A very brilliant and irreverent Chicago Tribune colleague of mine once suggested — facetiously, as you shall very soon see — that there was a foolproof way to make it to the top of journalism’s greasy pole in a hurry. Most quite literally, here’s how she’d “execute” it.
- Write obituaries of very noteworthy celebrities and VIPs in advance.
- Have them killed.
- Scoop every other news outlet in the world.
Aside from the fact that this plan would turn the scribe into a suspect after exactly two successes, it also played on one of journalism’s “thou shalt nots.” To wit: Thou shalt not get involved in the story you’re covering. And I’d be bullshitting you if I said that for me, this hasn’t been tough.
At various times in my decades-long career, I’ve skirted such edges. When you cover a crime story (not the murder of a famous person, mind you), it’s easy to get involved in one. After my jail interview of a man tragically charged with killing his toddler daughter — he was cleaning out a gun that accidentally discharged — I was subpoenaed by prosecutors for my notes.
And when you cover protests, it’s hard not to get caught up in one. But never in my career have I worked with or met the likes of John Sullivan. The 26 year old from Utah was present at the Capitol while angry pro-Trumpers turned the Seat of American Democracy into the Toilet Seat of American Democracy. You know: They defecated in the hallways. Multiple times. Don’t ask me how (or even if) they bothered to wipe.
They also stormed the hallways like angry Rottweilers on the prowl, looking for congress members to harm. Sullivan was there supposedly to cover it. Or not. The subhead to Andrew Marantz’s excellent piece in the New Yorker should give us pause, if not a jump shock:
“John Sullivan claims that he was at the Capitol insurrection as a neutral journalist. Others say he was a riot chaser who urged the mob to ‘burn this shit down.’”
All Hail or Assail the ‘Riot Chaser’
It’s a kind of cognitive dissonance to sort out what a guy who’s tried to associate himself with the Black Lives Matter movement (and been disavowed by many organizers, as Marantz reports) was doing at an ultra-right rally that turned into a satanic hoedown. Yet like storm chasers who follow tornadoes with energized glee, Sullivan is a “protest chaser,” or even a “riot chaser.” He sees his role as something of a guerrilla journalist, showing up to shoot video where the action is and uploading it for the world to see.
In at least one sense, Sullivan is smart. Too many journalists sit passively at their desks, checking email and waiting for the Wise Old Editor to dole out the next assignment. Or they show up at the scene and follow the media pack. Sullivan is nothing else if not proactive. He doesn’t wait for things to happen: He sniffs out where the action is beforehand and makes a beeline for it.
As a result, he captured footage that later ran in the Washington Post: the shooting of protestor Ashli Babbitt, who died from her wounds. And yet, with “protest organizer” among the qualifications on his resume, Sullivan was taken into custody on Jan. 16 in Tooele County, Utah. Federal authorities charged him with causing a civil disorder, trespassing and disorderly conduct. Was this just another arrest of a brave reporter? Or something else entirely?
Let’s explore why it was indeed the latter. And not in a good way.
His Footage in His Mouth
As his complete video footage shows, Sullivan “repeatedly exhorted rioters to enter the building and overwhelm police, and seemed to convince Capitol Police officers to walk away from the glass door entry to the House Speaker’s Lobby,” according to the Post. This was not in their original story that unveiled the footage, but the one that covered his arrest. And it seems we were all fooled at first. In my own column on citizen journalism and the smartphone, I characterized Sullivan as a controversial liberal activist, but also a heads-up witness to history, as the best journalists are.
And yet, Sullivan’s alleged role in the attack demonstrates two things:
- The democratization of journalism raises the potential for those who claim the title of journalist to commit all sorts of unethical — and in this case illegal — acts.
- This kind of rogue behavior doesn’t help perceptions of journalists as a whole.
Keep in mind that Sullivan wasn’t some bystander who got caught up in the froth. He was there with intent, representing himself as some hybrid documentarian-reporter type. Then he entered into the story in the most of destructive ways. If he rabble-roused, how much did his first domino lead to the last domino that took Babbitt’s life?
Or: Did he have any idea he would provide some fuel to the fire — ridiculous as it sounds — for extremist House members? They claim he was an antifa activist there to stir up all those innocent pro-Trumers. You know: The ones like Kevin “The Cockroach” Seefried, who was proud to strut his slave-lovin’, stars-and-bars Confederate flag, but ran from TV reporters after his hearing, hunched over like an insect scurrying from the light. How brave! Jefferson Davis must be proud of ya, boy.
Beware Dangerous Poseurs
If you haven’t read the Marantz piece, and you give a hoot about journalism in the era of the social media influencer, I highly recommend it. He achieves the rare feat of solid reporting, deft analysis and bringing on experts who help me understand the nuances. Like: If this were to happen again, how would law enforcement be able to tell the real reporters from dangerous poseurs like Sullivan?
He also writes:
There has never been a clean way to delineate professional journalists from everyone else, and the boundary has only grown blurrier in the selfie-stick era. Defining the press too narrowly risks excluding freelancers and correspondents from nontraditional outlets; defining it too broadly could mean including anyone with a cell phone and a YouTube account.
I agree, though I would also amplify one point, the one about “anyone with a cell phone and a YouTube account.” You see, John Sullivan wasn’t just “anyone.” There’s a big difference between someone who just happens to capture a fungus-hearted cop kneeling on a black man’s neck and a guy who follows tumult and violence intentionally — and perhaps, in this case, even instigated it.
If It Bleeds, It Leads Nowhere
It further frightens me that this is a sliver away from some dangerous jumping-off points. Staged news events. Nothing new there, but how many rogues will take Sullivan’s behavior to a new level? And, perhaps, use it to sell merch? In Sullivan’s case, he hawked “black tactical gloves; protective goggles; red baseball caps that looked like Make America Great Again hats, but actually read ‘Made Ya Look / Black Lives Matter.’”
Celebrity journalists like Geraldo Rivera were bad enough. Those like John Sullivan who engineer their celebrity by appropriating the title “journalist” are an insult to every hardworking scribe, photographer and videographer present at the Capitol on Jan. 6. Many risked their lives. Sullivan, if the charges pan out, arguably risked theirs.
Short of having someone killed to get the big scoop on a career-making obit, it’s hard to imagine what could be more deplorable.