The story of Ferguson, Mo., is largely one of race – black civic leaders and residents protesting the shooting of an unarmed black man by the city’s overwhelmingly white police force. But two high-profile incidents involving reporters from three different outlets have also thrust the media into the spotlight.
In one confrontation, two reporters were arrested without apparent justification Wednesday night – Wesley Lowery from The Washington Post and Ryan Reilly from The Huffington Post. In the other incident later that evening, a clearly identified television crew from Al Jazeera was tear-gassed while standing behind a police cordon. All of the journalists have received praise from their colleagues, while the police have faced condemnation from journalists, editors – even some politicians, including Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) and President Obama.
Not everyone is so sympathetic to the reporters in question, however. Some commentators say the arrested duo were unnecessarily provocative – others say Mr. Lowery and Mr. Reilly intentionally refocused the narrative in Ferguson on themselves and their fellow reporters, distracting from the seething, racially tense atmosphere of the St. Louis suburb.
The controversy got started just before 8 p.m. Wednesday when officers approached Lowery and Reilly, some dressed in fatigues and helmets, while the journalists sat in a McDonald’s near the scene of rioting. The officers asked for the journalists’ IDs. Lowery produced his press lanyard, while Reilly asked why the police needed their identification. At that point, the officers walked away.
In a brief article on Thursday in The Washington Post, Lowery recounted the rest of the confrontation:
Moments later, the police reemerged, telling us that we had to leave. I pulled my phone out and began recording video.
An officer with a large weapon came up to me and said, “Stop recording.”
I said, “Officer, do I not have the right to record you?”
He backed off but told me to hurry up. So I gathered my notebook and pens with one hand while recording him with the other hand.
As I exited, I saw Ryan to my left, having a similar argument with two officers. I recorded him, too, and that angered the officer. As I made my way toward the door, the officers gave me conflicting information.
One instructed me to exit to my left. As I turned left, another officer emerged, blocking my path.
The two were then arrested after police allegedly slammed Lowery into a vending machine, though they were released that evening after being held in a jail cell for about 15 minutes.
In a statement on Wednesday, Washington Post executive editor Martin Baron reproached Ferguson police, noting that Lowery had nothing illegal, yet was put in physical peril nonetheless.
“We are relieved that Wesley is going to be OK,” he said. “We are appalled by the conduct of the police officers involved.”
And on Twitter, Lowery’s colleagues at the Post showered him with praise:
Not everyone was so quick to compliment the reporters, however. Among them was talk show host and former congressman Joe Scarborough, who implied on his program "Morning Joe" on Thursday that Lowery and Reilly could’ve easily avoided arrest, but provoked the officers in order to create a media event – and perhaps to advance their careers.
“I would just say, if I saw that video, and my son was the one that police arrested after that episode, I’d say, ‘Joey, here’s a clue: When the cops tell you for like the 30th time, “Let’s go,” you know what that means, son? It means, “Let’s go,” ’ ” he said. “I don’t sit there and have a debate and film the police officer, unless I want to get on TV and have people talk about me the next day.”
In response to those comments, Lowery fired back on Thursday in a CNN interview, saying that Mr. Scarborough was unqualified to comment given that he wasn’t in Ferguson, and that he had no patience for “talking heads” sipping “Starbucks smugly” from afar.
Taking a compromise view, Dylan Byers, Politico’s media editor, acknowledged in a column on Thursday that the police’s treatment of the media in Ferguson had been overly antagonistic. But he also pointed out that Lowery “didn’t exactly move with great haste” when the officer told him to leave the fast food joint. Plus, he pointed out, there’s much to lament about an arguably petty media battle overshadowing the larger, complex battle on the ground between cops and protesters in Missouri.
“Many sided with Lowery, a few may have sided with Scarborough,” he wrote. “One hopes that the majority chafed at how a story about race and police brutality turned, for a moment too long, into a [spat] between two members of the media.”