By now, you've probably heard about the video from Monday of protesters at the University of Missouri asking a student photographer — shooting on assignment for ESPN — to leave them alone, chanting, "Hey hey, ho ho, reporters have got to go!" and pushing him away.
While protesters have since publicly welcomed reporters into their midst, the video sparked discussions about the First Amendment and public spaces — and a whole lot of anger and scorn, lots of it directed at a faculty member who asked for "muscle" to help keep reporters away, but much toward the students themselves.
Today, Jelani Cobb posts a great essay at The New Yorker getting at the anger toward student protesters, comparing it to the public mockery and even threats students at Yale have come under for complaining about racially insensitive Halloween costumes on campus:
"That these issues have now been subsumed in a debate over political correctness and free speech on campus — important but largely separate subjects — is proof of the self-serving deflection to which we should be accustomed at this point. ... The default for avoiding discussion of racism is to invoke a separate principle, one with which few would disagree in the abstract — free speech, respectful participation in class — as the counterpoint to the violation of principles relating to civil rights. This is victim-blaming with a software update, with less interest in the kind of character assassination we saw deployed against Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown than in creating a seemingly right-minded position that serves the same effect."
Now, of course reporters have the right to do their work, and of course they should be free to do it without being pushed or threatened. But as Ansel Herz points out in The Stranger, a Seattle weekly, getting caught up in the particulars of what did or didn't happen in the video misses the larger point:
"The sooner we stop obsessing over this one instance of some protesters blocking a journalist from doing his job, the sooner we stop contributing to distrust in journalists, which has fallen to historic lows, because this really is not the issue. Questions over why Tai was crowded out are worth asking, but let's recognize that they are not significant compared with the story, in all its facets, of systematic racism at colleges and writ large in America. . .
"Black Lives Matter protests are about reclaiming power from those in power who have done wrong. And there is a generalized feeling, not without some basis, that local journalists view the protesters as a nuisance or a threat—a thing to be neutralized, corralled, but also something to profit from—instead of focusing on the wrongs protesters are trying to get addressed."
After some lively face-to-face discussion about this with others on the Code Switch team, on Twitter last night I raised a few questions about journalists' response to the Mizzou video. I'd noticed a chiding, "they'll be sorry" tone in the way lots of journalists were discussing it, publicly and privately, not unlike the project of "creating a seemingly right-minded position" that Cobb gets at above. By barring a reporter from doing his job, many journalists seemed to be saying, the protesters had ceded the moral high ground and even the right to be taken seriously. But as Terrell Jermaine Starr points out over at the Washington Post, that stance assumes there was only one way to tell the story of the protests on Monday:
"There were other ways to cover these students' protest without breaching their safe space and without criminalizing them.The human chain students formed provided ample b-roll and still photos. Students could have been interviewed outside of that space. I would have pitched a story to my editors with the headline, 'Why Black Students Were Forced To Secure A Safe Space On A Public Campus.' But to do that requires self-reflection and not a condescending, self-absorbed soliloquy about the First Amendment."
I would argue the broad journalistic outrage clouded another worthwhile story: a bunch of black and brown students in the midst of a giant protest who had just won a major victory — ousting the president and chancellor of a major public university system — seemingly felt confident, at least in that moment, that they didn't need the established mainstream national press to get their message out. Their desire to control the narrative — and the extent to which that's possible today, with social media at their disposal — is interesting, and I'd love to read a piece that compares their relationship to the press with that of other recent protest movements, from Occupy to the Tea Party to Black Lives Matter.
But the "media chest-thumping" over the Mizzou video — that's what the New York Times' Lydia Polgreen called it — seems disinterested in examining the deeper distrust that Cobb, Herz, and Starr are pointing out, or seeing protesters' refusal to engage with the press as part of the story, not an obstacle to the story.