Restricted Press Rightfully Fight Back Against Trump

There are things I learned in school that I only occasionally recall, but something I do employ daily are the elements of newsworthiness. Working in communications and the media, you become familiar with them, but in today’s clickbait, anti-MSM, online world, sometimes they get lost. Even I forget sometimes, but for a fun reminder, let’s review:

  1. Proximity: if an event is happening nearby, it’ll impact readers more than if it were happening across the ocean.
  2. Prominence: a celebrity, place or event offers a better news angle than something involving a place or person not well-known.
  3. Timeliness: current news has more impact than something that happened yesterday or last week.
  4. Oddity: if something is unusual, shocking or bizarre, the strangeness alone could make it newsworthy.
  5. Consequence: the impact of an event directly affecting an audience deserves plenty of coverage.
  6. Conflict: audiences are always interested in disagreements, arguments, and rivalries. It’s human nature to choose sides and stand up for choices. Stories that involve conflict include those about religion, sports, business, trials, wars, human rights violations, politics, nature, animals, or even outer space.
  7. Human interest: although we sometimes hate to admit it, we’re emotional creatures. Anything that invokes emotional responses draws attention.
  8. Extremes/superlatives: everyone likes to hear about the first, the best, the longest, the smallest, the highest, of anything. If it happens, we all want to know about it.
  9. Scandal: people secretly love to judge and hate on parties involved in questionable things. This one happens more often than we’d like, and we’re often interested more than we’d like to admit.
  10. Impact: when multiple people get involved in some event, it becomes newsworthy. Similarly, the more people are affected by an event, the more newsworthy it becomes.

President Trump’s inauguration last week was an historic event. It deserved a massive amount of coverage. There was also an unprecedented number of protesters lining the streets of Washington, making their presence and anger at Trump known. They warrant attention as well--we are a country built on freedom of expression. Several news organizations sent reporters to cover these protests, as good news organizations should, since these meet several elements of newsworthiness.

However, as a result of simply being in the near vicinity, six journalists were arrested during these protest and are now facing up to 10 years in prison. Apparently, it’s now okay to arrest journalists for doing their goddamn jobs.

The Guardian has identified those arrested: Evan Engel of Vocativ; Alex Rubinstein of RT America; Aaron Canu, freelancer; Jack Keller, producer for the online documentary Story of America; Matt Hopard and Shay Horse, independent journalists. Tim Pool, another independent journalist and documentarian, said online that he and two NBC News Journalists were also arrested during the demonstrations, but released without formal charges.

The group of six were charged under a District of Columbia statute stating that "every person who willfully incited or urged others to engage" in a riot causing more than $5,000 in property damage with the potential 10-year prison sentence and a fine of up to $25,000. The statute itself is justified, but more than 200 people in total were arrested Jan 20, without much effort from the DC police to describe or explain the charges. In an official statement, they claimed the accused were “acting in a concerted effort [to] engage in acts of vandalism and several instances of destruction of property.”

Engel stated on Twitter that he would be fighting the charges, and a spokesperson for Vocativ confirmed this in a statement: “The arrest, detainment and rioting charge against journalist Evan Engel who was covering the protests for Vocativ are an affront to the First Amendment and journalistic freedom. Vocativ will vigorously contest this unfounded and outrageous charge.” RT America echoed the sentiment, publishing the following:

“Such acts represent an egregious violation of journalistic freedom, and are particularly disheartening to witness in the country that positions itself as the global champion of free press. RT will apply the full weight of its legal team in support of our journalist and we are confident that a thorough review by the US Attorney's office will confirm that Alexander, who wore his press credentials at all times, was wrongfully arrested.”

Jack Keller, from Story of America, said he was kettled and detained for about 26 hours despite identifying himself as a journalist; additionally, his cellphone has been kept by the authorities. During the protests, some property was vandalized and six officers suffered minor injuries, but none of the six journalists’ arrest reports cite any evidence or support that they were involved in these incidents. Five of the six reports contain identical language, alleging that “numerous crimes were occurring in police presence...The crowd was observed enticing a riot by organizing, promoting, encouraging and participating in acts of violence in furtherance of the riot.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said late on Tuesday that charges against these journalists should be dropped. “We call on authorities in Washington to drop these charges immediately,” said Carlos Lauria, the CPJ’s senior America’s program coordinator. He even issued a warning of sorts as well: “Journalists should be able to cover the inauguration without interference, especially because people have the right to receive information about what is going on that important day...the crackdown sends a chilling message to reporters and the media who cover protests.”

It certainly is a chilling message. First Amendment rights are too precious to lose. Without that, all others are at risk.

So the press is fighting back. Trump and his administration have shown their disdain and disinterest in the media. Constantly throwing around ‘fake news’ accusations and ‘alternative facts,' Trump’s camp has doubled down on the lies and muzzling of anyone who disagrees with them. But they have some real news for Trump: you don’t get to deny facts or the rights of the people.

A civil lawsuit has already been launched against police officials for the alleged “indiscriminate” arrests of journalists, alongside lawyers, legal observers, and medics. Jeffrey Light, the attorney who filed the lawsuit, told Al Jazeera that in addition to the six journalists, three lawyers- who were marked as legal observers to protect the rights of activists- a number of medics, and many of those arrested have also contacted him. They have been accusing the police of using excessive force, who responded to the crowds with tear gas, stun grenades, and mass arrest.

“Everybody has been charged with felony rioting and they [the police] have not given a reason. They arrested everyone in a particular area. Police have reported that unspecified people threw objects, but have not accused the specific individuals of throwing objects,” Light said. “It is unconstitutional because people were arrested without any determination by the police that they were doing something wrong.”

They weren’t, and they know this. So America’s journalists are breaking tradition in light of Trump’s behaviour. MuckRock, a non-profit group that is fighting for government transparency, has turned to social media to help keep the government accountable. Using the social media chatting app Slack, there are currently 350+ journalists who are working together and helping each other do everything from finding sources and quotes to submitting Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. FOIA requests force the government to legally offer the requested documents and information to the press for the sake of keeping the public informed. Whether the government complies properly is another matter, given the audacity of state officials in 10 states to begin discussions on criminalizing peaceful protests. Of course, this constitutional violation deserves a whole article on its own, but we’ll get to that later- although I’m sure the DC police are probably happy at the anti-protest laws being brought to the table.

It’s a wonderful confirmation of the open letter from the press published before Trump’s inauguration. Penned by Kyle Pope, the editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review, it set clear mandates:

“We now recognize that the challenge of covering you requires that we cooperate and help one another whenever possible. So, when you shout down or ignore a reporter at a press conference who has said something you don’t like, you’re going to face a unified front.”

“We are very good at finding alternative ways to get information; indeed, some of the best reporting during the campaign came from news organizations that were banned from your rallies. Telling reporters that they won’t get access to something isn’t what we’d prefer, but it’s a challenge we relish...”

“We’ve been around since the founding of the republic, and our role in this great democracy has been ratified and reinforced again and again and again. You have forced us to rethink the most fundamental questions about who we are and what we are here for. For that we are most grateful.”

From a concerned citizen, thank you. Thank you to the press who are fighting to get the facts, the truth, and real stories out to the public. Thank you for not being discouraged and distracted by the demagogue who has already wreaked unspeakable havoc on our rights in his first week alone. Having signed 12 executive orders already- more than twice as many as Obama within the same time frame- it doesn’t look like the Trump train cares much for discussion or accountability. For the sake of our democracy, please continue to work together and fight. We need you to.

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