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As a police shooting of Michael Brown, a black teen, continues to set off protests in Ferguson, Missouri, the issue of press freedom to cover the unfolding saga is setting off debate.
On Wednesday night, CNN, MSNBC and Al Jazeera America had cameras trained on SWAT officers with heavy artillery and covered law enforcement shooting tear gas into the crowd. A spokesperson for Al Jazeera America says the cable network had its crew behind police barricades when the tear gas cannisters landed and rubber bullets were fired.
“Police continued to shoot after crew members clearly and repeatedly shouted ‘Press,'” said the Al Jazeera America spokesperson. “Al Jazeera America is stunned by this egregious assault on freedom of the press that was clearly intended to have a chilling effect on our ability to cover this important story. Thankfully all three crew members are physically fine. We believe that this situation must be investigated along with those involving our colleagues at other media outlets.”
The incident followed word that Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post and Ryan Reilly of the Huffington Post were arrested by police after staging their reporting at a local McDonald’s.
In today’s Washington Post, Lowery writes about what happened, saying that armed officers ordered the fast food restaurant cleared, and after the reporters began video recording them, the officers demanded they stop.
“I said, ‘Officer, do I not have the right to record you?'” Lowery recounts asking.
After being detained, the two reporters were later told they were trespassing in a McDonald’s and eventually released. But in the two hours that they lost communication with the public, many on social media began buzzing about whether the First Amendment was under threat. The following morning, the rights of reporters and citizens to record police actions continues to be widely discussed.
Not everyone is sympathetic.
On MSNBC’s Morning Joe, host Joe Scarborough argued that Lowery and Reilly should have obeyed directions to leave.
“If I saw that video and my son was the one that the police arrested after that episode – I’d say, ‘Joey, here’s a clue: When the cops tell you for like the thirtieth time, ‘Let’s go,’ you know what that means son?” Scarborough said. “It means let’s go.’”
Scorborough added that he understands there’s a lot of unanswered questions about Brown’s shooting, but that the two reporters shouldn’t have made themselves into the story. For some, the issue of press freedoms could be argued to be navel-gazing amid the larger story of racial tensions and the death of a teen.
The MSNBC pundit said he would have moved along without problem if asked by police. He added, “I don’t sit there and have the debate and film the police officer, unless I want to get on TV and have people talk about me the next day. I am sure I am just the worst person in the world for saying this.”
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