This essay originally appeared in the January 2021 edition of Crain’s NewsPro and is republished with permission.
On Nov. 1, 2020, photojournalist Chae Kihn was covering a Make America Great Again counterprotest in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. The New York Police Department ordered everyone to move out of the street and onto the sidewalk. Kihn was in the process of complying when officers surrounded her, threw her to the ground and then cited her for obstructing traffic.
On Oct. 12, 2020, TV reporter Caresse Jackman and her photographer were about to shoot a stand-up in a Nashville neighborhood when a man came out of his house and, unprovoked, attacked them. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Nashville police later found the man, but Jackman and her colleague declined to press charges.
On Sept. 12, 2020, Los Angeles radio reporter Josie Huang had just finished covering a news conference when deputies suddenly tackled and arrested her. She suffered from scrapes and bruises, was in jail for five hours and faced criminal charges. Those charges were later dropped.
That was all, of course, before the election and Joe Biden’s presidential victory.
The day after Biden was declared the winner of the election, his campaign press secretary, T.J. Ducklo, told CNN: “President-elect Biden believes that the media is a critical piece of our democracy… [T]he media’s job is to hold him accountable. He is there to do the people’s work. And, you know, he welcomes that relationship. He welcomes their role, the media’s role, in our democracy. And I think it will be, frankly, the polar opposite of what we have seen in the last four years.”
Ducklo’s words are reassuring, indeed. It is a welcome respite, to no longer hear terms such as “fake news” and “enemy of the people” emanating from the White House.
But one should not forget that while the Donald Trump administration often made life difficult for journalists, to say the least, it never threw one in jail. (Some federal agents did arrest journalists during 2020’s racial reawakening demonstrations, but there is no indication those arrests were ordered at the highest levels of the U.S. government.)
Conversely, the Obama-Biden administration did ensure that a few journalists were arrested. That ended when press freedom groups convinced then-Attorney General Eric Holder to institute rules requiring the AG’s personal approval before federal law enforcement could target journalists in investigations surrounding leaked classified information. Trump’s first attorney general caused alarm when he announced he would reevaluate Holder’s rules, but he never did.
This is no time for complacency among journalists across the country who work hard every day to serve their communities by seeking and reporting the truth.
America remains deeply divided. Nearly as many people at least tacitly endorse the former president’s message that responsible journalist shouldn’t be trusted, as the number of those who reject it.
So, we in the Fourth Estate continue to face what used to be thought of as unprecedented challenges. (Although after the past five years or so, what really is unprecedented anymore?) Paramount among the challenges are:
• Safety – The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, the archive of record for attacks on journalists in our nation, says there were nearly 1,000 aggressions in 2020 aimed at journalists covering social justice and protests. There were more the 50 directly targeting journalists covering last year’s elections.
• Trust – Research consistently shows that too many Americans simply don’t trust the news they see on TV, hear on the radio or read online. One bright spot, however, is that local TV and radio journalists fare better than national news outlets. That’s because many local news consumers realize, at least on some level, that the people who bring them their news live in the same communities they do. They go to the same supermarkets. Their kids go to the same schools.
Let’s focus on safety. Amid the police reforms that followed the late-May death of George Floyd, some states and cities enacted laws and policies that affirm the right of citizens, including journalists, to record the activities of police. The Los Angeles Police Department issued an order specifically prohibiting officers from arresting journalists covering civil unrest.
But those laws and policies aren’t worth the paper – or email, or Tweet – they’re written on.
In the days before and after election week, business owners boarded up their windows in Times Square and New York City’s shopping districts; downtown Washington, D.C.; areas of Chicago; Los Angeles; and in cities and towns virtually everywhere in between. It was as if a giant hurricane the size of the continental United States was about to move on shore.
People were worried about mob violence, regardless of who was declared the winner of the presidential election. And regardless of who was protesting or rioting, journalists were there to chronicle it for the communities they serve.
Because that’s what journalists do. And it is what journalists will continue to do in the new Biden administration.
For decades, network news organizations have provided armed security to protect their crews in dangerous places overseas. Beginning in 2015, they provided such protection for journalists covering political rallies throughout the U.S.
For at least 10 years, local newsrooms in a handful of large American cities have provided armed security for their journalists working in the field. In 2020, in media markets large and small across the country, security guards became just as much a part of field crews as the reporters, producers and photojournalists. Independent and freelance journalists often have no protection at all.
Not counting the aggressions that emanate from law enforcement, the threats to journalists come from people across the ideological spectrum. Some who attack journalists wear red hats; some are dressed in black. Some carry tiki torches; some say they’re anarchists.
One might say there are bad people on both sides.
So why should people care? Because journalists exist to serve them and their communities. They put themselves in harm’s way to seek and report the truth. And their work often serves as catalysts for positive change. They shine light on problems so those problems can be rectified.
And as Louis Brandeis famously wrote three years before becoming an associate justice of the Supreme Court, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”