Journalistic points of (non) privilege

RTM note: During the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, police were harshly criticized for detaining or arresting numerous journalists covering protests for both mainstream and independent media organizations. It has now been revealed that the police prepared for the convention by instituting a military-style program of 'embedding' journalists, in which a prior promise to obey police instructions was traded for immunity from arrest. In Minneapolis/St. Paul, this policy effectively criminalized press independence in many cases. -RTM

by Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio

There's been some public discussion about the detention of more than a dozen journalists at the end of the protests in St. Paul last night. Pioneer Press photographer Ben Garvin, AP newswoman Amy Forliti and WCCO photographer Tom Aviles were among the people bottled up on the Marion Street Bridge.

But there's another side to the story that's harder to see. I had tape of the detainees singing Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" while they sat on the bridge about 11 p.m. last night. The Pioneer Press also published two photos taken, in the dark among the detainees on the bridge, by Thomas Whisenand.

We were both demonstrably there. Why weren't we arrested?

Because last week, the St. Paul police offered the media -- or at least those who showed up to a meeting at the Western District police offices -- the opportunity to accompany the officers among St. Paul's "mobile field force" teams.

We had to sign a waiver holding the city harmless, provide our own transportation and offered no equipment or other protection. The only proviso the city demanded: don't disclose anything until today, so as not to compromise the security of the police operation. We were as free to talk to anyone on the scene as we would have been on any other day in the city.

Commander Joe Neuberger -- commander of the officers in the field -- said last week that the idea was against his better judgement, but that police administration had decided to open their operation as much as possible to trained scrutiny.

St. Paul police Sgt. Linda Wilson told me yesterday, as I climbed in my pickup to trail along, that they'd been accompanied by reporters every single day of the convention. Pioneer Press reporter Mara Gottfried and photographer Thomas Whisenand were among them last night. They followed a team separate from the "platoon" to which I was assigned.

I found it to be a dicey situation. Riot police are trained to keep civilians out of their ranks and there were some tense moments when I found myself standing amid officers from other agencies who were not conscious of St. Paul's arrangement, possibly because they hadn't been told, or because of the chaos at the scene.

I was variously ordered to get down and to leave immediately. I was inadvertantly struck by pepper spray and by "stinger balls" from an explosive thrown at my feet. But per our agreement, I was never forced to leave the scene.

I don't know the exact count of journalists detained. I heard numbers last night as high as 18. I did see some people with credentials issued by the Republican National Convention among the handcuffed detainees. But I also saw people with handmade "media" insignia and several students claiming to be with a college paper in Iowa.

But I would venture to say that journalists employed by local media outlets that were allowed into the midst of the police may have approached the number that were detained by authorities at any time during the convention.

One more thing: the Joint Information Center issued this statement below at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, no doubt a follow-up to similar directions given explicitly to the media by authorities at the scene of Tuesday night's unrest in front of Mickey's Diner.

I don't know how to define the journalistic equivalent of caveat emptor, but I know it when I see it.


(Saint Paul, Minnesota) - Law enforcement responsible for security and public safety in the Twin Cities area would like to remind members of the media of the proper procedures for staying safe during unlawful assemblies. When police officials request the breakup of an unlawful assembly by announcement to the gathered crowd, that order applies to all individuals, including the media. A quick and orderly dispersal is more likely to help people, including media personnel, stay safe and avoid arrest.

Because still cameras, video cameras and other recording equipment are commonplace at large events or gatherings, it can be difficult for law enforcement and others to differentiate between credentialed media, un-credentialed media or others who may carry similar equipment. While law enforcement in no way wishes to restrict First Amendment rights, members of the press must also follow police orders to protect their safety, the safety of police and others.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey