Journalists document social movements solely to advance their careers, but their work often helps the police and employers target people who take direct action
Seemingly out of nowhere, for those of us on the outside, a fight against racism at the University of Missouri rapidly spread from a hunger strike, to a football player strike, to a walkout by the faculty. This has culminated in the resignation of the president of the school as well as the chancellor.
Many of the people who have taken these actions have risked their positions as students and staff and therefore have something to lose by their participation. Some may have even broken the law by occupying public spaces. Certainly, some will fear being targeted in the future, after the media blitz has died down and the new school leadership tries to put everything back to “normal.”
These rapid developments mean that the media has suddenly swarmed this campus looking to report the story, so there is a need to protect people taking these risks from being targeted for their participation. One result has been that journalists are sometimes limited by activists from photographing people who do not want to be photographed, or from simply harassing them. The consequence of these actions was documented in a series of videos, one in particular showing a group of students refusing to allow a photographer access to a tent city on campus, even locking arms and chanting “hey hey, ho ho, reporters have got to go!”
The outrage at this assault on the First Amendment–we are told–was swift. Josh Greenman, an editor at New York Daily News, tweeted that “Without media, no attention. No attention, no pressure. No pressure, no victory. (Also, this is just wrong.)” One might think from Greenman that it was journalists who risked their jobs to fight racism, and not the students and faculty. Another dismissive commenter was Freddie deBoer, a well known critic of “call out culture” and “trigger warnings” and anything that might reflect on students as seeming to be too sensitive of racism and sexism. He tweeted one of the videos and added “I’m thrilled these protesters got the president to resign, but this isn’t cool.” Since the area restricted from the media was called a “No media safe space,” it must have immediately raised deBoer’s ire, who probably saw the incident as an organized trigger warning carried out by a mob and not an occupation of public space contending with the administration over who rules the campus. It is an honest mistake for somebody who is absolutely clueless about these things.
With the hand wringing over the First Amendment and the cries of political correctness run amok, it would sound like the students at Missouri have fallen off the deep end and completely lost focus of what their movement is about. In fact, the exact opposite is true. The restrictions on the media and the willingness to enforce them represent a relatively advanced level of organization and consciousness beyond mere symbolic protest. The people wringing their hands over the First Amendment simply want the students to hold up signs opposing racism. These people can only view direct action through their narrow ideological spectrum. To them, politics is about winning over the media with friendly messages, not disrupting the status quo and shutting down schools and workplaces. They have never risked anything to be a part of a potentially dangerous struggle and they cannot even begin to understand the problems raised by these type of actions.
There is plenty of precedent for these concerns about the media. The Occupy movement in some places was notorious for having a hostile relationship with the media, precisely because of the heightened risk of arrest involved in occupying public space. There are numerous examples of people who had their picture taken doing something possibly illegal and then found it used against them in court or fired from their jobs. Additionally, there is already one professor at the University of Missouri in the video who has come under increased scrutiny and has resigned one position and may face further repercussions. The problem is not the she was too overzealous in protecting students. The problem is that in her zeal, she and others did not recognize that the real threat was another video camera. She is being harassed and targeted for attempting to help keep other people from being similarly harassed and targeted. Not a single journalist in the US will recognize the irony as they are too busy complaining about how their rights are being infringed.
More drastically, the recent rebellions against police murdering Black people have seen precisely these consequences faced by the participants. The most iconic photograph from Ferguson, Missouri, depicts an African-American man wearing a US flag shirt while throwing a tear gas canister, presumably at the police. This image, among others, won the photographer a Pulitzer prize, the most coveted award for journalism in the US. Meanwhile, a year after this photo was taken, the person throwing the canister was charged with interfering with a police officer, a charge which would not have occurred without the photo as evidence
A similar case occurred in Baltimore where a young man was photographed on top of a police car while smashing the window. With this evidence, he was charged with eight criminal counts and given $500,000 bail. The photo was taken by a photographer with Agence France-Presse and widely distributed throughout the media.
In short, journalists who arrive to document historic social movements do so at the peril of the people who are making it. Any struggle that engages in tactics that are disruptive or potentially illegal–not to mention in some cases extremely illegal–will be wise to take a skeptical view of what the media are doing and strategize to keep them from harming people.
Journalists and their liberal supporters are often horrified at these supposed assaults on their rights, while doing nothing to support the people who are put in jail by police with evidence they sell and use to pad their resumes. Journalists arrive solely to advance their careers and will happily use and abuse the sacrifices of people in a movement to do so. Restricting their ability to get people arrested and fired is a necessary part of an anti-repression strategy for any direct action movement.