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Did KARE protest video get a WCCO staffer suspended?

KARE taped a WCCO photojournalist angrily confronting Republican National Convention protesters — then posted the footage on its website. Legitimate news or TV-rival “gotcha”?
By David Brauer

During the Republican National Convention, there was a lot of talk about how police treated journalists, and even some about how alleged anarchists attacked journalists. However, a WCCO photojournalist has been suspended and ordered to anger management counseling for how he treated demonstrators — an outburst rival KARE taped and put on its website.

The video — shot during a Tuesday demonstration in Mears Park — isn’t pretty.

In the footage, WCCO’s Andy Smith drops multiple f-bombs on protesters who seem to be blocking a sidewalk path to his truck. Unbeknownst to Smith, a man had collapsed due to a seizure and protesters formed a protective cordon. Smith thinks they’ve formed a line against him.

As protesters urge a sputtering Smith to calm down, a WCCO web producer, Karna Bergstrom beseeches him: “Andy, just stop!” But after a brief pause, the photographer wields his tripod in an attempt to batter his way through the crowd.

The protesters stymie Smith, who eventually takes a far simpler way to his vehicle — around the unblocked street side.

WCCO News Director Scott Libin says he can’t talk about individual personnel matters, and Smith could not be reached for comment. However, Smith’s shop steward, longtime WCCO photojournalist Dave Chaney, confirms Smith’s suspension and offers a defense.

Chaney acknowledges Smith didn’t handle the situation well, but says the photojournalist was understandably on edge after incidents that included a Fox9 van tire-slashing and a spray-painted KSTP camera lens.

“We were getting reports from the station that people would try to attack the media,” Chaney says. “We’d been getting emails from the Secret Service all day long that there were people in that crowd that were going to try to attack. There was a gentleman who was supposed to be a black belt in karate who was going to try to assault one of us. We were basically in a war — we’re not police, we’re not soldiers, we’re not trained for that.”

Chaney — who was still trying to get the suspension reduced Tuesday — acknowledges WCCO management has a right to be upset with Smith.

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“The company believes — and I don’t fault them for this perception — that all [Smith] had to do was stop and turn around. He says that in that situation, he was so upset and so afraid … basically, it was sensory overload. I was on the other side of the truck — it was horses, there was screaming, it was chaos. He didn’t realize there was a way for him to retreat. He was lost in the moment.”

One reporter I spoke to, who asked not to be named to maintain workplace relationships, says Smith had a rep as a hothead before the incident. Thus, the counseling imperative could be seen as a constructive way to deal with a larger problem.

Chaney says Smith is “aggressive — but that’s why they put us out there. Does he argue with a reporter? Sure. But [in the incident] he doesn’t lay a hand on anybody. He’s using the tripod as a wedge, but he’s really only cussing.”

Actually, what struck me is the protesters’ relative restraint — something receiving less attention as media outlets rush to praise police.

While there’s some shoving both ways, demonstrators are mostly trying to tell Smith what’s going on, but even as they start to get through to him, he’s using his tripod as a vertical battering ram.

Sure, there may have been ambient chaos, but no other WCCO journalist — or anyone else’s — was seen freaking out similarly. (Perhaps others weren’t caught, but everyone was taping everyone out there.)

Then again, the reporter notes, WCCO is suspending a guy for misbehaving in what he thought was a riot. Chaney, a 31-year pro, pleads for perspective.

“We are Minneapolis photographers; we are not in war zones. None of us had ever seen anything like that. This is a 28-year-old kid who overreacted. And it should be handled like that. I think management made a wrong decision in this one.”

Chaney, however, reserves his deepest scorn for Channel 11. “I think KARE is trying to embarrass us,” he says. “They did a Paul Douglas deal when he left our station to embarrass us. They put it on their website because they wanted to embarrass WCCO.”

KARE and WCCO duel for the top spot in local news rankings, but KARE News Director Tom Lindner denies any video aggression: “I swear on a stack of Bibles and the Koran.”

Lindner belives that putting the video on the KARE site didn’t get Smith suspended. He says WCCO had already requested the footage after hearing concerns from its own staff.

“Our photo chief and WCCO’s photo chief spoke on the phone and their photo chief wanted to see the video,” Lindner notes. “There was a web producer reporting back to her management about the incident.”

OK, but the footage hand-off could’ve been handled internally. Why post it — with, for a time, all the f-enheimers clearly audible?

“Do you want the public to think we protect each other when things like this happen?” Lindner asks rhetorically. “We don’t.”

He adds, “There were a lot of confrontations that day, and this happened to be one of them. We posted it among our protest-related video. It was legitimate [news]. We didn’t name the employee, didn’t call attention to it. We took out the [f-bombs] once we had a bit more time.”

Unlike Chaney, Libin won’t accuse Lindner of dastardly motives, preferring to play diplomat in public. Still, the WCCO news boss wryly notes, “I’m not sure we’re quite as fascinated by our competitors as they are about us.”