Column: Scribblers and the Occupation, arrest them all

(Ed. note: This column was published in The Herald-Sun newspaper [Durham, N.C.] on Nov. 25, 2011.)

Arrest the journalists.

That is, if you’re going to be arresting people for their presence at a protest, in a park, on the street, then don’t skip the scribbling class.

Not that the police have awaited the invitation.

Credentialed, working journalists have been detained while covering Occupy protests from coast to coast. Media companies are demanding apologies, governments are being asked to clarify their policies about detaining reporters, and I want to know: Why?

I would argue that if the credential-wearing journalist and the guy next to the journalist are doing the same thing ? lately, it’s standing in place after police have ordered them to clear an area ? then you arrest them both, because they’re the same guy.

The only material difference is that the cops know for sure that the credentialed reporter has an audience. What does it say if the police pass him over?

Here’s the radical truth: The First Amendment covers journalists exactly as well as it covers everyone else. We aren’t elected. In this country, we aren’t even licensed.

That said, I, personally, have never been arrested

That’s luck. I have certainly, and knowingly, trespassed onto private property and engaged in other activities that would make a police officer frown, all in pursuit of information and with the hope that the invisible shield of “working journalist” would cover my multitudinous sins.

I have also, at times, hoped that my reputation and my brisk self-assurance, my manner of dress and my habit of calling people “sir” and “ma’am,” my cheerful smile and my patriotic intentions would help me get, or get away with, things that other people might not.

But, mostly, I count on the things that everyone can count on: open records, open meetings, the right to free speech and association. I don’t get second helpings of those.

That’s why I’m exasperated with the howling about the arrests of journalists carrying credentials.

Depending on who issues the credential, it says that you are backed by an organization, or by a certain audience. That’s all. And it matters less and less (if it ever mattered at all).

The real credential for being a journalist is that you write about or record something that you have seen, or report something that you can prove is true.

That’s an awfully broad brush. Many of my colleagues disagree. They speak of ethics, experience and training, all of which are desirable but not required by the First Amendment. Sometimes they argue that self-published reporters don’t count because they’re not paid.

I would argue that interns are rarely paid in this industry. I would argue it’s tough to air footage of cops pepper-spraying protesters and say the people who shot and distributed it aren’t doing a journalist’s work. I would argue that YouTube and Twitter are the heirs to the 18th century printing press, and Ben Franklin was a self-employed reporter.

Some people – people I respect – argue that police batons, pepper spray and handcuffs will intimidate reporters.

I disagree, and I think the numbers bear me out. As the confrontations between police and protesters grow more violent, are you seeing more news coverage, or less?

The patron saints of journalism have generally found courage more useful than credentials. Nelly Bly faked insanity to find out whether the New York’s Women’s Lunatic Asylum neglected and abused its inmates. Hunter Thompson rode with the Hell’s Angels. Ernie Pyle dashed into war zones. Howard K. Smith was blacklisted by Sen. Joe McCarthy and quit his 20-year job at CBS after he was ordered to water down a report about racial tension in Birmingham.

If the government is cracking skulls, the story doesn’t wait until we extract a promise that they won’t crack ours ? which sometimes means standing firm in the middle of a police action, risking arrest.

As a reporter, you wear your credential and your bullet-proof vest, and you stand where you can get the best view.

So this is what I believe: If you’re arresting people in Zuccotti Park or Oakland, arrest the journalists.

And see what happens next.

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