The Ferguson Fishbowl

by Dish Staff

Earlier this week, Max Fisher shared his alarm at how the press have been treated in Ferguson, where at least 11 journalists have been arrested since the protests began:

This has a much deeper and more damaging effect than just suppressing media coverage. Arresting and intimidating journalists are inherently political acts, guaranteed by design to generate attention. Much as when it’s done in far-away conflict zones and authoritarian states, it’s about making a statement. It’s about demonstrating, to ordinary citizens even more than to journalists, that police believe they can exercise absolute control over the streets and anyone in them.

That police in Ferguson are targeting journalists so openly and aggressively is an appalling affront to basic media freedoms, but it is far scarier for what it suggests about how the police treat everyone else — and should tell us much about why Ferguson’s residents are so fed up. When police in Ferguson are willing to rough up and arbitrarily arrest a Washington Post reporter just for being in a McDonald’s, you have to wonder how those police treat the local citizens, who don’t have the shield of a press pass.

But Chris Hayes, who was himself threatened by a cop while reporting on the protests, nonetheless sympathizes with the police:

I think it’s a fair assessment to say police don’t really enjoy doing this job while being recorded all the time. That press freedom is beautiful is not the prevailing sentiment. In their defense, they’re in a high-stress, highly adrenalized situation. It’s dark. They’re hearing over the police radio “shots fired!” I heard that over a police radio. It turned out to be fireworks. But they’re worried they might be in danger.

Noah Rothman, meanwhile, casts aspersions on some of the media in Ferguson for essentially roleplaying:

Crowd control requires managing the press just as it does for protesters, and it is the height of irresponsibility for reporters to create the conditions, as some have, which would force police to view them as a threat proportionate to that of the protesters. While police would be well-advised to avoid making martyrs of journalists, even if some appear to welcome that condition, there is only so much leeway law enforcement can provide.

What is going on in Ferguson is complicated, but the press may no longer be playing a helpful role. In fact, they could be inflaming a tense situation even further. While that is debatable, what is indisputable is what the media has become: part of the story.

Josh Voorhees shakes his head:

[M]issing from such handwringing about the reporters’ ostensible loss of objectivity is the fact that the media had left the sidelines long before [the Washington Post’s Wesley] Lowery and [the Huffington Post’s Ryan] Reilly were handcuffed. The very reason that national reporters … packed their bags for Ferguson was to get answers. Answers to why a member of the Ferguson Police Department opened fire on an unarmed black teen in broad daylight. Answers to why city officials originally refused to identify the cop involved in the shooting or even say how many bullets he had fired. Answers to why police were responding to what originally were largely peaceful protests with military-grade riot gear.

In short, the media descended on Ferguson looking for the same thing that had led protesters to take to the streets: the truth. That’s the real reason the media is siding with the protestors: What the people in the streets of Ferguson want is the same thing the journalists were sent there to find.

And in the end, sometimes getting arrested just gives journalists an alternative method of access, which is what happened with Ryan Devereaux:

[Bild reporter Lukas Hermsmeier and I] were jailed with a cross-section of the Ferguson protesters. Most of our cellmates were African American and from Ferguson or surrounding areas, though there were also some white men in the mix, too. There were three recently discharged veterans in our group and one active duty service member. I don’t know how many—if any—of the men I was in jail with had participated in the violent, destructive protesting that I saw. But far from being the hardened criminals some might paint them as, these young men—most of whom had never met before last night—offered support for each other. They were kind to one another. …

The concerns these men raised—and the intensity that they have for this moment in Ferguson—runs very deep. Several cited the disproportionate number of traffic stops of young men of color as a specific problem. On a more fundamental level, their grievances centered on a perceived lack of respect from the police sworn to protect their communities, a sense that anything could be done to them and nothing would be done in response. One young African American man from the area positively beamed at being arrested for a cause; he likened it to going to jail with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Follow all our Ferguson coverage here.