The next time you hear or read that the vast majority of protests during these turbulent times in America are peaceful (which will surely be within the next five minutes if you’re a news follower), keep in mind this pair of developments. They give me the willies and should so unnerve you, even if you (like me) believe that the vast majority of the protests have indeed been peaceful.
The first matters because it makes clear as can be that some of the protest groups contain individuals who make the cohort of brazen looters that’s emerged in so many violence-wracked cities look nearly harmless. What else can be reasonably concluded from this Washington Post account (yes, the same Washington Post whose journalism I slammed yesterday) of a court case in Seattle dealing with whether news organizations in the city could be ordered to turn over to the Seattle Police Department photos and video their staffers had taken of protesters who had “smashed windows, set police cars on fire, and looted businesses.” The cops’ intent – use this material to find the perpetrators and arrest them.
I was hugely relieved to read that the judge presiding over the case did rule that most of the material (all unpublished or posted) must be provided. But I was aghast at the reason given for the news organizations’ resistance. The Seattle Times, for its part, did cite freedom of the press concerns – involving Washington State’s shield laws, which entitle news organizations to protect source materials. These laws, which in various forms are practically universal throughout the United States, are indeed essential for enabling journalists to secure information that governments would rather keep secret for self-serving reasons.
The Times also made the reasonable (though in this case, not necessarily dispositive) claim that such cooperating with the police would put its credibility at risk. As contended by Executive Editor Michele Matassa Flores:
“The media exist in large part to hold governments, including law enforcement agencies, accountable to the public. We don’t work in concert with government, and it’s important to our credibility and effectiveness to retain our independence from those we cover.”
But these weren’t the only reasons cited by the paper. In an affidavit, Times Assistant Managing Editor Danny Gawlowski attested “The perception that a journalist might be collaborating with police or other public officials poses a very real, physical danger to journalists, particularly when they are covering protests or civil unrest.”
Moreover, Gawlowski stated, this danger wasn’t hypothetical. It had already happened. According to the Post‘s summary of his affidavit;
“The request could significantly harm journalists, the Times argued, at a time when reporters already face violence and distrust from protesters. One Times photographer was hit in the head with a rock thrown by a protester and punched in the face by another demonstrator.”
In other words, the Seattle Times, anyway, wanted to refuse to help law enforcement protect public safety because at least in part it was afraid that some protesters might attack them even more violently than they already had.
That sure sounds like intimidation to me, and successful intimidation at that. And even though the judge thankfully ordered substantial (though not full) cooperation, who’s to say that the Times won’t pull its protests coverage punches anyway? Even more important, what if violence-prone protesters elsewhere in the country read about this case, try to strong-arm local or national news media, too, and succeed? And what if not every judge holds the same priorities as Seattle’s Nelson Lee? Talk about a danger to democratic norms – as well as public safety.
The second development concerns decisions by governments in at least two parts of the country to take down controversial statues – a major front in the nation’s history wars. Don’t get me wrong: Elected authorities removing these monuments is sure better than unelected mobs toppling or defacing them – as long as these actions follow legitimate procedures and aren’t arbitrary. And as I’ve written repeatedly, in the case of Confederate monuments, it’s usually not only completely justified, but long overdue.
But in these cases, it’s the rationale for these actions that’s deeply disturbing. In both Connecticut and in Chicago, statues of Christopher Columbus and former President and Civil War Union supreme Union commander Ulysses S. Grant, respectively, were removed (as Windy City Mayor Lori Lightfoot explained her reasoning) “in response to demonstrations that became unsafe for both protesters and police, as well as efforts by individuals to independently pull the Grant Park statue down in an extremely dangerous manner.”
Translation: “I was afraid of the mob. And I decided to let them win.” No better definition could be found of the kind of appeasement that only spurs further violence. And no more important challenge will confront the President and candidates for Congress who will be elected or reelected in November.