August 2014: The Worst Video Media Disaster

Whatever your feelings about Michael Brown’s shooting and the resulting protests in Ferguson, Missouri, you should be concerned about a police department that threatens to murder peaceful bloggers, aims semi-automatic assault rifles at videographers, and arrests journalists without provocation. 

The Ferguson police department’s bullying of reporters is not the biggest part of the Ferguson story. But as many people noted, if that’s how the department treats people who have a megaphone to the world, it’s unfathomable to think how they must treat local residents who don’t.

By employing often terrifying tactics, the Ferguson Police Department (and some officers from surrounding jurisdictions) reacted to the protests with some of the most shocking mistreatment of journalists I’ve witnessed in many years on American soil.

Among other incidents, police ordered two journalists from The Washington Post and The Huffington Post, who were working at a nearby McDonalds, to leave—and arrested them when they didn’t move quickly enough.

Wesley Lowery, the arrested Washington Post reporter, claimed that he was assaulted by officers:

Wesley Lowery

 

Chris Hayes, who hosts a primetime program on MSNBC, was threatened with Mace by a police officer—while he was on the air.

 

The Huffington Post compiled several tweets from journalists in Ferguson, including these:

Ferguson Tweets

 

An officer pushed CNN’s Don Lemon while he was live on the air—and carrying a CNN microphone that made clear for whom he was reporting.

 

Then there was this report from the CNN wire:

“Police in Ferguson, Missouri, deliberately fired tear gas and rubber bullets at a television news crew Wednesday night, Al Jazeera America reported.

Photos and videos from the Al Jazeera America camera crew were widely shared in the wake of Wednesday’s incident, which Al Jazeera called an ‘egregious assault on freedom of the press that was clearly intended to have a chilling effect on our ability to cover this important story.’

The images showed a tear gas canister exploding close to the Al Jazeera correspondent Ash-har Quraishi, who tried to shield himself from the smoke.

Was it intentional? Quraishi’s crew members seem to think so.

‘We were clearly set up as press with a full live shot set-up,’” producer Marla Cichowski said in an e-mail. ‘“As soon as (the) first bullet hit the car, we screamed out loud, ‘We are press,’ ‘This is the media.’”

And perhaps most shockingly, there was this video of a police officer from nearby St. Ann who refused to identify himself, aimed a semi-automatic assault rifle at peaceful videographers, and threatened to kill them.

To be clear, this isn’t a post about every police officer in Ferguson; nor is it a larger critique of police officers, who play a critical role in protecting life and property. This is also not a post that presumes that this shooting was unjustified; the police officer is entitled to due process. But if one believes in the importance of law and order, as I do, one must also be concerned when a law enforcement agency seemingly does everything in its power to prevent reporters, through threat of force, from exercising their Constitutional right to cover a story.

The Ferguson PD took a difficult PR challenge (the shooting of Michael Brown) and turned it into a disaster (the perception of a lawless department operating without rules). At the very least, one would have thought that officers would have had the sense not to deepen their department’s perception problem by making homicidal threats on live television.

I expect that crisis communications professionals and media trainers who work with law enforcement will be using Ferguson PD as an example of what not to do for many years.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.