Embedded reporters at RNC


I learned today — perhaps the same way you did — that MPR had an embedded reporter within the police ranks during the last part of the Republican National Convention: I read it on Tim Nelson’s RNC convention blog. He described Thursday’s confrontations:

I was variously ordered to get down and to leave immediately. I was inadvertently struck by pepper spray and by “stinger balls” from an explosive thrown at my feet. But per our agreement, I was never forced to leave the scene.

I don’t know the exact count of journalists detained. I heard numbers last night as high as 18. I did see some people with credentials issued by the Republican National Convention among the handcuffed detainees. But I also saw people with handmade “media” insignia and several students claiming to be with a college paper in Iowa.

Tim was riding along Thursday with one of the mobile police units. He was one of 8 reporters in the Twin Cities media to be so accomodated at times during the week. He could share the information he acquired after the convention ended. (Update, Sat. 9:23 a.m.: The Star Tribune’s perspective was printed this morning)

For the record, his deal was unknown to all but a very few news officials in his company.But now that he has written about the arrangement, it’s fair game.

These sorts of agreements pose difficult questions for news organizations. We invite you to discuss it in the comments section below in the interest of being transparent about them:

** Should journalists “embed” (or even “ride along” ) with anybody? Clearly we’ve seen it most recently in the Iraq War. Access was granted to journalists to get the military’s side of the story, and to get a good look at things. By virtue of the position they took up during the RNC protests (almost by default) journalists essentially embedded with the protesters. So what’s wrong with taking up a position on the other side of the police lines? Nothing, unless you’re giving up any editorial control over what you see because you cut a deal.

** What’s the payoff? Can you use what you learn in a timely manner, preferably while it’s still news? Part of the arrangement allowed Nelson — as gifted a reporter as I’ve ever had the pleasure of being associated with — to watch the events on Thursday night with enhanced odds of escaping the fate that other journalists — mainstream local journalists, even — suffered. But a credentialed journalist — not the kind with Kinko-manufactured press badges — should be able to observe police actions without needing to cut quid pro quo arrangements.

** If a news organization makes a deal with law enforcement for special treatment and an agreement to stay silent on certain issues for an agreed-upon period of time, does the news organization have a responsibility to tell the audience that the report being delivered is part of an agreement with the officials he/she is covering not to be chased from the scene in exchange for…. something?

It’s unclear why credentialed journalists were swept up on Thursday night. Police Chief John Harrington said it was difficult to tell the “real” journalists from the phony ones. But from the advantage of his position, Nelson wrote, he could see some of the journalists being picked up had RNC credentials. The police didn’t have to figure out who was who: the Secret Service had already done that when it did a background check on everyone who applied for those credentials.

On the air with MPR’s Cathy Wurzer on Friday morning, Nelson clearly had some after-the-fact insight into how everything went down on the cops’ side, but we made a mistake, perhaps, in not disclosing the arrangement that allowed him to acquire it. Asked about the arrests of local journalists, he said that police had clearly ordered people to move.

On his blog, he answered the question of why some people were arrested and some weren’t in a slightly different way:

Because last week, the St. Paul police offered the media — or at least those who showed up to a meeting at the Western District police offices — the opportunity to accompany the officers among St. Paul’s “mobile field force” teams.

St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington told MPR News today that all local news organizations were offered the embedded positions, but the protections that Nelson suggests it afforded, did not extend to all journalists — real journalists — at Thursday’s night’s events.

“News organizations took volunteers, and I guess not everybody wanted to do that. We just offered the chance to be embedded over the four days, and we had 8 slots to offer people, and all slots were filled. We made that an open opportunity,” he said. Some local news organizations declined the offer. Why?

Late on Friday, MPR News Director Bill Wareham further clarified the arrangement between Nelson and the St. Paul police:

He signed a liability waiver.

He agreed that if he went on a ride-along for a day, he wouldn’t publish/broadcast anything about it until the end of the convention.

In his words, “The agreement was that they would let me do my job if I let them do theirs and didn’t disclose their methods before the end of the convention. I was not in the area when the order to disperse was given, and never there without a police escort.” Also, “The sergeant told me that the safest place was behind their line and that if I got in front of them I would not be allowed to cross back into their lines. ‘You’re on your own out there,’ I believe she said to me.”

Because of the post-convention embargo, we decided that if we took advantage of the ride-along opportunity, it wouldn’t be until Thursday so the information wouldn’t be stale. We did take advantage of the opportunity Thursday, but all of his protest coverage earlier in the week had no arrangement with the cops attached

Meanwhile, Amnesty International joined in the chorus of criticism against police force this week:

The organization’s concerns arise from media reports, video and photographic images which appear to show police officers deploying unnecessary and disproportionate use of non-lethal weapons on non-violent protesters marching through the streets or congregating outside the arena where the Convention was being held.

Police are reported to have fired rubber bullets and used batons, pepper spray, tear gas canisters and concussion grenades on peaceful demonstrators and journalists. Amnesty International has also received unconfirmed reports that some of those arrested during the demonstrations may have been ill-treated while held at Ramsey county jail.

The human rights organization is calling for an investigation. On MPR’s Midmorning today, Mayor Chris Coleman said there would be “a review” of the police performance, but when pressed on how he felt about it, Coleman said “I feel great.”