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.”
“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.”