There’s a famous pop-culture declarative that describes exactly how I feel as a 21st Century journalist: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.” Fittingly, it was shouted in the 1976 movie “Network,” where Peter Finch portrayed a troubled TV news anchor at the end of his rope.
I watched the monologue just moments ago. It amazes me how its message of cultural mayhem rings true four-plus decades later. But if a “Network 2” were made, I’d love to see a meditation on how journalists went from being champions of the people to chumps with targets on their backs. This is what gets me mad as hell.
Yes, my portrait of press victimization paints with a brush broader than my pizza-loving posterior. But significant facts back up this state of affairs, and they’re scary. Behold this March 13 report from The Economist, entitled “Harassment of the press: Press freedom under pressure”:
A tally kept by the us Press Freedom Tracker, an industry body, counts 128 journalists arrested across America in 2020, a huge increase from 9 reporters detained in 2019. Many were caught up in summer protests related to Black Lives Matter or over virus-related lockdowns. Police detained one CNN presenter, Omar Jimenez, as he reported on live television. Kirstin McCudden, of the Tracker, says last year they counted “violations against journalists in 36 states. It wasn’t a one-off, we saw it night after night.”
The story begins by detailing how Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri was pepper sprayed and grabbed by a police officer as she covered a Black Lives Matter protest on May 31, 2020. Loudly and publicly she declared, “I’m press, I’m press, I’m press!” To which the officer replied, by way of his actions at least, “Shut up, bitch and get in the handcuffs.” Sahouri, by the way, is Palestinian American. This particular incident of press harassment stinks to high heaven and racist hell.
Was the policeman suspended or disciplined? No. But was the reporter charged? Yes, with failing to disperse and interfering with the work of the police. But weren’t the police in this case interfering with the work of the press? Oh, never mind.
The Economist story began with this line: “The wrong person went on trial in Des Moines, Iowa, this week.” Now for a sentence that you’d expect to see in a surrealist farce: Sahouri, who was pepper sprayed in the face, was acquitted of all charges.
But who squirted the noxious crap at her, exactly? Now, let’s meet the anti-hero of this story. He’s Des Moines Police Officer Luke Wilson. Since he’s not about to go on trial in Polk County, Iowa, a trial in the media will have to do. Go ahead and call it a kangaroo court, ’cause I’m gonna hop all over him.
Freedom of the press meets meanness from a cop
Chances are you’ve never heard of Luke Wilson. But if you care at all about journalists and the stubborn, Trump-era tattoo of the press as the “enemy of the people” — has a banana-republic dictator ring to it, doncha think? — then let’s take a little time to get to know him.
Because, generally speaking, bullies who rough up reporters are allowed to go about their lives as though nothing happened. So a little bit of reporter’s spotlight is order. Light cleanses. Light exposes. But in the case of the Des Moines police and Wilson, the light can’t make them any more blind to the truth than they already are.
By all accounts — at least the PR fluff offered by his department — Wilson seems like a decent guy. He’s a former fireman, so he knows all about how chemical irritants work. Pepper spray works almost instantly, forcing the eyes to close and flood with tears. Coupled with coughing fits and difficulty breathing, this means the targeted person is effectively blinded and incapacitated.
Meanwhile … I’m scratching my head why the Des Moines police hasn’t taken down a glowing tribute to Wilson from its Facebook page. It ends with this bit of cliched folderol that now strikes me as incendiary irony:
They do mean the media community. Don’t they? Don’t they?
Maybe I’m just not looking hard enough. But when I surfed the Internet for a good hour or so, I couldn’t find a single picture of Wilson — and there are lots of them — with any person of color. Certainly not any Palestinian Americans. Read into that what you will.
Lots of pictures of a buff Wilson on his racing bike.
Another sporting the Dickensian label “BOMB SQUAD” on his police uniform.
Many of him leading police dogs through their training paces. Do they still train frothy-mouthed canine sons of Cerberus to bite the asses of hardened criminals? Like, theoretically speaking, reporters of color doing their jobs? Just sayin’.
Fact: Wilson claimed that Sahouri and her then-boyfriend tried to pull away from him as he detained her.
Fact: Wilson testified that he failed to turn on his body camera when he arrived on the scene. He also failed to notify a supervisor at the end of his shift that his camera had not recorded the arrest.
Fact: Video footage played at the trial confirmed that Sahouri identified herself as a reporter several times during her arrest.
Fact: She put up her hands. Unless you are reaching for an invisible-pink-sparkle-space-ray gun in a 1970s anime, that’s a universal sign of surrender.
Time for reporters to defend themselves
I am fighting mad about this. Four years of ranting by Donald Trump and his echo-chamber chorus about the press being “the enemy of the people” have made moments like this all too common. And: Acceptable.
As reporters, we are not supposed to get involved in the story. But here’s the thing. It’s downright idiotic on the level of a dark Stanley Kubrick satire to take this sitting down. Today, despots, dumb politicians and witless mobs shout down what we do. So what do we do? Patiently take notes, SpellCheck their f-bombs and file just in time to beat another deadline.
Enough. You have to push back. Just as you would defend a bullied child. If you care at all for the craft of journalism, its slander, and the ugly mix of racism and hate that accompany it these days, I invite you:
Let’s stand up to a bully of the press, shall we?
It is perfectly fair to ask the following questions:
1) Why was the wrong person put on trial? Wilson pepper sprayed a reporter doing her job. His testimony indicated a mix of incompetence and mischaracterization. Sahouri was paraded in front of a court of law like a criminal. In the court of public opinion, that kind of humiliating spectacle equates to “guilty until proven innocent.”
2) Is Luke Wilson simply afraid to man up? For all his bicycler’s brawn and press-op photos with police dogs, Wilson has yet to apologize. Why? Or do police officers, unlike the rest of us, simply never, ever make stupid mistakes — let alone take responsibility for them?
3) Does Wilson perhaps belong to a deplorable body of racist police officers? You know the kind: They’ve harbored anger about how the media exposed and explored police abuses against people of color in Minneapolis, Louisville, Atlanta, ad nauseam. To them, “Blue Lives Matter” isn’t an affirmation: It’s a menacing pushback.
4) Assuming number three is true, is assaulting Sahouri — a Palestinian-American journalist— sort of a twofer for a cop gone rogue?
The trials continue
At this point, one other relevant question remains: If you are Sahouri, do you file a civil suit against Punk—sorry, Luke—Wilson and the Des Moines police? Legal experts might well argue that such a tack constitutes a losing battle. But that depends how you define “losing.” As a result of the charges against her, Sahouri was dragged through the mud, making her another target for the epithets and slurs of mainstream-media haters and racists.
Isn’t that what they call damage to reputation? Is a little bit of quid-pro-cop called for here? Wilson deserves, at the very least, to get a taste of his own medicine so long as that is within the law and outside the bounds of cancel culture. It would be a win of symbolic proportions, at least.
This much I know: The Register took the extraordinary step of asking Des Moines police to investigate Sahouri’s arrest and treatment. I contacted both the police department and the office of Polk County, Iowa prosecutor John Sarcone. Both declined to comment. Natch.
The Economist reported that Sarcone insisted that the trial go forward, “though he could not explain why.”
Nor can any of us. Least of all the brave reporter who was doing her job and minding her own business.
End of story? Hardly. Just look for the officer partying at the local bar, laughing as he shows his buds how he aimed his chemical canister like a pistol … and, back at police HQ, the dazed, sprayed reporter in handcuffs.
Sooner or later, it’s coming to a town or newsroom near you.