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.
A federal appeals court has upheld the right to secretly record police officers in the performance of their public duties, but has declined to act similarly with respect to other government officials because they have a greater expectation of privacy.
The ruling, by the First Circuit Court of Appeals, essentially strikes down the Massachusetts wiretap law, also known as Section 99, as it pertains to police officers. According to an analysis by Michael Lambert, a First Amendment lawyer with the Boston firm of Prince Lobel, “The decision means that Massachusetts journalists and citizens can, openly or secretly, record police discharging their duties in public without fear of criminal charges under the state’s wiretap law.”
The ruling came in response to two separate cases, both filed in 2016. The case involving the police was brought by a pair of civil-rights activists, K. Eric Martin and René Pérez. The broader case was brought by Project Veritas, a right-wing organization known for making undercover recordings of liberal targets and often editing them deceptively. (For instance, see this backgrounder assembled by the American Federation of Teachers.)
The appeals court upheld 2018 rulings by U.S. District Court Judge Patti Saris. The Dec. 15 decision, by Judge David Barron (himself a former journalist, as Lambert notes), reads in part:
We conclude that, by holding that Section 99 violates the First Amendment in criminalizing the secret, nonconsensual audio recording of police officers discharging their official duties in public spaces and by granting declaratory relief to the Martin Plaintiffs, the District Court properly accounted for the values of both privacy and accountability within our constitutional system. We further conclude that the District Court properly rejected Project Veritas’s First Amendment overbreadth challenge, in which the organization sought to invalidate the measure in its entirety, given the substantial protection for privacy that it provides in contexts far removed from those that concern the need to hold public officials accountable.
As Lambert observes, openly recording police officers who are performing their duties has been legal in Massachusetts since 2011 regardless of whether they have given their consent. Judge Barron’s decision now legalizes secret recordings of officers as well. The issue has drawn attention not just in Massachusetts but across the country as smartphones have made it increasingly easy for citizens to document police conduct and misconduct. The Black Lives Matter movement has been fueled in part by such videos — the best known example being the police killing of George Floyd earlier this year.
Matthew Segal, legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, which represented Martin and Pérez, said in a statement:
The right to record the police is a critical accountability tool. Amid a nationwide reckoning with police brutality and racial injustice, the Court has affirmed the right to secretly record police performing their pubic duties.
A final wrinkle worth noting: Retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter was among the three appeals court judges who presided.
As nearly every political observer has said, Kamala Harris was the “safe” choice to be Joe Biden’s running mate. And though that’s almost certainly true, it’s pretty amazing that the first Black woman named to a presidential ticket is also considered the least controversial.
“That a Black, first-generation American is described that way says everything about where the Democratic Party stands in 2020,” writes Boston Globe columnist Adrian Walker. “Harris wouldn’t have been the least bit safe four years ago.”
I think the reason that Harris is seen as the safe choice is that Biden had already promised to pick a woman — and, by the time he got around to making his pick, the moment had shifted in favor of a Black woman. The police killing of George Floyd and the revival of the Black Lives Matter movement combined to create an environment that was just right for Harris. Several other Black women were in the mix, but none had Harris’ stature, experience or, frankly, ideological flexibility, which sounds like a bad thing but really isn’t.
Way back when the presidential campaign was just getting under way, I thought Harris might make the strongest contender. Her trajectory, though, zig-zagged, then bottomed out. She started out well, faded, then revived her campaign with her attack on Biden at the first debate.
Then, at the second debate, she seemed unable to explain her own health-care plan. It only got worse from there. At one point Harris used her time in the post-debate spin room to demand that Elizabeth Warren join her in calling on Twitter to cancel President Trump’s account. Seriously.
But Harris is smart and charismatic. She should make a fine running mate, just as Biden did despite having two comically inept presidential campaigns on his résumé when Barack Obama chose him in 2008. I can’t wait to see her debate Mike Pence.
A Whole Foods store in West Hartford, Connecticut. Photo (cc) 2014 by Mike Mozart.
The Boston Globe reports that Whole Foods is sending employees home if they show up to work wearing face masks emblazoned with “Black Lives Matter.” Katie Johnston writes:
After seeing reports of Whole Foods workers in other states being sent home for refusing to take off Black Lives Matter face masks, Savannah Kinzer decided to bring the movement to Cambridge. And, sure enough, when she and her colleagues put on masks emblazoned with the phrase Wednesday afternoon, the manager told them they either had to remove the masks or go home. So seven of them walked out.
As is often the case with such public-relations disasters, at root is a failure of the imagination. How can management not understand that this will end with them apologizing and backing down?
According to a number of recent national polls, Joe Biden has moved out to a sizable lead over President Trump — so sizable that, if the election were held now, Biden would probably win the presidency by a substantial margin, since his lead is large enough to overcome Trump’s structural advantage in the Electoral College.
What I want to address here is the assumption some observers are making that Biden wouldn’t be ahead by nearly as much (or even at all) if it weren’t for COVID-19, the resultant economic catastrophe and the Black Lives Matter protests.
Yes, those would be huge challenges for any president. But with COVID, in particular, a compassionate, reasonably competent response wouldn’t have necessarily hurt Trump and might have even helped him. Look at Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, who continues to receive high marks for his response to the pandemic, according to a new Suffolk University poll.
Likewise, the reason that the Black Lives Matter protests represent such an existential threat to Trump is that he’s a stone-cold racist who’s responded by advocating violence and embracing Confederate symbols — and no one outside his base wants to hear that anymore.
The reality is that any president’s re-election campaign is a referendum on the incumbent. And Trump has been historically unpopular from his first days in office. Biden’s lead merely tracks Trump’s approval/disapproval rating. It’s currently at 41% approve/55% disapprove, according to the FiveThirtyEight averages, and that’s right in line with most of his presidency.
Biden may be uninspiring to many, but he’s a consensus figure who’s bound to attract nearly all of the voters who disapprove of Trump. It’s not like anyone is going to hold their nose and vote for Trump because Biden scares them. If you look at the FiveThirtyEight graph, you’ll see that Biden would have been far ahead of Trump at almost any point in the past three and a half years.
The triple threat of COVID, the economy and protests against racism have made Trump’s re-election that much harder. But the dynamic is the same as it ever was.
The Wall Street Journal’s excellent newsroom is calling out its often-nutty opinion section. The Journal’s Rebecca Ballhaus reports that an op-ed by Vice President Mike Pence earlier this week in which he praised the Trump administration’s response to COVID-19 had some, uh, problems:
Mr. Pence wrote that as of June 12, Project Airbridge had delivered more than 143 million N95 masks, 598 million surgical and procedural masks, 20 million eye and face shields, 265 million gowns and coveralls and 14 billion gloves.
According to FEMA data, through June 18 the program had delivered 1.5 million N95 masks, 113.4 million surgical masks, 2.5 million face shields, 50.9 million gowns, 1.4 million coveralls and 937 million gloves. The total number of those supplies is about 7% — or one-thirteenth — of the numbers cited in Mr. Pence’s article.
We talked about the Journal’s decision to publish Pence’s dubious propaganda Friday on “Beat the Press” (above). At the time, I thought the problem was more a matter of absurdly optimistic spin in the face of rising infection rates in many states rather than factual inaccuracies. I may be been giving Pence too much credit.
I still think Sen. Tom Cotton’s recently op-ed in The New York Times was worse, since he falsely claimed antifa involvement in Black Lives Matter protests in order to justify military attacks on Americans.
Even as national attention was focused on the latest internal drama at The New York Times, a disturbing, racially charged crackdown was playing out in a newsroom nearly 400 miles to the west. Pay attention, because what’s happening at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette threatens the ability of journalists everywhere to exercise their conscience and cover their communities with integrity and empathy. Consider:
• Alexis Johnson, an African American reporter, was taken off the Black Lives Matter beat as punishment for an innocuous tweet about litter.
• Michael Santiago, a Black photographer who expressed his support for her, quit after he, too, was pulled from covering the protests.
• Stories by other reporters who’d retweeted Johnson in solidarity were removed from the web.
• A supermarket chain announced that it would stop carrying the paper.
• The union that represents some 140 of the Post-Gazette’s employees called on the editor and the managing editor to resign.
The story is still playing out — but it’s only the latest misstep by a paper that has been in turmoil for several years as it has lurched to the political right.
While the chattering classes have obsessed over the departure of New York Times editorial-page editor James Bennet and Philadelphia Inquirer executive editor Stan Wischnowski, both of whom misjudged the rising anger in their newsrooms over issues of race, diversity and privilege, what’s happening in Pittsburgh may prove to be more important. Ultimately, the Post-Gazette is a story about what happens when a newspaper’s ownership becomes so insular and out of touch that its ability to serve the community is called into question.
Some background. On June 4, the alternative Pittsburgh City Paper reported on a memo from the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh that Johnson had been yanked from demonstrations protesting the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Her offense: a tweet in which she humorously — but pointedly — compared the damage caused by looters to the mess left behind by tailgaters at a Kenny Chesney concert:
“Horrifying scenes and aftermath from selfish LOOTERS who don’t care about this city!!!!! …. oh wait sorry. No, these are pictures from a Kenny Chesney concert tailgate. Whoops.”
Horrifying scenes and aftermath from selfish LOOTERS who don’t care about this city!!!!!
The situation quickly spun out of control, blossoming into a national story and attracting the attention of The New York Times. Johnson said she was told by the paper’s managing editor, Karen Kane, as well as other editors that she was being taken off the protest beat because she had expressed an opinion in her tweet that showed she couldn’t be fair.
That, in turn, led to accusations that Johnson was being punished for reporting while Black — drawing a blistering response from the paper’s editor, Keith Burris.
“Editors at this newspaper did not single out a black reporter and a black photographer and ban them from covering Pittsburgh protests after the killing of George Floyd,” Burris wrote in a column published by the Post-Gazette. “And we certainly did not single out two people and keep them from covering local protests because they were black. That is an outrageous lie — a defamation, in fact.”
Johnson wasn’t buying Burris’ explanation. In an interview with CNN’s Brian Stelter on the “Reliable Sources” podcast, she accused her bosses of being simultaneously clueless and self-serving. “I can only conclude that it was because I was a Black woman and I was speaking on an issue that involves Black Lives Matter,” she said. “I said that to them at that moment, ‘I feel like it’s because it’s a Black issue that you feel like I have this bias.’”
Management’s contention that her Kenny Chesney tweet expressed an opinion about an issue that she was covering seems like a considerable stretch. But even if you grant that it was inappropriate (which I don’t), Johnson had a compelling retort. “Keith Burris is still head of our editorial board. And he’s also our executive editor of the newsroom,” she told Stelter. “So for them to claim that I have a bias is pretty ironic. And not only that, he continues to write columns for us, he continues to give his opinion, and then comes over to the news and tells us what to write and what angles he wants us to have. So it’s just a lot of hypocrisy.”
For the Post-Gazette, it’s been a rapid descent. As recently as 2019 the paper won a Pulitzer Prize for its heart-breaking coverage of the mass shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue. But the paper’s respected editor, David Shribman, a former Washington bureau chief for The Boston Globe, took early retirement, paving the way for Burris to claim the top newsroom job while keeping his hand in on the opinion side as well.
In late 2019, Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan documented a series of bizarre and disturbing incidents, including a newsroom tirade by publisher John Block; the firing of cartoonist Rob Rogers for harshly lampooning President Donald Trump; and an editorial written by Burris that defended Trump against charges of racism following Trump’s outburst over “shithole countries.” The editorial was published on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
The Post-Gazette has been owned for decades by the Block family, which also owns The Blade of Toledo, Ohio, as well as television stations and cable holdings. Even though there has been no change in ownership, the Post-Gazette was regarded as generally liberal for most of its recent history. Indeed, the late right-wing financier Richard Mellon Scaife, a conspiracy theorist who promoted the false story that Hillary Clinton was involved in the death of Vincent Foster, launched the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review to provide a conservative alternative to the Post-Gazette.
In recent years, though, John Block, known as “J.R.,” has become increasingly enamored of President Trump, turning the Post-Gazette into a right-wing mouthpiece. In a sense, the Pittsburgh newspaper war is now over, and Scaife won. Media ownership is haphazard, and it’s the luck of the draw as to whether a community is served by a civic-minded business leader, a cost-cutting corporate chain or — as appears to be the case in Pittsburgh — a family publisher who puts his personal politics above journalism.
As is the case in many cities, the newspaper economics of Pittsburgh have proved daunting. The Post-Gazette appears in print only three days a week — Thursday, Friday and Sunday — while relying on digital distribution the other four days. The Tribune-Review lives on, sort of, as a digital-only publication called TRIB Live.
At this point, the question for readers of the Post-Gazette is: What’s next? Much of the staff has risen up in revolt over the treatment accorded to Johnson, and management shows no sign of backing down. What happens in the days ahead will tell us a lot about the future of a once-excellent newspaper.
As Johnson put it in her interview with CNN: “The Post-Gazette has chosen to be on the wrong side of history.”
Grace Episcopal Church. Photos (cc) 2020 by Dan Kennedy.
We just got back from a huge Black Lives Matter protest and march organized by Mobilize Medford. A crowd that I’d estimate at well over 1,000 people gathered in front of City Hall to protest against racism and police brutality. Afterwards, the protesters marched and chanted along High Street — Paul Revere’s route — to West Medford. We left the march at Grace Episcopal Church, where we’d parked our car. It was an impressive turnout for an important cause.