Video of Boston Police Sgt. Clifton McHale bragging about driving his cruiser into protesters was at the heart of our lead GBH News Muzzle Award for 2021. The Muzzle was giving to the Boston and Worcester police departments for their violent suppression of Black Lives Matter demonstrations last year following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
Incredibly, McHale is being let off with a slap at the wrist and has returned to duty. Eoin Higgins, who obtained bodycam footage of McHale and other officers in the original story for The Appeal last December, broke the news of McHale’s unconscionably short suspension of eight to 10 days on Thursday for his newsletter, The Flashpoint.
“It makes you wonder what a Boston Police officer has to do to get fired,” attorney Carl Williams, who originally provided the bodycam footage to Higgins, was quoted as saying. “How in an unprecedented time of calls for police accountability can this be happening?”
In the video, McHale can be seen and heard excitedly telling a fellow officer about his exploits:
Dude, dude, dude, I fuckin’ drove down Tremont — there was an unmarked state police cruiser they were all gathered around. So then I had a fucker keep coming, fucking running, I’m fucking hitting people with the car, did you hear me, I was like, “get the fuck—”
But when McHale realizes he’s being caught on tape, he tries to back down:
Oh, no no no no no, what I’m saying is, though, that they were in front, like, I didn’t hit anybody, like, just driving, that’s all.
This is not the first time that McHale has crossed the line. Laura Crimaldi reports in The Boston Globe that McHale served a one-year suspension for a 2005 incident “after an internal investigation concluded he had engaged in ‘inappropriate sexual relations with [a] highly intoxicated woman.'” As Globe columnist Adrian Walker writes, “Clifton McHale still carries a badge, and that fact shouldn’t sit well with anyone in Boston.”
Despite his boasting, apparently McHale didn’t actually drive his cruiser into anyone. But that doesn’t mean he should have gotten off with such a light penalty. In fact, he should have been fired.
Acting Mayor Kim Janey denounced McHale’s light punishment. And whoever wins the mayoral election, Michelle Wu or Annissa Essaibi George, is going to have her hands full in attempting to reform the Boston Police Department.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette will get another bite at the apple in claiming that its decision to remove its former reporter Alexis Johnson from covering Black Lives Matter stories is protected by the First Amendment.
“The judge did not laugh the First Amendment argument out of court nor is it correct to say he’s ‘having none of it,’” Post-Gazette representative Mark Fefer told me by email in disputing a post I wrote earlier this week. Fefer is senior communications strategist for the paper’s law firm, Davis Wright Tremaine.
In fact, as I wrote earlier, U.S. District Judge J. Nicholas Ranjan threw out the Post-Gazette’s claim that Johnson’s lawsuit should be dismissed on First Amendment grounds, writing, “While the First Amendment provides a publisher absolute discretion to refrain from publishing content, this discretion does not extend to allow a publisher to make any and all discriminatory personnel decisions.” (I did not write that the judge “laughed the First Amendment argument out of court,” though that was a fair inference given the context.)
But Ranjan also wrote that the factual record at this early stage of the case is too “undeveloped” to reach a final ruling, and that the Post-Gazette should have an opportunity to prove that its First Amendment argument has merit.
“Because discovery is likely to refine both the claims and defenses in this case,” Judge Ranjan concluded, “the Court denies the motion without prejudice to PG Publishing raising its arguments, including its First Amendment argument, on a more factually developed record at summary judgment or trial.”
Johnson, who is Black, was barred from covering Black Lives Matter protests after she posted a humorous tweet that her editors claimed compromised her ability to be objective. She is now a reporter with Vice News.
Clarification: The Post-Gazette will get another chance to make its First Amendment argument.
The story may be apocryphal, but it’s a good one. Some years ago a few independent weekly newspapers in the Boston area sued a daily paper, charging that the daily — which also owned a small chain of weeklies — was illegally selling ads in its weeklies at a loss in order to drive the independents out of business. The owner of the daily claimed his actions were protected by the First Amendment. As you might imagine, the judge in the case laughed him out of court.
Something similar just happened to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Former reporter Alexis Johnson, who was banned from covering Black Lives Matter protests after her editors claimed that her innocuous Twitter joke about a Kenny Chesney concert compromised her objectivity, sued the paper in June 2020, claiming racial discrimination (Johnson is Black) and illegal retaliation. The Post-Gazette argued that its actions were protected by the First Amendment.
U.S. District Judge J. Nicholas Ranjan is having none of it. According to Ryan Deto of the Pittsburgh City Paper, Ranjan rejected the Post-Gazette’s bid to dismiss the case, ruling, “While the First Amendment provides a publisher absolute discretion to refrain from publishing content, this discretion does not extend to allow a publisher to make any and all discriminatory personnel decisions.” University of Pittsburgh law professor Jerry Dickinson told the City Paper that the ruling could help other journalists of color who are dealing with workplace discrimination:
It means the P-G can’t short-circuit accountability by hiding behind the First Amendment for protection from its discriminatory actions. There are clearly enough facts in dispute that affords the case to move forward. The backdrop to this case was the Black Lives Matter movement and racial justice protests after the murder of George Floyd. We don’t want the First Amendment weaponized against racial progress. That’s dangerous.
The Post-Gazette’s actions against Johnson sparked national coverage, leading to outrage in the newsroom and a decision by a supermarket chain to stop carrying the paper. Johnson herself left and is now a high-profile reporter for Vice News.
As I wrote at the time for GBH News, the story also shone a spotlight on the decline of the Post-Gazette under publisher John Block, whose family had owned the paper for many years but who was personally a Trumper who seemed peculiarly ill-suited to the job.
Just as the owner of that Boston-area newspaper learned many years ago, the First Amendment may be a powerful tool for guaranteeing freedom of the press — but it doesn’t magically protect business practices that would be illegal for anyone else.
Four years ago this summer, I walked alongside upwards of 40,000 demonstrators in Boston who were protesting their anger and disgust at Donald Trump over his racist response to the deadly right-wing violence in Charlottesville, Virginia — and to a few cranks who had gathered on the Boston Common to express their racist views. The crowd chanted; I did not. The crowd held signs; I did not. I was careful to keep my press pass visible as well.
I wasn’t there to be “objective,” to invoke a much-misunderstood word. Besides, as an opinion journalist, I’m free to say and write what I believe. But the tradition in journalism is that all us, whether we work the straight-news or the opinion side of the street, need to maintain our independence. We don’t contribute money to political candidates or put partisan signs on our lawn. We don’t write or talk about who we’re going to vote for. (I’ve made one exception during my career, making it clear that I would vote for whoever was opposing Trump.) And we don’t take part in protests or demonstrations.
Following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, that old rule has been subjected to new scrutiny. Last July, for instance, The Boston Globe announced that it would amend its ethics policy to allow staff members to take part in Black Lives Matter rallies.
Although I have no affiliation with the Globe, the change did affect my thinking. Since then, I’ve participated in a local Black Lives Matter march and, just last week, a demonstration on behalf of transgender dignity.
And on Thursday, a large and overdue hole was punched in the wall when NPR public editor Kelly McBride wrote that its journalists could now participate in certain activities that had long been forbidden — not just by NPR but by practically all news organizations. She wrote:
NPR rolled out a substantial update to its ethics policy earlier this month, expressly stating that journalists may participate in activities that advocate for “the freedom and dignity of human beings” on both social media and in real life.
The new policy eliminates the blanket prohibition from participating in “marches, rallies and public events,” as well as vague language that directed NPR journalists to avoid personally advocating for “controversial” or “polarizing” issues….
The new NPR policy reads, “NPR editorial staff may express support for democratic, civic values that are core to NPR’s work, such as, but not limited to: the freedom and dignity of human beings, the rights of a free and independent press, the right to thrive in society without facing discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, disability, or religion.”
As McBride describes it, the policy is going to lead to a lot of friction and questions in NPR-affiliated newsrooms. Taking part in demonstrations on behalf of a political candidate or a piece of legislation will still be forbidden, leading some to question whether the changes go far enough.
And though McBride cited Black Lives Matter and Pride as obvious causes that staff members would be allowed to support, there are plenty of causes that you could argue are related to “the freedom and dignity of human beings” that are also cultural hot buttons. For instance, what about pro-choice or pro-life rallies? Or Palestinian rights versus support for Israel? This isn’t going to be easy.
The irony is that NPR is probably the most balanced of our major news organizations. I don’t mean that as praise. Its devotion to both-sides-ism and false equivalence during the Trump years and their aftermath has at times driven me to distraction. Of course, in a large and diverse news organization like NPR, there are many exceptions, as well as an admirable devotion to truth-telling journalism. But, all too often, NPR has been at the forefront of normalizing the profoundly abnormal.
All things considered (see what I did there?), the new ethics policy strikes me as a smart move, despite the disputes it will inevitably lead to.
What’s interesting about Preston Padden’s unburdening of himself with regard to Rupert Murdoch and Fox News isn’t in what he says. It’s that he said anything at all.
Padden, a former high-ranking executive in the Murdoch empire, wrote a commentary for The Daily Beast earlier this week in which he lamented the Fox News Channel’s devolution from “a responsible and truthful center-right news network” into what it is today: a propaganda arm of Trump Republicans who promote the Big Lie about the 2020 election, peddle deadly falsehoods about COVID-19, and stir up racial animosity by fear-mongering about Black Lives Matter and Antifa. (He should have mentioned climate change while he was at it.) Padden writes:
Over the past nine months I have tried, with increasing bluntness, to get Rupert to understand the real damage that Fox News is doing to America. I failed, and it was arrogant and naïve to ever have thought that I could succeed.
No kidding. Now, it’s true that Fox News wasn’t quite the toxic cesspool that it has become in the age of Trump. Prime-time talk-show hosts like Bill O’Reilly and Greta Van Susteren were reasonable and dealt for the most part with facts. Sean Hannity was paired with a liberal, the late Alan Colmes.
If you squinted, you could make a case that Fox was a right-wing version of what the liberal network MSNBC is today. But I don’t know that it was ever “a responsible and truthful center-right news network”; more like a hard-right outlet whose most outlandish outbursts were at least grounded in some semblance of truth.
Now, though, it’s nothing but lies, racism and conspiracy theories, especially during prime time, led by onetime rational thinker-turned-white supremacist Tucker Carlson. Padden attribute this to Murdoch’s “deep-seated vein of anti-establishment/contrarian thinking,” but he’s giving Rupe way too much credit. It’s money and ratings, and nothing more. That’s all it’s ever been.
The video of George Floyd’s murder at the hands — or, rather, at the knee — of a police officer has changed the way many of us think about law enforcement, social justice and racial equity.
It should change the way we think about journalism, too.
For nine minutes and 29 seconds, Darnella Frazier pointed her smartphone at Derek Chauvin as he squeezed the life out of Floyd. It would have been an act of great courage for anyone to keep recording; that Frazier was only 17 made it all the more remarkable. As Roy Peter Clark wrote for the Nieman Journalism Lab recently, Frazier should be awarded a Pulitzer Prize.
More than that, though, the video should force those of us in the news media to question the symbiotic relationship between reporters and the police — a relationship marked all too often by the police giving us good stories in return for our not asking too many questions.
Until this week I had spared myself the horror of watching the full video. The snippets that news organizations carried struck me as sufficient, and they are if all you’re looking for is a factual understanding of what happened. But to take in the whole scene is to be pulled into the moment — to become a frightened, angry spectator along with the crowd that gathered that day.
We see Chauvin grind his knee into Floyd’s neck as Floyd wails, “I can’t breathe!” and then “Mama, Mama.” We see Floyd fall silent and then go limp. We see Chauvin with a leer on his face while another officer, Tou Thao, impassively but menacingly keeps the bystanders back. We hear voices. “He’s not fucking moving!” “Check his pulse!” “You just really killed that man, bro.” We see an ambulance drive Floyd away.
Now consider what the official police report said. Here’s an excerpt: “Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress. Officers called for an ambulance. He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.”
It is hard to imagine an account more false than this one. It is a foul lie. And here is where we need to think about how reporters go about doing their work and why that needs to change.
For generations, reporters at smaller news organizations — community newspapers for the most part — have covered police news by dropping by the police station, examining publicly available incident logs, interviewing the officer in charge about anything that seemed noteworthy, and then writing it up. Assaults, house break-ins, drunken driving arrests — it’s the ultimate in one-source reporting, and I did plenty of it when I was starting out in the 1980s.
That’s no longer good enough. In fact, it never was. Since the start of the Black Lives Matter movement following the police killing of Michael Brown in 2014, I think we’ve all come to understand that if police news is important enough to deserve coverage, then it is important enough to be reported thoroughly. That has only accelerated following the high-profile police killings of Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020.
A tragedy such as the murder of George Floyd wouldn’t even make the paper in a large city like Minneapolis based on false police report that was filed. Without Frazier’s video, the truth probably never would have been known. But we now realize that the police are no more or less credible than any other people in authority whom we cover, and their words and actions need to be verified.
“The authoritative source was, and for many reporters still is, considered police officers, district attorneys, law enforcement in general,” my GBH News colleague Phillip Martin said recently on “The Scrum.” He added: “Now, many Black folk and brown folk have long been suspicious and skeptical of police and refused to accept their word for it. They had to prove it. But now we’re seeing that this is permeating in a broader sense, if you will…. Let’s just say liberal America has become more and more skeptical.”
Yet even if journalists understand that the old way of doing things has to change, there are some significant challenges to transforming that understanding into something better.
There are the unknown unknowns, as Donald Rumsfeld used to say — that is, the impossibility of knowing that what seems like a routine police report is anything but, as was the case with Floyd’s murder. We can’t check out everything, and if something seems non-newsworthy, it may just slip away.
There is the reality that newsrooms are becoming more and more strapped for reporting resources — a situation that became that much worse last Friday, when Tribune Publishing’s nine major-market newspapers fell into the hands of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, known for eviscerating its newsrooms.
There is the decline of the news media as a gatekeeper, with police departments themselves posting reports of arrests and other incidents on their websites and on social media with no independent verification.
Some news organizations, including the giant Gannett chain, have cut back or eliminated the publication of mugshots, especially for nonviolent crimes. A few papers, including The Boston Globe, are giving the subjects of old crime stories a chance to argue that those stories should be made invisible to search engines. Both of those steps help people who’ve been accused of crimes find employment and set their lives on a better path.
Perhaps most important, if a crime isn’t serious enough to warrant thorough reporting, then we shouldn’t report it at all.
Paul Bass, the founder and editor of the New Haven Independent, put it this way recently: “Media should not print names of arrestees unless we have their side, we have seen independent evidence corroborating the charges, an immediate threat exists to public safety requiring divulging the name, or a court has adjudicated the charge.”
Testifying at Chauvin’s trial, Darnella Frazier told the court: “It’s been nights I’ve stayed up apologizing and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life.”
But there was nothing Frazier could have done except bear witness — which she did, thus changing the world. At its best, journalism is about bearing witness as well. Can we learn from a brave teenager with a smartphone? Can we resolve to do a better job of serving the communities we cover — by listening, and by seeking truth rather than taking dictation from those in authority?
The fate of journalism depends on getting the answers right — and on not letting this moment fade, unacted upon, into our collective memory.
The must-see video clip from Monday night’s protests in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, features CNN reporter Sara Sidner. Though she makes the interview about herself to an uncomfortable degree, there’s also some real power in hearing her unnamed interview subject describe what’s going on in plain and profane language.
The language was R-rated, and yet credit CNN for staying with the interview. Most networks would have dumped out after someone started repeating expletives, but CNN wisely hung in there because it felt as if the man had something important to say. Sidner did a good job keeping the interview going and allowing the man to say what he wanted to say.
If you back up and try to look at the big picture, it’s so overwhelming that words are inadequate. The protests were in response to the police killing of Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man whose car had been pulled over, reportedly because the license tags had expired. There was a struggle after police discovered a warrant for Wright’s arrest and they tried to take him into custody. One officer, Kim Potter, fatally shot Wright because, we are told, she meant to use her Taser and pulled her gun by mistake — an excuse that clearly needs thorough investigation.
All of this was playing out as the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, the ex-police offer who killed George Floyd, was taking place nearby, and against a backdrop of Black men (and a few women) being killed or harassed by police officers. Among them: National Guard officer and war veteran Isiah Jones, who was assaulted by police in Virginia last year as he was politely asking why he had been pulled over. Video of that encounter recent went viral.
USA Today has an account of Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri’s testimony at her trial stemming from her arrest at a Black Lives Matter protest last summer. (The Register and USA Today are both Gannett papers.)
“It’s important for journalists to be on the scene and document what’s happening,” Sahouri said as part of her testimony. “Protests erupted not just across the country but all over the world. I felt like I was playing a role in that. I know we are a small city, but I felt like I was playing a role in that.”
Here, I think, is the key:
The judge has also not ruled on a motion filed by Sahouri’s attorney during the trial for a directed verdict to decide the case in Sahouri and Robnett’s favor. [Sahouri and her then-boyfriend, Spenser Robnett, were both pepper-sprayed and arrested.]
This case should be thrown out as quickly as possible — not just to ensure that justice is done and the First Amendment is protected, but to send a message to the police and the prosecutors who are pursuing this dubious case.
In an editorial that’s getting a lot of national attention, the Des Moines Register is calling for a criminal case to be dropped against one of its reporters, Andrea Sahouri, who was charged with failure to disperse and interference with official acts. Sahouri was arrested at a protest on May 31 last year. Her trial is scheduled for March 8. The Register puts it this way:
Sahouri, who has worked as a reporter for the Register since August 2019, was doing her constitutionally protected job at the protest, conducting interviews, taking photos and recording what was happening.
If convicted, she’ll have a criminal record and faces possible penalties of 30 days in jail and a fine of $625 for each offense.
The editorial also notes that the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has documented 126 arrests and detainments of journalists in 2020, most of them at Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
And though the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor may resulted in a massive increase in such detentions, there’s nothing new about it. In 2018, police in Bridgeport, Connecticut, detained a reporter during a Black Lives Matter protest in a transparent attempt to stop her from doing her job. Their actions were the subject of a 2019 GBH News Muzzle Award.