It’s about the first thing you hear in the handheld video Washington Post journalist Wesley Lowery took of his being arrested by police in Ferguson, Mo., Wednesday night, along with Ryan Reilly of the Huffington Post, for “trespassing”—in an open McDonald’s—while covering the unrest after the shooting death by police of Michael Brown. The two journalists were detained, roughed up and held in a cell before being released later the same night. (You can read Lowery’s account of the arrest here, and Reilly’s here.) Their only evident provocation: doing their work at Mickey D’s and using the wi-fi.
Lowery and Reilly were obviously not the only people taken into custody that night. Others in the streets were tear-gassed and hit by rubber bullets as police met the protesters, outfitted in SWAT gear and accompanied by snipers on armored vehicles. Nor were they they the only journalists targeted: here you can see footage of an Al Jazeera America crew fleeing their video equipment after getting hit with tear gas, after which a SWAT vehicle pulls up and police take down the camera and lights.
A SWAT team. To take out cameras. In the United States of America. Because you know how dangerous it is when people start pointing those things around.
I want to be careful about this, because I don’t want to give the impression that somehow it only matters when it’s reporters who get arrested or hurt. You can say what you want about the implications of there being what amounts to a war zone in an American city after a police shooting–but reporters do cover dangerous places like war zones, and they expose themselves to risk. So to be clear, I’m not saying that journalists are somehow sacrosanct, or that an injury to a law-abiding reporter matters more than an injury to a law-abiding regular citizen.
But it does matter.
It matters, both morally and practically, that police took two journalists into custody for, essentially, covering the police. It matters morally because having media at a confrontation like this is a way of bringing the world in. When journalists are forced out of the scene, you’re cut out of the picture. And when there isn’t an observer with the power to get word out, widely and quickly, then bad actors—whoever they are—can act in secret.
It also matters practically because, being honest, it draws media attention. Journalists do pay more attention to stories that involve other journalists, which is the sort of thing that can bring the fiasco unfolding here to the next level of coverage. (Earlier in the week, for instance, Ferguson was struggling for newshole space with the death of Robin Williams–and, yes, I know I’m speaking from a magazine that put Williams on its cover this week.)
And if law enforcement wants to retain some level of trust as the story gets framed, this is not a great way to do it. If police in Missouri are willing to do this to people with a media platform, how, it’s reasonable to ask, will they treat someone who doesn’t? Not to mention that attacks on the press make law enforcement look not only sinister but inept. Just as, in Washington political journalism, pundits use the way a candidate handles media as a measure of a campaign’s competence, going to war against reporters shows that (at best) things are not being thought through here.
And it matters because it wasn’t just Lowery who was ordered, “Stop videotaping!” Multiple reports came in Wednesday night of riot police telling the media and the crowd in general not to photograph or video-record. (It is in fact, the belief of some officers to the contrary, 100% legal to photograph the police.) Because here’s the thing: accredited journalists are not the only media on scene in Ferguson, or anywhere. Smartphones make everyone a camera crew, and social media gives everyone a platform, if not an equal one. Here in New York City, it was a bystander who recorded Eric Garner’s fatal chokehold arrest. Police who crack down on journalists are by extension cracking down on anyone who might use a camera in a way they don’t like–which nowadays, is almost all of us.
The arrests of journalists is not an outrage because journalists deserve special outrage. It’s an outrage because, now, we are all the media.