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‘Stay Out of Jail Free’: a closer look at RNC embedding

Maria Awes watched in curiosity, then repulsion, as the man crouched down near the Dorothy Day Center during a protest on the Republican National Convention’s second day.

“There he was, crapping in his hand,” a still-amazed Awes recalls.

She wasn’t an accidental eyewitness; Awes was an “embedded” journalist who — in return for not reporting on police procedures until the four-day event was over — had access enough to hear a police radio crackle: “Guy defecating in hand.”

The WCCO-TV investigative producer says she didn’t see the poop hurled. It also never hit the airwaves; Awes was on the opposite side of the police line from her cameraman, Tom Aviles.

However, the incident did inform the Sept. 5 report Channel 4 ran once the convention was over. The Awes-written script couldn’t have read better from a police perspective:

“Our crew found St. Paul cops in riot gear to be no different than St. Paul cops on any other day — friendly. …The scene on city streets may be far from what we see every day, but St. Paul’s finest didn’t change at all. Neither did their mission to protect everyone.”

Awes’ Tuesday reporting had to hold until Friday; it ironically ran the day after police arrested her colleague Aviles. Police promised “embeds” they wouldn’t be jailed, but Aviles was unembedded when he was arrested along with at least a dozen journalists and hundreds of protesters on the Marion Street Bridge.

Most reporters (including this one) had no clue that colleagues had such immunity.

Noting that police arrested nearly 50 journalists during the convention, the Twin Cities Media Alliance’s Nancy Brown said at a recent forum: “If embedded reporters are the only ones not subject to arrest, then they’re the only journalists who can practice journalism on the streets. It created a special elite class of journalists.”

So just how did this deal go down, and did embedding affect coverage and journalistic integrity?

Did police select ‘elite’ journalists?

At the forum, Brown said, “My understanding is that the embedded journalists were selected by the police. I imagine that they had their own criteria — maybe subjective, maybe not — of what journalists they felt would be appropriate, or acceptable.”

Did police pick the journalists? No — though it’s not that simple.

Two “embeds” — the Star Tribune’s David Chanen and the Pioneer Press’ Mara Gottfried — suggested a rough concept to police weeks before the convention. They wanted to ride along with the “mobile field forces” patrolling the streets, or watch the coordination at the command center.

WCCO Assistant News Director Michael Caputa says his staff mentioned the ride-along idea during a spring meeting with police spokesman Tom Walsh.

As St. Paul Assistant Police Chief Matt Bostrom puts it, “We never shopped for a story — in fact it was the opposite.”

After internal discussions, the cops set the rules for what became embedding. The key provision was an embargo: Embeds could not report on police strategy until after the convention.

Beyond that, Chanen recalls, “They said, ‘We’re not your babysitters; we’re not looking out for your welfare, you’re on your own.’ ”

The carrot for reporters, other than inside access: They wouldn’t be told to leave the scene — even though other journalists were subject to arrest if they didn’t follow orders to disperse.

Six organizations eventually signed the liability waivers: the Strib, the PiPress, WCCO, KSTP-TV, Fox9 and MPR.

An elite class? Well, you could say Chanen, Gottfried and WCCO demonstrated the earned elitism of experience. They are veteran cop-watchers: They knew what to ask for and whom to approach.

Not everyone had to show foresight, however. KARE News Director Tom Lindner says Walsh brought up embedding in a conversation with reporter Trisha Volpe.

Walsh says he showed no favoritism because any interested journalist was accommodated. But how many knew the offer was on the table?

Walsh says he let the media world know via an 800-person email list. The announcement directed interested parties to a pre-convention meeting.

I couldn’t find anyone who could forward me the text. However, Minnesota Independent’s Paul Demko — who covered RNC policing as closely as any independent journalist — said he didn’t recall any mention of ride-alongs, either in the email or at the meeting.

MPR reporter Tim Nelson, a Thursday embed, backed up police in his blog. “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,” he wrote.

Nelson says he made arrangements over the phone, and never saw an email. A supervisor asked him to attend the meeting.

Bottom line: Major-media journalists who were smart enough to ask got in, but Walsh did some outreach among direct competitors. However, greener or less-connected media likely never knew a “stay out of jail free” card was available.

The information asymmetry made embedding look like a favor, engendering legitimate suspicion among the less blessed. Still, three of the six embedders (PiPress, WCCO, KMSP) had non-embedded staffers arrested.

Did police censor embedded reports?
Everyone says police didn’t preview footage or censor reportage. There were no restrictions on content, only when it would air.

“We never gave up editorial control,” WCCO’s Caputa says.

The deal resembled more common agreements struck when covering sensitive ongoing police operations. Everything (save the occasional undercover cop) gets shown once the operation ends.

While WCCO jumped at the chance to embed Awes, it did pass on a second opportunity with more strings attached.

News Director Scott Libin says Hennepin County offered an inside look at the jail following Wednesday’s Rage Against the Machine concert in Minneapolis. “We were told that access was limited, there were things we could not shoot, so we said no thanks,” he recalls.

Did the special access and protection affect the journalism?
There’s no doubt very few discouraging words were in embeds’ reports. Did that accurately reflect what they saw, or were they influenced by their access?

When I watched Awes’ report, it seemed over the top. By the time the story aired, there were legitimate, non-sensational questions about policing, yet her kudos seemed to blanket the entire force.

Still, a journalist should be able to say that she witnessed police acting uniformly with restraint and dignity. After debriefing Awes for an hour, I believe that’s exactly what she saw.

MPR’s Nelson was less effusive, but possibly more persuasive, about police propriety during a Friday-morning wrap-up with host Cathy Wurzer.

At one point, Wurzer asked Nelson — who like other embeds spent more time unembedded than with special status — about excessive force allegations.

He replied, “When you’ve got tens of thousands of strangers meeting in the street with opposite ideas, you’re going to have some widely divergent opinions about how it went. But, you know, we haven’t seen any allegations of gross misconduct like Rodney King or the shooting of Amadou Diallo in New York. You know, I don’t know any actually fired a conventional firearm related to the convention.”

OK, no gunplay or killing. Later, I asked Nelson if he saw anything that would constitute excessive force.

The former Pioneer Press cops reporter picked his words carefully: “I have not seen anything inconsistent with my years of experience [covering] St. Paul and other [police] agencies. If I had thought there was anything egregiously newsworthy, it would’ve been in there.”

The Strib’s Chanen, who covered Monday’s omnipresent chaos and Wednesday’s post-Rage concert policing that week, agrees. “I gotta be honest, I would’ve reported it if I saw it.”

Still, when Chanen and I chatted further, he mentioned a troubling moment he witnessed Wednesday: “One of the cops, I thought, was a little rough on one of the kids; the kid was really struggling a bit.”

Chanen said he talked to the cop’s boss, who explained why such force was deployed.

I asked: Why didn’t your moment of concern get in the piece? The only discordant note was in this passage: “Officers were clearly antsy as people left Target Center, pounding their batons on the ground or against their shin pads. Some yelled profanities while others offered compliments.”

Chanen sighed.

“In retrospect, I wish I’d taken a completely different tack and made [the story] far more personal. I blame myself for not talking with the editor before writing. My story was too straightforward. I regret I didn’t do it more from the gut, more first-person.”

Did being embedded steer Chanen away from something tougher, or at least more multi-faceted? I don’t think so; you don’t have to be embedded to second-guess your story approach.

Like Nelson, Chanen is pretty gimlet-eyed about the folks in blue. He has a pretty funny story (which Walsh confirms) about getting in a commander’s face while embedded during Monday’s chaos.

The cops Chanen and photographer Richard Sennott were following decided to race off to another scene. An enterprising KSTP crew decided to break the no-transport rule, diving headfirst into a police van. Chanen and Sennott were miles from their car, and were irked at being left behind. Chanen later spotted the unit commander in a parked car, and got him to roll down the driver’s side window so he could give him an earful.

‘Our job is to release the news, not hold the news’
The one TV news director who passed on embedding, KARE’s Lindner, offers this acid analysis of the embeds’ collective work: “Did you see anything newsworthy in those stories? I didn’t.”

Lindner says he turned down embedding primarily because of the unusually long embargo. While every mainstream organization in town has held a story for one reason or another, multi-day delays are rare.

“If we had truly witnessed, God forbid, someone severely injured or killed Monday, we’re supposed to hold that until Friday?” Lindner asks. “Our job is to release the news, not hold news.”

Chanen contends that the deal included a “fail-safe” against such an occurrence: “We had an arrangement that if the shit hit the fan, I could message the commander and say ‘I’m done,’ and become just another journalist on the scene.”

In such a circumstance, Chanen says any behind-the-scenes tactical insight up to then would’ve been off limits. However, he could use everything he saw on the street and would “be at the news conference three hours later, putting pressure on them.”

WCCO’s Libin says he was OK with embeds in part because he had “half a dozen” other crews on the streets. Had the police done something awful, those crews would’ve rushed to the scene. If the situation had become truly extreme, he says he would have considered unilaterally breaking the embargo.

At least two outlets minimized risk by only embedding on Thursday, the convention’s final day.

MPR News Director Bill Wareham says that for all practical purposes, the embargo didn’t affect Nelson, who wasn’t due on-air until Friday. (MPR also had multiple crews covering Thursday’s protest.)

PiPress Public Safety Editor Hal Davis used Gottfried in the same manner. The only complication, he said, was that her info wasn’t available for a PiPress online feed until after 11:30 p.m. Thursday.

Did embedded organizations keep audience trust?
Disclosure was a problem for privileged organizations.

Chanen’s story noted he was embedded, but readers weren’t told what that meant. A brief explanation of the embargo and immunity was needed.

WCCO used the term embedding, but didn’t explain the arrangement either. The PiPress didn’t mention Gottfried’s embedding in this roundup story (which included non-embed info from her and others).

At MPR, Nelson wrote this intro for his Wurzer debrief: “Minnesota Public Radio’s Tim Nelson spent the last four days on both sides of the police lines.”

Nelson said he didn’t spell out his Thursday status because it was only “a tiny fraction” of his reporting; the debrief focused on the entire convention.

He adds that reporters typically don’t explain other negotiated sourcing deals; for example, background conversations that inform subsequent analysis.

But the immunity spiff was unusual; during the chat, there was a moment that begged for disclosure.

Asked Wurzer, “So what happened to our friends in the media here? You have colleagues and I have colleagues who were arrested last night, some of whom were pretty seasoned photojournalists and reporters and they were kind of swept up as well.”

Nelson: “Well, you know, Tuesday night they told us over the loudspeakers, and yesterday, they told us via email, that we were subject to the same orders to disperse as everybody else, and if you didn’t listen to that and were standing there at the end, you got a ticket.”

Except on Thursday, he wasn’t subject to the same orders as everybody else. And he never had to worry about a ticket — much less being hauled in for booking, as some journalists were.

It was crucial for listeners to know Nelson wasn’t just another journalist that night.

Then there was this:

Wurzer: “I know you were on the other side of the line with police — what did you learn there?”

Nelson: “You know, for all the complaints, I have to say I was on the bridge last night, and it was pretty congenial. The protesters were singing loud enough that you could hear them behind police lines.”

Did Nelson’s status affect this viewpoint? Like Chanen, he’s a respected reporter and has repeatedly demonstrated toughness and integrity no matter whose ox is gored. I talked to two photojournalists who were arrested Thursday night, and neither said they were outraged by their treatment — though they were mad police didn’t let them go as soon as they proved their employment.

It’s also worth noting Nelson wasn’t immune from the night’s frights. In a later blog post, he wrote that despite his protections, “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.”

Still, he added, “As per our agreement, I was never forced to leave the scene.”

Morning Edition listeners needed to hear that on the air.

“We could have done a better job of disclosing,” MPR’s Wareham acknowledges. “When in doubt, I’m in favor of full transparency.”

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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/26/2008 - 10:55 am.

    I can’t believe you posted this!

    You quote the MinniSoros Independent, and wonder why you didn’t get special treatment? Gah!

    David, do you have *any* notion of the reputation they have? Any clue at all?

    I’m sure that the cops figured out right away that if they wanted the RNCWC to know the intimate details of their tactical plan they could just as easily give the rioters a police radio as to grant special access to “reporters” like Demko, or, to be frank, you.

    And now, you’re applying your patented method of making friends and influencing people with the MSM! I can’t believe you’re impugning genuine reporters with years and years of experience in this town with this petulant little tirade. Well, I guess I can.

    It didn’t take special access to report what was going on. I spent all four days downtown sporting nothing more official than an RNC press credential. I was present at almost every incident that involved protesters and cops…right in the s**t, as it were. I got all the pictures and video I wanted.

    Not only did I not get arrested or bothered by the cops in any way, on one occasion they allowed me to double park my bike next to their squads while I filmed the action.

    How did I manage that?

    Well David, I talked to them, and I was polite. I stayed out of their way, and when they told everyone it was time to disburse, and they did so several times at each incident, I left.

    Listen.

    There may be a few isolated incidents where a genuinely innocent bystander got “swept up” and arrested (FWIW, Amy Goodman wasn’t one of them), but 99% of the people that ended up in flexcuffs had several chances to avoid arrest. You can’t help the truly clueless, and those protests were knee deep in raving, lefty idiots that did everything wrong.

    I really can’t believe you posted this..LOL!

  2. Submitted by Jason DeRusha on 09/26/2008 - 11:28 am.

    Everyone at WCCO knew about the embedding situation ahead of time. I’m not sure why it was such a surprise to some journalists. I feel like 98% of the reporters were embedded with the protesters and anarchists, so I don’t see the problem with being embedded with the police.

    Lindner’s choice is a curious one to me. Even if there’s nothing newsworthy in his mind, I’d think you’d send someone to find out. Why not embed, and if it’s not worthy, don’t air it?

  3. Submitted by David Brauer on 09/26/2008 - 11:34 am.

    Tom, the notion that Demko would’ve acted unprofessionally is speculative and frankly ludicrous. There’s simply nothing in his history (or mine, or MnIndy’s) to indicate the kind of treachery you allege.

    Frankly, I wasn’t interested in embedding, neither was MinnPost, and it sounds like MnIndy wasn’t either. But Walsh is claiming the program was open to all comers, and he let the world know, but that assertion seems disputable.

    You’re right – most journalists didn’t get arrested. But many did, through no fault of their own (see my earlier take on AP’s Matt Rourke). It’s telling police have dropped all charges against journalists.

    Don’t overgeneralize from your own experience.

    By the way, I agree with you that one didn’t need be embedded to cover the convention. Most of us weren’t.

    But if journalists are going to strike privileged deals with the people they cover, best to disclose those.

    I think any fair-minded reader won’t view this legitimate examination as “impugning,” but I’m glad to see you defending MSM integrity! Be sure to do that when they write something the partisan in you dislikes.

  4. Submitted by David Brauer on 09/26/2008 - 11:44 am.

    Jason – I don’t have a problem with reporters doing ridealongs, or the RNC-policing equivalent. I’m a wee bit concerned cops only dole these out to favored reporters – we know how access can be used as a weapon! – but I haven’t really researched the broader topic.

    Again, I think significant arrangements with those you cover should be disclosed – though reasonable people can disagree about what’s reasonable.

    To me, the notion that most of us were “embedded” with protesters is not a precise equivalent. If you mean “in the middle of,” sure, but to me, embed also carries connotations of negotiation, selection, restriction. I don’t think most protest-covering journalists had those kind of arrangements with protesters, though it’s possible.

    Also, as per Bob Collins’ original blogpost on the topic at MPR’s News Cut, it doesn’t sound like every organization made its crew aware of the embed deal internally.

  5. Submitted by Chuck Olsen on 09/26/2008 - 01:43 pm.

    Jason, your assertion that “98% of the reporters were embedded with the protesters and anarchists” is ridiculous and frankly offensive. Do you honestly believe covering a protest is the same as being embedded?

    If you shoot video of a fire, are you embedded with a deadly force of nature?

  6. Submitted by Molly Priesmeyer on 09/26/2008 - 02:32 pm.

    I agree with Chuck. It’s offensive, and quite honestly, lazy thinking, to assume that being embedded with those in power is he same as being “embedded” with those who aren’t. And for purposes of reality here, being embedding with protesters/anarchists really means following a story versus following a group that has been groomed for media monitoring.

    Do you think that it’s not a problem to be embedded with a military-approved battalion in Iraq? And do you justify a PR stunt like that by saying that it’s okay because 98 percent are reporting on the experiences of the Iraqi people?

    It would be one thing if every reporter could do this. And it’d be another if there wasn’t an embargo. But the fact that hand-picked reporters actually agreed to the police policies is actually quite appalling.

  7. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 09/26/2008 - 02:34 pm.

    So, where is all your news coverage of the RNC, Swiftee? Got links?

  8. Submitted by Jason DeRusha on 09/26/2008 - 03:16 pm.

    Offensive? Really? I think we can disagree without being offended. I was exaggerating by saying we were embedded with protesters. Sorry that didn’t come through.

    HOWEVER: We all had tons of crews covering the protesters. Hundreds of reporters and photographers chronicled their every move. They had the opportunity to have an open mic, essentially (even though they generally didn’t take it). Reporters were not getting updates from police during the action, but they were marching with and tracking the protesters. It’s not that far from being embedded with that point-of-view.

    Look, I’m not defending the story that aired on our station, and I think there should ALWAYS be clear disclosure when you have special access, so viewers can judge. But let’s be real here.

    The fact that you’ve negotiated for access doesn’t mean the coverage is going to be positive. It was quite a gamble for the cops to let media ride with them during this. If things went bad, they would have been hammered. It was a risk. And the only restriction was the time embargo, as far as I can tell.

    I wonder if all the people complaining about the embedding have ever been “embedded.” Are people upset that it wasn’t offered to alt-media types, or are they upset that it happened? I would think people would be happy that the police opened up to an outside observer.

  9. Submitted by Jason DeRusha on 09/26/2008 - 03:25 pm.

    And to Molly’s question: No. I don’t have a problem with being embedded with a military-approved batallion in Iraq. If that’s the only coverage you’re doing, you’re not doing enough. But it’s a nice supplement to broader coverage. Which is how all the local news orgs. used this police embedding opportunity.

  10. Submitted by Paul Demko on 09/26/2008 - 03:58 pm.

    Interesting piece. I can’t say for certain whether the opportunity to embed with the cops was offered at the Western District press conference. I don’t recall mention of it, but can’t dispute it either.

    I find Chanen’s comment about covering the Rage concert aftermath particularly interesting. It’s very difficult to provide any kind of global perspective on what’s occurring when you’re in the middle of the fray. A first person account, that acknowledges the limitations of your perspective, is perhaps the most honest approach.

    As I wrote in my piece about being ticketed, I was attempting to leave prior to the order to disburse. There was simply no way through the police — at least that I could figure out.

  11. Submitted by Paul Demko on 09/26/2008 - 04:01 pm.

    One other point: I don’t think there’s a problem with embedding per se, particularly for news organizations that have other reporters on the street to cover different perspectives. It’s the four-day hold on reporting that’s troubling. Nelson’s approach seems a smart end-around this issue.

  12. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/26/2008 - 06:13 pm.

    Chuck, I had the opportunity to monitor the anarchists “tin-can” comms a few times.

    Whenever they were discussing some crap they were planning, the whereabouts of “the Uptake” seemed to come up.

    Honestly, did they have you on speed dial, or were you trading text messages? If you were not embedded in the pocket of the RNCWC, you were holding their belt loops.

    As to you MinniSoros embeds; I realize the hypocrisy of you showing up to point your fingers is completely lost on you, but trust me here, we’re enjoying every minute.

    Thanks for the material!

  13. Submitted by Chuck Olsen on 09/26/2008 - 06:46 pm.

    I agree with Demko re: embedding. However, I can’t help thinking about Free Press’ Nancy Brown, who asks – should we have a protected class of journalists? Isn’t it wrong that the only way for a journalist to avoid arrest covering a protest is by embedding?

    DeRusha: I do see your point. But understand, when you make provocative statements – like “Citizen Journalism: Failure?” or ” “98% of the reporters were embedded with the protesters and anarchists” – don’t act surprised when you get a reaction and pushback.

  14. Submitted by Jason DeRusha on 09/26/2008 - 11:55 pm.

    Not surprised by the pushback, in fact I’m pleased to get reaction. My views evolve thanks to input of smart people like you, Chuck. I try to listen, and acknowledge that I don’t have all the answers. I just think we can disagree without being offended about it.

    My colleagues were among that 98% I was talking about, incidentally. Where are the MSM people telling me I’m totally wrong?

    Anyway, The MSM is expected to take everyone’s hits, and non-stop criticism. I get lumped in with all the morons who think TV news and print news is the same it’s been for decades, and new media is just a fad.

    But alt-media and CJ’s have been around long enough that the debate shouldn’t be about whether or not they are journalists. The debate should be whether or not they’re doing it right. Not that my view is necessarily the only one, but I think the CJ supporters could be a little more open-minded that maybe they too don’t have all the answers.

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