Hassling journalists damages our ‘watchdog on government’

Photo by Federal Communications Commission via Flickr

It’s not just journalists who are getting hauled out of a state capitol, pinned to the wall in a federal office building, or serving as the butt of a recent tone-deaf “joke” from a cabinet member involving a ceremonial sword.

The ultimate targets of these incidents are you and me, and our fellow citizens. Conservative and liberal. Republican and Democrat. People from all states, all regions.

When it comes to the government, at any level, “we the people” are the ones who run the place.

So when our representatives from a free press — the ones who inform us about our elected and appointed government officials — get roughed up, arrested or otherwise assaulted, we ought to feel just as threatened, just as harassed, and just as angry.

On Thursday, an experienced reporter from CQ Roll Call, John M. Donnelly, asked a question of FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly following a Washington, D.C., news conference — a very common practice when officials close down such briefings with questions remaining. Two guards then reportedly pinned Donnelly against a wall with the backs of their bodies as O’Rielly walked on. Donnelly later wrote, “I could not have been less threatening or more polite … There is no justification for using force in such a situation.”

O’Rielly, who said he didn’t see the incident, later apologized. In the end, Donnelly said he was ordered to leave the building “under implied threat of force.” The Washington Post reported Friday that an FCC spokesman said the agency was on “heightened alert” at the time, noting demonstrators outside the building.

Taken alone, the scuffle might be considered as the product of jittery nerves from an overeager and under-prepared security staff. But this isn’t a singular incident. By word and deed, some in the Trump administration have fanned and fostered hostility and disdain for the role of journalists — the constitutionally protected “watchdogs on government.”

From an ill-justified arrest last week of a West Virginia reporter who also asked questions of White House representatives after a press briefing; to preventing reporters from covering White House events or traveling with official delegations; to the belligerent demeanor of Trump and his closest aides toward the press, the government has it all wrong.

Inconvenient though it may be, answering questions from reporters is their job. Neat and tidy press “availabilities” and choreographed rallies aren’t the only times when such questions can be asked on behalf of the American public.

We should also remember that these incidents, combined with the Trump administration’s attitude toward the press, don’t go unappreciated by leaders in parts of the world with nefarious reputations for press freedom. Instead, they set a tone. On Wednesday, for example, when Secretary of Homeland Security John F. Kelly presented Trump with a ceremonial sword at a U.S. Coast Guard commencement, he quipped, “You can use that on the press.”

Perhaps that earned an appreciative chuckle from Turkey’s President Erdogan, who has jailed hundreds of journalists in recent months; or narco-terrorists in Mexico who have allegedly killed at least five journalists so far this year; or extremists in the Middle East still holding kidnapped American journalist Austin Tice, or who in 2014 beheaded U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.

There wasn’t any laughter, though, from those of us who spend time each year adding names to the Newseum’s Journalists Memorial – or, I expect, from those who visit to see a colleague’s or relative’s name listed among the more than 2,200 recognized there.

At a rededication event June 5, we will add 14 more names of journalists who died in 2016, representing all who died last year in the pursuit of news. They and the two thousand others featured on the memorial were victims of war, terrorists, criminal syndicates and, yes, of government officials anxious to silence critics and those who hold them publicly accountable.

One point worth noting: In the bully-boy incidents in West Virginia and Washington, the official accounts don’t include any recognition of the journalists’ affiliations. Nobody shouted out “CNN” or “Breitbart News” or “Fox” before getting manhandled. So wherever you are on the political spectrum, and whether you are a journalist or not, you ought to be outraged at the disrespect – even if you only are defensive of those news outlets that you feel best reflect your views.

Elected officials may respond or not to a journalist’s questions. But they should never, ever think that harassment, arrest or assault of the questioner is an acceptable answer.

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute. He can be reached at gpolicinski@newseum.org. Follow him on Twitter: @genefac.

One thought on “Hassling journalists damages our ‘watchdog on government’

  1. Gene, Great piece. Wondering about your thoughts on my fears that the “Main Stream Press” is being setup by this administration. They got their forecasting and poling so wrong during the election, all the while Trump was telling the Country not to believe the polls or the media and branding them “Fake News” for it. Yesterday it was reported that the Assistant Director of the FBI (under oath) along with others from the DOJ testified that at no time did James Comey ask for or formally request more resources for his investigation. This is in stark contrast of what’s been reported by the reputable press. It’s my understanding that a lot of headlines are coming from unnamed sources inside the Administration and it’s this that fuels my concern.

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