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EDITORIAL: Let journalists do their jobs

York Dispatch Editorial Board

When CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez and two crew members were arrested live on-air May 29 while covering demonstrations in Minneapolis, viewers would have been forgiven for thinking there must have been some mistake.

After all, news gathering is protected by the First Amendment in the United States and police do not have a history of interfering with journalists covering such breaking events.

Like many aspects of American society, that history is evidently changing. Far from being an isolated incident, the arrest of the CNN team was a bellwether of police actions toward journalists during the ongoing nationwide #BlackLivesMatter and related protests. 

While Minnesota’s governor may have apologized for what he characterized as an inadvertent police action, journalists by the score have since reported being harassed, arrested, even assaulted by police in cities across the nation while reporting on protests following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, a Wall Street Journal reporter, news media from NBC News, the Los Angeles Times and the Denver Post, popular MSNBC business correspondent Ali Velshi — all have been among the hundreds of journalists threatened or injured in the past two weeks.

The U.S. Freedom Press Tracker reported more than 325 “press freedom incidents” between May 26 and June 6, including 50-plus arrests and more than 200 assaults. By contrast, there were only about 150 such incidents throughout all of 2019.

And there is ample video evidence, witness corroboration and first-hand reporting by journalists themselves to dismiss the notion that most of these incidents were unintentional or accidental.

Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, left, and other officers attend to Associated Press photographer Matt Rourke after he was assaulted while touring the business district with Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and police officers at N. Broad Street and Erie Avenue in Philadelphia on Thursday, June 4, 2020. (Alejandro A. Alvarez/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)

What’s going on?

“Many reporters, photographers and press advocates,” reports the New York Times, “said the treatment of journalists by police officers in recent days reflected an erosion of trust in the news media that has seeped into law enforcement under President Trump, who has deemed critical coverage of his administration ‘fake news’ and has frequently labeled some news organizations and journalists with variants of the phrase ‘enemies of the people.’”

That’s dispiriting but hardly surprising. After all, the president has insulted and undermined the free press his entire administration — the better to persuade his core followers to believe his fantastical flights of illusion over accurately reported facts. His churlishness at news conferences is part of his brand, his demonizing of the media a stock feature of his carnivalesque campaign rallies. He has sued news organizations over opinion articles and arbitrarily withheld White House press credentials.

In short, he has been fighting with the media since day one. The media, under widespread physical attack, are now fighting back.

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In Philadelphia, where multiple incidents of police violence against journalists have been documented, a consortium of more than 50 regional and national news organizations has petitioned city lawmakers to denounce the aggressive police tactics and protect reporters.

Back in Minneapolis, where police attacks on journalists continued despite a gubernatorial apology, two local law firms were joined by the American Civil Liberties Union in filing a class-action lawsuit, citing police violations of journalists’ First, Fourth and 14th Amendment rights.

A police officer shouts at Associated Press videojournalist Robert Bumsted, Tuesday, June 2, 2020, in New York. New York City police officers surrounded, shoved and yelled expletives at two Associated Press journalists covering protests Tuesday in the latest aggression against members of the media during a week of unrest around the country. Portions of the incident were captured on video by Bumsted, who was working with photographer Wong Maye-E to document the protests in lower Manhattan over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

And the ACLU has joined Black Lives Matter in filing a federal lawsuit against the Trump administration and Attorney General William Barr for ordering the forcible removal of peaceful protesters — and the media documenting their protest — from Lafayette Square Park across the street from the White House so the president could stage a photo op.

This is not where America’s media should be spending its times, energies or limited resources. Nor should its practitioners need to fear retaliation from law enforcement for exercising its First Amendment rights.

A free press is the eyes and ears of the nation. During times of upheaval and change, it is especially vital the media provide as complete a picture as possible, absent restraint or threat. Efforts by police to impede newsgathering on a national scale are not only unprecedented and unpardonable, they’re unAmerican. They must stop.