re safe and don’t need it, that would be great.”
He lives in Florida, more than 1,500 miles from the rioting’s flashpoint of Minnesota, but the riots aren’t just in the Land of 10,000 Lakes (and for good reason). George Floyd died Monday in Minneapolis while police arrested him on suspicion of using a counterfeit $20 to buy cigarettes. A video of the arrest shows a police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck, as Floyd pleads with him for minute after minute to let him breathe. Bystanders begged officer Derek Chauvin to stop as well. Instead, he continued his assault on Floyd. He has since been fired and charged with murder.
I don’t know if my former student will need to cover these spasms of violence, but I do worry his safety and that of so many others in the field who need to ply their trade during this unfathomable time in history.
Safety has always been a watchword within journalism, even as we learn how to go against our natural instincts when it comes to fear and security. Like many folks in other fields, we have to learn how to run TOWARD danger instead of running away from it. We need to learn how to see a house fire and think, “That looks dangerous. I need to go over there.” We develop a sense that says, “People are shooting at each other on Smith Street. I need to get out there.” The goal for good journalists isn’t gold and glory (clearly not the case, if you’ve been following the cuts, furloughs and bloodletting in the field these days).
The goal is to help the readers and viewers experience real life as it is unfolding, regardless of if that reality is safe or not.
I usually like to start each academic term on the blog with something inspirational, but it’s not easy to do that today. The people in our field are covering pandemics from their own homes. They are covering protesters who are begging… literally begging… for some level of accountability that will make it a little less likely that black people will be killed for the “crime” of being black. They are covering violent clashes between rioters and police, often getting caught in the crossfire for their trouble.
CNN reporter Omar Jimenez was covering the events in Minnesota with a camera crew on Friday. He showed the police his press pass. He had a microphone and a camera that probably cost more than my first car, so there was no “confusion” over who he was and that he was a national reporter.
He was standing where police told him to stand. He was complying with the orders police had given him before he went out there. He repeatedly told the police he was more than willing to go wherever they wanted him to go and do whatever they wanted him to do.
Instead, this happened live on the air:
The governor issued an apology and the crew was released after a short time in jail, but none of this makes any sense. If one of my students had told me, “I need to cover this thing in Minnesota. What should I do to be safe?” I would have told that student to do EVERYTHING Jimenez did. It was the perfect example of how to be safe and not get hurt or arrested.
It didn’t matter.
It didn’t matter for WAVE 3 News reporter Kaitlin Rust and photojournalist James Dobson either, who were covering protests in Kentucky. They had their gear, their press passes and they were LIVE ON AIR when an officer opened fire on them with “less lethal rounds.”
At first, Rust thought the police officer was actually shooting live rounds at her. She then noted they were “rubber bullets.” In responding to this situation, police officials stepped up and made something important abundantly clear:
It was previously reported that the officer was firing rubber bullets, but LMPD spokeswoman Jessie Halladay said the department’s officers do not use rubber bullets, and it was likely that was Rust and Dobson were hit with pepper balls.
Right. Because that’s the important thing. Semantics over exactly WHAT this chucklehead was shooting at two journalists from less than 20 feet away for no good reason. Glad we cleared that up…
Also, in case you are unfamiliar with pepper bullets, here’s the Pepperball company website. It promotes these types of items noting the following frightening statement:
With multiple payload options and a proprietary chemical irritant that’s proven more effective from even greater distances, PepperBall® projectiles offer the protection and versatility for any situation. Available in both round and VXR versions, PepperBall projectiles can be operated at virtually any temperature from as far away as 150 feet and with an area saturation of up to 50 meters.
In other words, this thing can drill you hard enough at 150 feet to deploy a giant pepper-spray bomb about the size of the Arc de Triomphe. And this officer not only fired it at the journalists, but he or she reloaded and fired again. And again. And THEN told the crew to move back.
It was clear these people were journalists. They were not making any threatening moves or acting in a way that would indicate their desire to antagonize the police.
It didn’t matter.
It didn’t matter to police who pepper sprayed Andrea Sahouri, of the Des Moines Register, after she repeatedly told police, “I’m press! I’m press! I’m press!” It didn’t matter to police who pepper sprayed Detroit Free Press reporter JC Reindl, who was showing his press credentials to an officer at the time. It didn’t matter to the dozens of other people who decided journalists were good targets for violence and anger.
It is impossible to explain to any sane individual why it is that journalists would put up with any of this, all while being called the “enemy of the people” by people in power. It makes no sense that they are risking their health and their lives to enter an area of total danger, just so other people could safely see what was happening around them. It makes even less sense when you realize that every day, they fear getting fired in a cost-cutting maneuver because some hedge fund manager will decide it’s time to tweak the company’s stock portfolio.
Those that remain will do more work, over longer hours and for insultingly meager pay.
Because these strong, brave and decent individuals know in their hearts that what they do provides a record of reality. Their work captures things that some people would like to wash away and forget happened. Their efforts add them to the fraternity of people who refuse to be cowed into submission or look the other way out of expedience.
What they do DOES matter.
Somehow. In some way. For someone.
And for that moment, that’s enough for them to press on.
Welcome to journalism.