VIDEO: Adam Reilly interviews Amy Goodman and Nicole Salazar about their arrests at the RNC in St. Paul
Collaring the watchdog
If the press had paid more attention to what happened to some journalists at the RNC, the resulting coverage could have been slightly awkward. After all, the fact that lists of detained journalists include both John Wise and members of Pepperspray Productions is a reminder that, in the age of blogs and YouTube, it’s almost impossible to establish clear criteria for who is and isn’t a journalist.
But it would have been worth it. Again, the most important role that journalists can play — that journalism can play — is to act as a watchdog on power. The detentions in St. Paul were a perfect opportunity to drive this point home. Instead, the subdued response sent a different message — namely, that we don’t care all that much when our watchdog role is threatened. (This was reinforced by the revelation that some Minnesota reporters were allowed to travel with police — to “embed,” essentially — and promised legal immunity, in exchange for not reporting on law enforcement’s behavior until the convention ended.)
What makes this passivity especially dangerous is that the press’s privileges are based on cultural consensus, not on the Constitution. Journalists aren’t allowed carte-blanche access into political conventions or crime scenes because of the First Amendment. We’re admitted, instead, because the citizenry expects us to act as its surrogates, and the powers that be allow us to serve that role.
By the same token, when authorities are asked to exercise restraint with working journalists — a request the Reporters Committee on Freedom of the Press (RCFP) made of local law enforcement prior to the RNC — whoever makes such a request is essentially requesting a favor. “We were asking for special treatment,” admits the RCFP’s Dalglish. “And I think that, under certain circumstances, that’s appropriate.”
So it is. But if agreement about the press’s privileges can evolve, surely it can devolve, too. And 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?
To read the “Don’t Quote Me” blog, go to thePhoenix.com/medialog. Adam Reilly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.