RNC arrests: Why didn't journalists stand up for each other?

Categories: Media

An article in the Boston Phoenix is getting a lot of buzz in the journalism world today. Adam Reilly brings up the elephant in the room: Why aren't the big guys, like the New York Times, standing up and questioning the journalist arrests at the Republican National Convention? Good question.

Reilly says it's "remarkable" how little attention these arrests received. He estimates 50 of the 800 arrests were journalists.

"Oddly, though, the jeopardy that journalists faced in St. Paul never became much of a story. There wasn't a news blackout, exactly: the Associated Press (AP) and the local Minnesota media covered the issue, as did left-leaning outlets like the Nation and Salon, and national heavyweights like ABC News and the Washington Post gave it some early, blog-based coverage.

The problem, instead, is that the story was ignored or minimized by other important organizations -- the New York Times being the most prominent example -- and, as the weeks progressed, never seemed to generate any sort of sustained concern inside the media itself, the efforts of groups like the Society for Professional Journalists notwithstanding. In the words of Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, "It never really got into the conversation at a level where it had an impact."

What's especially strange about this is that the activity that got these journalists into trouble -- monitoring the exercise of government power -- is one of the most important things the fourth estate does. So why the muted response to their plight?

Reilly brings up some interesting points that are relatively new to the world of journalism. The RNC was covered by a large amount of so-called journalists outside of the mainstream media, many of them partisan bloggers without credentials. So where should the police draw the line when dealing with a group of people ranging from officially credentialed media to personal bloggers all trying to avoid arrest by claiming their right to monitor police activity? It's a tough question, which we are sure will be addressed in the upcoming investigation.

Is this MSM versus the underground? Maybe. Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! got a lot of press for her arrest, but that might not be enough.

In retrospect, though, Goodman's status as the RNC's designated media martyr may actually have deterred further coverage. "Amy Goodman and her colleagues aren't considered part of the fraternity," notes Eric Alterman, the Nation media critic and author of What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News. "They're actually enormously resented by many journalists, and with good reason: they treat the mainstream media as if it's part of a corporate conspiracy to keep people from knowing the truth. There's not the sense of affinity there. They're viewed more as activists than as journalists in the minds of many."

Reilly also paints a frightening picture for the future of journalism within situations so closely monitored by police. He mentioned some journalists who chose to be embedded with the police in exchange for immunity:

If, four years from now, reporters covering protests at the political conventions are told to embed or else -- if they're asked to choose, basically, between taking law enforcement's point of view or risking law enforcement's wrath -- everyone who ignored what happened in St. Paul this past month should wonder: did I help make this possible?
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