With the exception of Groucho Marx deciding which club to join, people don’t like people who don’t want them around. That includes us journalists. When we knock on doors we want them to open.
City Bureau’s Darryl Holliday and Martin Macias posted an exceptional story on our Bleader Tuesday; it explored the reasons why black activists protesting the death of Laquan McDonald in Chicago refused to speak to white reporters. One journalist was told he was taking up “valuable black space in an action about black suffering,” another that a gathering point was “strictly black-only space.” Reporters can get stonily unsympathetic when rebuffed that way.
Holliday and Macias observed that declaring and defending “black space” is a very recent tactic that originated at the University of Missouri “when a young journalist was barred from an activist camp on the campus.” I’ve written about that incident. To many journalists, photographer Tim Tai was a hero for standing his ground and insisting on his First Amendment rights; the demonstrators who barred him were, at best, naive kids who couldn’t see that coverage was exactly what their cause required. The adults should have known better, and the behavior of communications professor Melissa Click, who called for “muscle” to run off a videographer, was unforgivable.
Holliday and Macias explained that blacks see the media less as allies than as oppressive opportunists eager to hijack black anger and grief “to create a spectacle worthy of mass consumption.” He quoted author Roxane Gay writing in the New York Times, “They cannot see that what we seek is sanctuary. We want to breathe.”
Holliday and Macias didn’t get into the First Amendment question, which might mean that on the streets of Chicago, unlike in Mizzou’s Carnahan Quad, it didn’t come up. The First Amendment is actually a fairly useless weapon for reporters to go into battle with. “Ma’am,” said Tai at one point, “the First Amendment protects your right to be here, and mine.” He was right about that, but the students confronting him weren’t persuaded, and in the heat of the moment I doubt if anyone in Chicago would have been either. We feel our freedoms viscerally, and demonstrators in both places obviously were feeling their own.
The First Amendment, which establishes freedom of speech and of the press without spelling out either, also establishes “the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” It’s by no means an absolute right, but then neither are the others. Various court rulings have made a right to assemble on private property conditional and spotty at best (usually, the landlord can run you off). So if black protesters were going to exercise their right to assemble in large numbers, the place to do it was in a public space such as in the streets of Chicago or in Carnahan Quad—where the demonstrators clearly felt as entitled as Tai did.
After all, a right to assemble that doesn’t include a right to choose whom we’re assembling with is a freedom that doesn’t amount to much.
After the Mizzou protest died down, Sandy Davidson, a professor of communications law at the Mizzou J-School, wrote a brief essay for the J-school daily applying common sense to the recent situation there. She agreed with Tai that he had a constitutional right to photograph anything on the quad “that anybody else who happened to be there might see.” She said a “standing in” doctrine covers that. But on the other hand, “if someone makes an effort to create a zone of privacy”—which the demonstrators did by setting up tents and a wall of students around the tents—”then that person sometimes does achieve a reasonable expectation of privacy.” Certainly it existed within the tents.
Davidson’s advice to journalists was to consider confrontations such as this from a “moral perspective.” There are times, she wrote, when the law says to journalists “Yes, you may,” but ethics advise, “No, you really shouldn’t.” Naming rape victims is one. Confronting the expectations of wrought-up demonstrators who demand space might be another, especially if the problem they have with you is that they don’t trust you. Davidson believed Tai did the journalistically responsible thing by standing his ground and taking his pictures, but that didn’t make the demonstrators wrong. She had a hunch that a lack of trust was the problem on Carnahan Quad—and we know from Holliday and Macias’s story it was the problem here in Chicago. A journalist on the scene of a breaking story might not have time for trust, but in the long run it’s a reporter’s best friend.
Journalists don’t do their work by quoting lawbooks, but by giving an inch here and accepting two there. They do it by making themselves familiar. One of the skills reporters are most proud of—if they ever acquire it—is the knack of persuading the subjects they confront that they’re different from all those other reporters who show up, write the story already in their heads, and disappear. But better that we dis ourselves as our own worst enemies than we dis the people we’ve come to cover.