Peter Nickeas is a Tribune reporter recently accused of informing on protesters to the police. Monica Trinidad is the activist who publicly accused him. Jerry Boyle is the Chicago attorney who put the idea in her head. And I’m the media writer who wishes he hadn’t.
On a pro bono basis, Boyle serves the causes he believes in. He was on hand when Black Lives Matter demonstrators gathered at Taste of Chicago earlier this month, wearing the green hat that identifies him as a legal observer. He doesn’t know most of the demonstrators, but he thinks of them all, in an abstract way, as his clients.
Boyle does know Trinidad. She’s a young Chicago artist whose activism took her all the way to Switzerland two years ago to report on police violence to a UN committee against torture. In a private online chat around the time of the Taste, Boyle filled Trinidad in on what he sees as the checkered history of the Chicago Tribune.
“‘The Tribune has made an editorial decision to discredit the protesters,'” Boyle says he told Trinidad. “‘They have a history of discrediting protesters.'”
Specifically, Boyle told Trinidad to keep an eye on Nickeas. When a Black Youth Project 100 organizer named Malcolm London was arrested during a Laquan McDonald protest in November, Nickeas had tweeted a Tribune photo of London confronting a police officer. Then Nickeas tweeted a Tribune photo of demonstrator Ja’Mal Green extending an arm toward a police commander during the attempt to shut down the Taste:
Jamal Green, ID’d by CPD as person hitting Cmdr. George Devereaux in this photo, charged w/ 5 felonies #chicago pic.twitter.com/YvUOO0F63Q
— Peter Nickeas (@PeterNickeas) July 11, 2016
Green was arrested and charged with aggravated battery of a police officer. He was later released on bail.
Boyle suspected Nickeas of feeding police pictures they could use to make charges stick. The Reader later posted a video that showed it was the police commander who had initiated contact with Green, grabbing Green’s trousers to try to pull him down from a police barrier he’d been standing on:
This was information Trinidad deserved to know, Boyle argued, because it was Medill who gave his name to Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, where Trinidad works as outreach and communications director of Medill’s Social Justice News Nexus. The program brings together teachers, graduate students, visiting reporters, and community members to do stories that dig into important grassroots issues. (The Reader has collaborated with SJNN on a number of stories, including ones about alleged police misconduct.)
Within the program, Trinidad is valued as a liaison to the streets, as an activist rather than a journalist, professor Jack Doppelt, principal investigator of SJNN, tells me. That’s also how Trinidad says she sees herself.
But the distinction is a small one when an employee of Medill falls blatantly short of its journalistic standards, as Trinidad arguably did by making an unsupported accusation that a reporter doubles as a police informant.
Trinidad took Boyle’s words of wisdom more to heart than she should have, and a couple of days after the Taste she posted this tweet:
Heads up, Chi activists. Reporter @PeterNickeas helps cops arrest prominent activists at actions w/ biased reporting pic.twitter.com/ApTFQ8QJl6
— Monica Trinidad (@monicatea2) July 13, 2016
On Medium, she posted a broadside called “This Is Why We Don’t Talk to You: A very short critique of mainstream media’s bias towards police and criminalizing Black activists.”
It was, in its way, measured: “Many Chicago journalists are fair and write balanced coverage,” she allowed. Then came the however:
“When activists are warned about which individuals might cause them harm, or land them in jail, we must take action and protect ourselves. Arrests of local, Black activists, who are clearly visible leaders in the movement against police violence in Chicago, have absolutely been aided by misleading photos by mainstream media.”
She wrote that a lawyer she knew—Boyle, though she didn’t name him—had noticed Nickeas operating in a way that advanced the “criminalization of young, Black people.” Nickeas’s tweets, wrote Trinidad, “support the lawyer’s belief that [Nickeas] is a reporter that is not to be trusted.” Nickeas is simply “one, small example of the ways in which mainstream media, like the Chicago Tribune, can be irresponsible, distort reality, and uphold white supremacy.”
Nickeas is a feature writer who covers crime scenes for the Tribune. For years Nickeas worked the overnight shift, and those stories found him arriving at the scenes of brutal crimes late at night, trying to convey the brutality and tragedy of them. His eye for detail and his compassion stood out. For the past few years Nickeas entered those stories for an Anne Keegan Award, which I help judge. This means that I’ve not only read his work carefully, but I’ve discussed it at length with ten or so other judges, most of them current or retired newspaper reporters. We’ve all admired it enormously. There was a sense of witness to his stories, a quality of being there because someone had to be.
But the work has apparently taken its toll on Nickeas. In April, he posted a kind of cry for help on Medium:
I have anger issues. I’ve touched on them, here in there, but I need to own that. I’ve patched the holes in my walls that I put there, and I’ve fixed the cabinet doors that I’ve destroyed. But I still know myself well enough to know, I should avoid public places where I may lose control of myself, my temper. It’s not that I want to feel that way. Just that, I know it happens and best to avoid it.
I drink more than I used to. The first good night of sleep I’ve had in probably three or four years was last week, when I drank half a bottle of gin, a healthy slug of nyquil and 40 oz of “sleep tea.” I blacked out, and didn’t dream. Dreamless sleep, a good eight hours, I miss that from before overnights. But my solution is not sustainable. . .
I struggle with whether my feelings now are valid. Whether this is normal, whether this is to be expected or whether I should just man up and quit being a bitch about it. So what, I went to murders and shootings. Experiences be damned, this is just life, so don’t dwell on it. . .
So. Here I am. If I’m being honest, and I’ve been forcing myself to be honest as a way of reckoning with my mental health and my future, I can’t deny my feelings. I can’t deny my failures to my loved ones over the last four years — the relationships I’ve let whither because I ran out of energy and the will to make relationships work or because I took them for granted. My negativity, my inattention, my attitude. I hurt people I love. I can’t deny my personal failures — of my own well being and mental health, in not addressing this cloud that I’ve let take over my existence. . .
Nickeas sounds like something of a mess here, but a mess who’s confirming what we intuit from his journalism: he consumes the pain he confronts. As a fellow journalist who’s covered a murder or two, I can identify with Nickeas to some degree. And when I read Trinidad’s invitation to think of him as a police informant, I thought the idea was ridiculous. She wanted me to replace a person I felt I understood with a cliche.
Another Keegan judge e-mailed me and wrote:
“While I sympathize with Black Lives Matter, I cannot believe they are reacting this way. Talk about irony. Their entire movement is built around people taking pictures of police/public interaction, and they scoff when anybody suggests that a photograph doesn’t always tell the whole story, that you need more context to know the truth at times.”
But here was one of their own caught on camera looking bad, and here were activists insisting that the camera lied. Cutting both ways is the fact that the video the Reader posted suggests the activists were right.
Nickeas defended himself with a sarcastic recital of facts. He tweeted: “Green was arrested at 720p Saturday. I put this [picture] on Twitter at 940a Monday. Obviously my fault he was locked up.”
And he tweeted this:
Also I didn’t cover the protest but narrative more important than facts https://t.co/WvDiDfR8bm
— Peter Nickeas (@PeterNickeas) July 14, 2016
Jack Doppelt had this exchange with Nickeas:
. @jackdoppelt no problems from me, I’m comfortable with the work I’ve done and if someone wants to beef I can handle it.
— Peter Nickeas (@PeterNickeas) July 13, 2016
Boyle’s reaction to Trinidad’s posts was to lean in. He tweeted:
@BruceDold @PeterNickeas Why put reporter usually embedded with police on police brutality protest? https://t.co/bQ5UMMBi1g
— Jerry Boyle (@jecboyle) July 13, 2016
And he questioned the photo Nickeas had tweeted:
@PeterNickeas @yo60640 How did Felony Review get it in time to approve charge, long before it gets to court?
— Jerry Boyle (@jecboyle) July 14, 2016
“I didn’t take the photo,” tweeted Nickeas.
“Who did you give it to, and when?” asked Boyle.
Would say slower if I could. Did not give that photo to anyone but Twitter. I know that’s hard to understand. Try. https://t.co/dgcBYvgpJJ
— Peter Nickeas (@PeterNickeas) July 14, 2016
Boyle doesn’t buy what Nickeas told him.
“Why is a crime reporter posting a photograph that discredits a protest against police brutality?” he says. “Did you notice some of the people who retweeted the Peter Nickeas stuff were cops? Some of the people who liked his stuff—cops! He’s got cops sticking up for him. And he’s never answered my question—’Where did you send the photograph?’ Sue me! I want your phone records, chum. I’ll completely discredit him.”
But Doppelt was appalled. He spotted Trinidad’s accusation first as a retweet off the SJNN website, and “my first thought was, ‘We can’t have anything to do with this.’ It’s about the worst thing you can say about a journalist [that he’s secretly collaborating with the police], which ironically is about the same worst thing you can say about an activist.”
Most of the responses he saw on Twitter were from angry journalists holding Medill accountable for Trinidad and wondering, What the hell!?
Doppelt sent Trinidad’s accusation to Nickeas as a direct message. Nickeas deserved a heads-up, he thought.
To Doppelt, Trinidad’s posts were reckless even if true, because they put Nickeas at risk—if a rational protester decided to shun him, an irrational protester might decide to do a lot worse. But the thing was, she’d produced no evidence suggesting they were true. “There’s no real indication that he’s a police spy,” Doppelt says. “None!”
Doppelt told Trinidad that what she’d done was unacceptable. But saying so didn’t address the larger issue looming in the background—the issue that turned Trinidad’s head. As Doppelt put it to me, “What is it about journalists activists don’t trust?” It’s an important question, and there are answers to it. One was provided by the Reader last February in an article by the City Bureau’s Yana Kunichoff and Sam Stecklow, who observed that reporters who cover police shootings had come to rely on details provided by the Fraternal Order of Police—the police union!—cited without question, as if they were fact.
Doppelt, ever the professor, discerned in the debacle a possible teachable moment.
“The notion activists of all stripes have,” he says, “is that the media has a particular point of view which buys into the kind of prosecutorial police narrative—the term of art of the moment. That’s always been an issue and right now it’s more of an issue. I don’t like what happened, but I’m trying to think through how to make something smart about this.”
Here’s how his mind is working: In a class he teaches on media law, Doppelt and his students explore reporter’s privilege, the right (such as it is) that reporters enjoy (to varying degrees in varying jurisdictions) to be approached for information by police and prosecutors only as a source of last resort. Say a reporter is covering a rally in support of undocumented workers threatened with deportation. Police want the reporter’s notes and video in order to chase down any “illegals” among the demonstrators. Does the reporter cooperate if asked? If subpoenaed? Never? When students find answers to these questions, Doppelt ups the ante. Say the rally was staged by white supremacists threatening violence? How protective should the same journalist be now? The students’ principles turn out to be more elastic than they might have thought.
Just as activists of all kinds suppose, sympathies matter.
I found Doppelt asking himself how to get from Nickeas and Trinidad to an exploration of how journalism is shaped—and sometimes warped—by what he termed “the perception of journalists by activists and the perception of activists by journalists.” Posing the question, Doppelt made it clear to me, was in no way intended to marginalize Trinidad’s conduct.
“Accusing someone of being a police spy is not a teachable moment,” he said. “It’s just wrong.”
Is she in trouble?
“We’re dealing with it,” he said. “She has a lot of skills for the job we have her to do.”
After Trinidad’s posts appeared, Nickeas reached out to her and they talked briefly. Neither would talk to me. Nickeas told me by e-mail that his editors wanted him to keep a lid on it. Trinidad replied that her lawyer (who is not Boyle) had told her she’d said enough. Even so, she added a little more.
“I am not a journalist,” she asserted in an e-mail. But she saw this as “a great opportunity to have a deeper conversation on how journalists in mainstream/dominant media have historically developed relationships with police officers to get immediate information for their stories, how the police do not protect people, nor the truth, but indeed protect the state, meaning that journalists and reporters need to recognize that cops lie, and that inevitably leads to biased reporting, and like I said in my statement, the hyper-criminalization of Black and brown people in the media.
“I am an organizer first and foremost,” she went on, “and just here to protect my people.”