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Tim Steller's opinion: Viewed as enemy, journalists attacked in Tucson, around country
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Tim Steller's opinion: Viewed as enemy, journalists attacked in Tucson, around country

We get it, but this has gone too far

Second day of protests in Tucson

The recording and publishing of people’s faces has become a point of contention, especially among left-wing demonstrators, some of whom want to be asked permission.

The young demonstrator had a demand for my colleague covering protests in Tucson late on May 29.

“Announce your privilege,” the masked woman told Caitlin Schmidt. “Announce your privilege!”

Schmidt stood silent, two Star colleagues aside her, and eventually the woman left her alone.

It was one of several periods of friction late that Friday night and early that Saturday morning when demonstrators confronted and even assaulted journalists covering the protest near the Tucson Police Department, 270 S. Stone Ave. Demonstrators attacked one freelance video journalist, Eric Rosenwald, three times, twice knocking him to the ground where he was kicked and hit. The same woman who confronted Schmidt also grabbed her phone and threw it away.

The next night, police shot some journalists with pepper balls or nonlethal rounds as they covered a demonstration on North Fourth Avenue, witnesses said.

It’s been a long hard slog for the American journalistic guild going back many years now. The recent protests have only brought into tight focus the variety of threats. The right wing calls us biased “enemies of the people,” inspiring some attacks; around the country police have been taking out their frustrations on us with projectiles, fists and batons; and left-wing protesters sometimes physically attack or try to control us as we go about our jobs.

We understand it’s a rough and tumble world out there, and that we sometimes make mistakes. Just last week, faced with online protests, the Star backtracked on publishing the names and photos of all 19 people arrested during the protests, leaving online only those arrested for felonies.

Still, this has gone too far. It’s as if across the political spectrum, people have agreed to share an enemy — “the media” — and escalate attacks.

The Committee to Protect Journalists is investigating more than 300 incidents of anti-press violence and arrests in 53 communities and 33 states, said Courtney Radsch, the advocacy director of the committee. The most alarming trend has been that of police targeting people they know are journalists covering protests or riots in cities around the country.

In one widely publicized incident in Louisville, an officer took aim at a local television reporter and videographer while they were broadcasting live, hitting them with pepper balls. In another incident, Minnesota State Patrol officers arrested CNN reporter Omar Jimenez while he was reporting live, despite him offering to move wherever they wanted him to. These were not cases of mistaken identity, and they have been common.

“We’ll be holding them accountable,” Radsch said. “We are demanding an investigation into these incidents and that everyone be responsible for attacking journalists be held responsible.

Tucson did not have clear cases of targeting by police, who invited reporters behind lines when things got ugly at times. But late Saturday night, some members of the news media were hit by nonlethal rounds, Brian Norberto reported as he conducted a Facebook livestream throughout the protest. He was one of those struck, several times.

“When I got hit directly, I was continuing what I did before, getting between the crowd and the police,” Norberto said. “It’s hard to say that police were directly targeting the media, but at the same time that night I could feel a difference from the night before.”

A key problem for police is the presence of people calling themselves journalists who might be hard to distinguish from protesters.

“Everybody’s a journalist these days,” Tucson police chief Chris Magnus said. “If people are saying ‘I’m a citizen journalist’ and hanging out in the middle of a protest that becomes dangerous, how are we to know who they are?”

He noted Tucson police protected some journalists who were attacked or harassed during recent protests.

The clearest cases of targeting were by young demonstrators against journalists. A KGUN 9 news crew was also aggressively confronted, their camera thrown to the ground, Norberto said. But the one who got it worst was Rosenwald, who grew up here, lived in California for 10 years, and moved back in 2016.

“They told me to stop filming,” Rosenwald told me. “They claimed I was with the police or an agitator or not there as a journalist.”

Twice, he was struck and knocked down, then attacked on the ground, he said. The attacks were recorded by others at the scene, including Norberto.

“I was probably hit in the head like five times,” Rosenwald said Wednesday. “I still have some welts from that. (I was) kicked a lot when I was on the ground in the leg, foot, punched in the face.”

He got up and kept working.

“My attitude was, ‘I’m not going to let them intimidate me.’ “

Rosenwald, who also had a microphone stolen, filed a report with Tucson police on Thursday and believes he knows who at least one of the main attackers was.

One of the flashpoint issues, especially dealing with left-wing demonstrators, has been photographing and videotaping people’s faces. That appears to be one of the reasons demonstrators confronted Schmidt and Rosenwald.

Everyone has a right to photograph or take video of people who are out in public. People at a protest, especially, should not expect privacy.

But there’s a precedent some people point to, to argue that journalists should either blur the faces of attendees at protests, or ask their permission to show their face in a photo. After a police officer killed Michael Brown in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, massive protests ensued. Six people who took part in those protests later were found dead.

Authorities said two of the victims died of suicide, one drowned, and one was an overdose, undermining the idea of targeted killing, but the idea has spread that it could be fatal to have your picture published while attending demonstrations.

Raquel Gutierrez, a local poet and teacher who served as spokesperson for UA rallies to get the Border Patrol off campus, told me much of the traditional news media appears not to have adjusted to changes in technology.

“I think journalism needs to own its place in the technological advance,” Gutierrez said. “There’s a different playing field online.”

It’s pretty simple, in other words, for malignant actors to go after people pictured at a protest. They can launch online harassment campaigns or worse — try something in person.

“If you capture images and you’re going to run those images, what about contacting people in those images and asking if it’s OK,” Gutierrez asked.

While our photographers often do ask the name of people they photograph, photo editor Rick Wiley told me, they often don’t in crowd settings where numerous people may be in a photo, often moving around or marching past.

Gutierrez is right that the stakes have changed since I started my journalism career in 1995. The consequences can be steep when a person is quoted or pictured in a controversial context. But I also know that agreeing not to picture people at a protest could be a dangerous concession for us. It could set a precedent for continuing new demands for self-censorship.

I also have trouble with the blurring proposal because it singles out traditional news media while dozens, perhaps hundreds of other cameras may be operating in a given crowd. Many of those people may be livestreaming, randomly broadcasting the faces of protesters to potentially thousands of people online.

What the problem often comes down to is that people want us to be clearly on their side, or they’ll consider us the enemy.

But our role is not to be on a side — or to ignore bad behavior by anyone. And we shouldn’t have to pledge our alliance with a cause or risk being beaten.

Contact: tsteller@tucson.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

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