Published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 3, 2021
Public protests may be vital to the health of democracy, but like many other things that have health benefits they can also be messy, unpredictable, and risky. That has always been true for protestors and has grown especially true since the George Floyd murder in 2020, which inspired demonstrations often directed at the same police that marchers face in the streets. But in recent years it has become dangerously true for the news media as well, with evidence mounting of instances where reporters and camera people are the hapless targets of police fury for doing nothing more than bearing witness when citizens raise their voices.
It’s not hard to understand why police, who rarely welcome coverage unless it’s given a heroic Hollywood flourish, might be more thin-skinned than ever. Even incidental violence that in pre-digital times would have gone unnoticed is now captured on video regularly and can reach viral audiences in the millions, with ruinous consequences for careers, for public image—and for the appropriations—of police departments.
But the news media have a job to do; it’s a constitutionally protected job that consists of keeping the rest of us fully informed about significant political and social realities, and that includes moments when members of our communities take to the streets in lawful protest. The duty of the police is to enforce the law, which means not to suppress, but to enable, that protest and to protect the media’s efforts to tell the public about it.
It is not the duty of police to shoot a San Diego Union-Tribune reporter with pepper balls, or a public radio reporter in Santa Monica and a Los Angeles radio journalist with rubber bullets, to shove a Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist into a fire hydrant, or to ignore press IDs and take reporters in Oakland, San Francisco and Los Angeles into custody. Those are among the incidents recounted in a letter earlier this year from the California News Publishers Association and five other statewide media advocacy groups—among them the First Amendment Coalition, where I’m a board member. The letter condemned a “blatant disregard for the safety of journalists” and urged support for a bill, now pending, whose lead author is State Sen. Mike McGuire.
McGuire’s bill would prohibit police from keeping the press out of areas that they had closed off as a way to control protestors, and would forbid police to charge reporters who are doing their jobs with breaking curfew, failing to disperse or violating similar police orders. The bill also would make it illegal to “intentionally assault, interfere with, or obstruct” reporters who are gathering or processing information for the news, and it’s astounding that such obviously improper conduct should even need new legislation to outlaw.
The bill is a strong and necessary corrective, but it errs, in my view, by confining its coverage to “duly authorized representatives” of news organizations. That feels like a throwback. At a time when information of great consequence routinely sweeps into our news system from a vast range of originating points, the bill narrows its safeguards needlessly to a fraction of what is, in effect, the potential population of reporters. The iPhone user who gets the pictures of a demonstrator being clubbed should be protected too, especially since the footage is a few clicks away from airing on CNN.
Interestingly, some far-sighted police officials recognize this democratization of news flows. In the aftermath of rioting in 2020 after the Dodgers won the World Series, Dominic Choi, deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, issued a memo reminding his officers: “The inability to produce identification does not preclude an individual from acting as a member of the media.”
Indeed, deciding who’s a “duly authorized” journalist is beside the point; what is vital is to protect the reporting, not the reporter. That means safeguarding all efforts to witness and describe an event for the purpose of informing a larger public, no matter what the credentials are of the people who make those efforts.
That’s not a quibble, it’s a recognition of profound changes in our news environment, which we would do well to support. McGuire’s bill, now awaiting Gov. Newsom’s signature, is a valuable step toward a tough-minded defense of news gathering, an indispensable process whose broadening is something visionary lawmaking should encourage.