As a journalist, I attended seven inaugurations during my years in Washington, D.C. There were massive crowds and challenges getting where I needed to go, and there always were some protesters, but nothing like the violent mobs we’ve recently seen. I never had to fear that my life was at risk doing my job as a reporter.
Today those journalists who serve as the public’s eyes and ears in the nation’s capital and at similar violent protests at state capitals are essentially war correspondents. Where others run for shelter, the journalists run toward danger because they have the burden, the responsibility and privilege of keeping the public informed. When terrorists attacked the United States on Sept 11, 2001, reporters went in the opposite direction of the crowds fleeing for their lives. A book about the reporting from that day is titled: “Running toward Danger.” This simply is what journalists do.
Journalism is aptly known as the first draft of history. Reporters share with you the facts available to them at a given point in time and work hard to identify reputable, reliable sources and to vet and verify information. As more information emerges in days, weeks and years to come, some of that reporting will change. What we know today is not everything we will know tomorrow. What one camera might show in its live shots is not the whole picture from other angles as we’ve seen in emerging footage of capital riots.
I have been struggling to imagine what it is like to be a reporter covering the violence in our nation’s capital or in Olympia or in Salem where protesters successfully invaded the Capitol the other week. Earlier in my career, I worked as the Associated Press statehouse correspondent in Salem, and it’s hard to wrap my mind around that now being a place so fraught with danger, and also unimaginable that the marble hallways of Congress where I reported many a story during my years in D.C. have become a battlefield that resound with the combat boots of armed soldiers.
When I started out as a reporter, I carried a pad and pen, perhaps a tape recorder, and a pocket full of change. I needed the change because I used pay phones (remember those?) to call in my stories to the news desk. Later, I had a flip phone and then iPhone.
I never had to make sure that my “go-bag” included a flack vest, hard hat or helmet, gas mask and the other items more commonly associated with combat reporters.
I recall only one time in my career where I needed a flack vest. I was travelling with then-First Lady Hillary Clinton to Bosnia. Before we landed in what was still labeled a war zone, although fighting had ceased, we were handed flack vests. A helpful soldier advised that sitting on them would provide more strategic protection if shots were fired up at the plane. We landed without incident, and Clinton was greeted with flowers, not gunfire.
Reporters in D.C. now need to keep flack vests in their cars. They have to wear protective gear because they are being targeted by the rioters. The domestic terrorists attacking the U.S. Capitol etched the words “Murder the Media” on a door inside the building. Reporters have told of being punched, threatened and having their equipment damaged.
Amanda Andrade-Rhoads, on assignment for The Washington Post told the Committee to Protect Journalists: “I had three different people threaten to shoot me over the course of the day…At one point, a guy leaned over to me and said, “I’m coming back with a gun tomorrow and I’m coming for you.”
The Poynter Institute, a journalism training and resource organization, also posted an article with first-hand reports from journalists covering these riots. It included an account from reporter Sara Gentzler of The Olympian and AP photographer Ted S. Warren. They said they were walking toward the governor’s mansion when a man ran up to them, shouting obscenities. He told them he had already maced someone in the media earlier that day and that they had five minutes to leave. Spotting Gentzler’s phone, he lunged for it, but she was able to keep it away. When he backed off, he told them, “We’re going to shoot you f—— dead in the next year.”
“It felt like a legitimate threat to my safety and other reporters’ safety,” Gentzler said in the article. “I think going through my mind was, ‘OK, how do I change? Like, is there something I can do to avoid becoming a target here while still doing my duty as a journalist?”
Gentzler and Warren walked away to warn other journalists about the man. As they continued to report on the protest, they tried to stay out of his line of sight. Leaving was not an option, Gentzler said, even though the altercation had been “uniquely threatening.” She pointed out that if she had left, she would have missed the moment when Trump supporters broke through the governor’s mansion’s gates.
While attacking journalists, the rioting domestic terrorists also in many instances saw themselves as their own media. The Columbia Journalism Review described how:
“What much of the mob was actually doing in the Capitol, if you looked closely, was capturing images of itself for other members of the mob. And for a brief moment, the images on their screens were being reflected throughout the world.”
One video showed a group of rioters surrounding a pile of Associated Press equipment, trying to burn or damage it. “We are the news now,” they shouted. Many in the circle were capturing the moment with cellphones.
This anti-media vitriol has been growing for years amid burgeoning mistrust of mainstream media, and not just among extremists. Journalists have become popular targets for extremists from both the left and right, and in politics this blame the media trope has been a favorite of almost all presidents whether Democrat or Republican.
But it is one thing when the media is a verbal punching bag for politicians of any stripe wanting to complain about what they perceive as unfair or misguided coverage. Or for protesters complaining about what they perceive as lack of coverage or coverage that misrepresents them. It is another thing all together when the media becomes a physical target, when protesters set out to attack journalists, and when politicians like Trump and his enablers egg them on.
The attacks on reporters have not only been by domestic terrorists like those that attacked the Capitol. Police in several reported instances attacked reporters who were covering the many protests of the past year inspired by Black Lives Matter. It used to be that wearing a press badge meant the police let you do your job. Now sadly some police officers along with protesters that view that badge as a target.
I fear for the journalists reporting in Washington, D.C., in Olympia, in Salem and other state capitals. I worry that the public has lost too much trust in the media and no longer appreciates the necessity for an unfettered media to keep them informed.
Thomas Jefferson had little reason to like the press. He often was vilified and ridiculed in the media of the day. And yet he was a staunch defender of freedom of the press. As he once wrote in a letter:
“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate to prefer the latter.”
There is much well founded criticism of the media. But if you want to know what is happening as we count down to the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, look to news outlets that are doing their best to vet and verify information from reliable sources and get it to you as soon as possible. Look at the journalists running toward danger.