New York

Sleeping With the Enemy


The press and police: Together we keep the country safe from anarchy

A whole bunch of Iraqi women probably don’t think much of Don Rumsfeld (especially if they’re mothers), but that doesn’t stop him from casting his bedroom eyes around a room. And if it’s a roomful of reporters, he’s bi-, baby, ’cause gender doesn’t matter when you’re getting busy with the media.

Last September 10, Rumsfeld was the guest speaker at a National Press Club luncheon in D.C., when Orlando Sentinel D.C. bureau chief Tammy Lytle, the press club prexy, asked him, “What’s your assessment of the embedded reporters program?”

To which Rumsfeld replied, “I think she was terrific!” The Department of Defense transcript noted parenthetically, “Laughter, moans.”

But seriously, folks, Rumsfeld went on to say, “I think it was a roll of the dice. It had never been done before like that. The war in Iraq was not a normal conflict, and it was a risky thing to do. And I think it worked out brilliantly.”

Yes, it co-opted reporters brilliantly. How widespread will it be next week in a locked-down New York City? How well will it work? Many commentators, referring to that elusive concept of “human nature,” have pointed out that if reporters are embedded with the authorities, they almost invariably take the viewpoint of the authorities.

That certainly happened at the FTAA protests in Miami, only a couple of months after Rumsfeld’s bone mot to the roomful of D.C. reporters.

Check out embedded Miami Herald reporter Oscar Corral‘s encomium to “lifelong fitness buff” John Timoney, the Miami police chief (and ex-NYPD cop), from last November 23.

Then take a look at an outside view of Corral’s “hero worship of Timoney” in this Miami New Times story from last December.

Before you expose yourself to the blizzard of coverage of next week’s convention at Republican Square Garden, you have to get some perspective on the people bringing it to you. Even if there isn’t the ballyhooed embedding that took place during the invasion of Iraq, many electronic reporters and anchors are sure to respond to the events as if they were embedded, because they’ll depend on the authorities for access and will be beholden—and because most of them always take the authorities’ viewpoint automatically anyway.

This past February, Bill Moyers rounded up many of the Miami players, including Timoney, to hash it out on his PBS series Now. “This was the first big event for Homeland Security, which includes a whole host of federal agencies including Coast Guard and Customs and things like that,” Timoney crowed. “It really was the first real, realistic, if you will, run-through to see how it would work. And it worked pretty well.”

Now reporter Kathleen Hughes noted that “the Miami police worked with Washington to gird against any potential terror activity. Timoney says they also spent months training to defend the city against a small group of troublemakers—he calls them anarchists.”

With Tom Ridge likely to keep the fear of terror hovering somewhere between a bright orange and a throbbing red, security officials ought to have plenty of excuse to be creative in trying to keep an extra-tight lid on next week’s coronation.

That will likely keep many reporters either traveling with authorities or under their control, so also read this critique of embedded reporters, from the American Journalism Review. Here’s an excerpt:

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, says that when authorities allow reporters access, “in almost every instance it’s likely to provide a positive view for whomever you are embedding with.” She says reporters are in even more ambiguous territory when they embed during a domestic news event.

Lorna Veraldi, who teaches journalism ethics at Florida International University in Miami, says the embedded reporters in Miami seemed to take a “gee-whiz” approach to covering the police, focusing on their high-tech gear and crowd-control weaponry, which included rubber bullet guns, tear gas and tanklike vehicles.

In one television report, a newsman embedded with a water patrol unit gushed about the new technology available on the boat, she says. “They were like kids at an amusement park,” says Veraldi, who also serves on a legal committee advising the ACLU.

Veraldi adds that the media bought into the police spin that the young protesters were the enemy.

Now you’re ready to read Miami New Times reporter Celeste Delgado‘s “Jailhouse Crock,” an account of what it’s like to not be an embedded reporter during a protest. She discovered another way of winding up helplessly in the hands of the authorities—though later she at least had something worthwhile to write about after stewing in reading gaol. Here’s a portion of Delgado’s tale:

“I’m a reporter with New Times,” I said to the brown-shirted behemoth in a helmet who hovered over me. I pulled out my press pass, which included a color photograph of me.

“Put your hands behind your back,” the cop ordered without looking at what I held in my hand.

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