If you were among the millions Wednesday, Jan. 6, watching and monitoring news feeds — mesmerized and horrified as a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, breached the Senate and House chambers, and attacked our very democracy — take a moment to be grateful for journalism.
That isn’t to suggest journalists are heroes the same way firefighters, EMTs, police and others act heroically. But in an emergency, those carrying cameras and pens play a vital role, too, showing us and telling us what’s happening while creating an accurate record so future generations can learn from our checkered past. They are our warriors for truth.
And sometimes they are forced to carry out their calling under harrowing circumstances. Like on Wednesday.
After more than four years of President Donald Trump falsely and recklessly claiming the news media is an enemy, supporters of Trump turned a peaceful protest into a deadly and destructive riot — with their long-broiling anger turned on media members, too. Some in what became a frenzied mob smashed cameras and other news-gathering equipment. They surrounded journalists, hurling profanities, insults and threats. They snatched a camera cord, fashioned it into a noose, and hung it from a tree as an apparent warning. One rioter even scrawled or scratched “MURDER THE MEDIA” onto a door inside the Capitol.
Attacks on the Fourth Estate happened away from D.C. on Wednesday, as well, coinciding with Congress’ votes to approve the Electoral College results. In Vancouver, British Columbia, a photographer was punched in the face at a Trump rally, The New York Times reported. A reporter in the state of Washington tweeted she and another journalist were accosted at a protest by an armed man who told them they weren’t welcome and who threatened to kill them and others in the media. A Salt Lake Tribune photographer was shoved, berated, and pepper-sprayed outside the Utah state Capitol by protesters displeased with the presidential election result.
“That is not freedom of speech,” the newspaper’s executive editor wrote of the incident. “It is a physical and verbal attack on a journalist … that mirrored others across the country and emanated from the chaos in Washington, D.C.”
For us in Minnesota, Wednesday’s attacks on those practicing the First Amendment were reminders of similar incidents last summer at Black Lives Matter rallies, protests and riots in Minneapolis. They conjured memories of a television journalist this fall having his camera angrily slapped or punched out of his hand outside of a Trump rally at Duluth International Airport.
Through it all, reporters have kept reporting, photographers have kept documenting, and the public, whether mesmerized and horrified or not, has stayed informed.
“Journalists and news crews covering these events, which are of paramount public interest, must be able to do so freely and safely, with the support and protection of law enforcement,” Joel Simon, executive director of the New York City-headquartered Committee to Protect Journalists, said in a statement Wednesday.
Unfortunately, law enforcement sometimes has been the problem. The Society of Professional Journalists last year issued not one but two open letters pleading with law enforcement to stop arresting journalists out “making sure that Americans stay informed.”
Media members’ commitment to the truth and passion for the important public role they play have led to nearly 1,400 reporters, photographers, and others since 1999 not backing down in the face of adversity and challengers to the point of being killed in the line of duty.
The media’s mission is to inform. Journalists are the public's eyes and ears on the truth. Violent, intimidating, arresting, and other attempts to keep them from that important work demand to be condemned — every time and in the strongest ways possible by all of us — as unacceptable and as distasteful attacks on our democracy and freedoms.
The melee in D.C. Wednesday provided more evidence of the need to be grateful for legitimate, hardworking journalists, out there doing their jobs on our behalf, to keep us informed and to shine a light — always — on the truth.
This guest editorial is the opinion of the editorial board of a Forum Communications Company publication, the Duluth News Tribune.