Your Right To Know Is Under Attack
One of the great things about being a journalist is that it’s rarely boring. It’s called “news” because new things are happening all the time.
Still, you do tend have some general expectations of how your work day is likely to go. You expect you’ll interview some people, you’ll do some research, you’ll find out what’s going on in your community and you’ll write about it so your neighbors can better understand local events and issues. You figure you might ask a question that annoys a public official, or you might run into someone who’s unhappy with something you wrote. These days, you might even encounter someone who dismisses everything you do as “fake news.” But you don’t generally wake up and go to work thinking you may end up behind bars.
Unfortunately, that’s the situation JPR reporter April Ehrlich found herself in recently. She’d been covering issues surrounding homelessness in our region, especially the plight of people who’ve taken refuge in Jackson County’s Bear Creek Greenway during the coronavirus pandemic. After the Almeda Fire ravaged the greenway in September, as many as 100 people set up camp in Hawthorne Park, in downtown Medford.
As you might expect, the impromptu tent city garnered a good deal of public attention. At a Medford City Council meeting, some people defended the encampment, pointing out that local homeless shelters were full and many of the campers had nowhere to go. Others raised the specter of crime, drug use and sexual assault and urged the city evict the campers. After several days, Medford police announced their intention to clear the park. As news director, I sent April to cover this important story.
Because the City of Medford misused its power, JPR listeners didn’t get to hear what happened that morning as police cleared the encampment at Hawthorne Park.
When the police arrived, they said the park was closed and directed reporters to a “media staging area” at the edge of the park, some distance away from the action. April identified herself as a working journalist and insisted on staying where she could see and hear how the police interacted with the campers. According to bystander videos, several officers then grabbed April, forced her into a “stress position,” handcuffed her and led her away on charges of criminal trespass, interfering with a police officer and resisting arrest. She spent most of the day in the Jackson County Jail under appalling conditions before being released on bail late that afternoon.
For April, the experience was traumatic; being roughly arrested, run through a dehumanizing detainment procedure and facing criminal charges that could result in significant jail time is no one’s idea of a good day at the office.
But for all of us at JPR News, even more alarming is the casual way the City of Medford ran roughshod over the First Amendment. Designating an area from which journalists are permitted to perform their Constitutionally-protected function—and aggressively arresting those who don’t comply with that arbitrary restriction—displays an egregious lack of understanding of the bedrock principle of freedom of the press.
The Founders of this country were pretty clear about this. The citizens grant the government power, to be used to promote health, safety and the general public welfare. But, as the 19th Century English politician John Dalberg-Acton famously observed, power tends to corrupt. It often leads those given power to abuse it, to the detriment of the public. So a free press is a necessary counterweight to that tendency, to shine a light on how the government uses that power. In fact, Thomas Jefferson—who had his own issues with the rambunctious partisan press of his day—wrote in 1787 that “… were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Here’s the thing … Because the City of Medford misused its power, JPR listeners didn’t get to hear what happened that morning as police cleared the encampment at Hawthorne Park. Were campers offered help finding other shelter? Were their rights respected? Were they dealt with in a legal and professional way? The Medford Police Department says they were. But because our reporter was removed from the scene, JPR listeners have no independent way to know that.
The City of Medford’s actions in this case are awful enough. But they’re not an isolated incident. Ten days before April’s arrest, Josie Huang, a reporter for NPR station KPCC in Los Angeles, was tackled and arrested while filming officers during street protests there. The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department said Huang hadn’t identified herself as a journalist, a claim that was disproved by video of her arrest.
In fact, the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has documented more than 800 incidents of journalists being arrested, attacked or otherwise harassed while doing their jobs so far this year.
This is certainly a problem for news organizations and the journalists who work for them. But it’s also a problem for you. Because if the government and others in power are able to keep journalists from showing you what’s actually going on—as opposed to what they want you to believe is going on—your ability to effectively exercise the power of your citizenship has been curtailed.
And whether that’s happening in Washington, D.C or in Medford, Oregon, that’s an unhealthy vital sign in a robust democracy.