Press Pass and a Gas Mask
Miami Police Chief John Timoney seems to have concluded that the best way to get the media at his side is by having the media by his side. During his four years as Philadelphia's police commissioner, Timoney became a national celebrity. During the 2000 Republican National Convention, he granted reporters access to the police department bicycle patrols that were ubiquitous around the City of Brotherly Love. Those patrols skirmished with some of the same protesters who descended upon Miami for the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit two weeks ago.
Although charges against many of the nearly 400 protesters who disrupted the GOP convention were ultimately dropped, according to R2K Legal Collective -- an advocacy group that helped defend many of those who were detained -- Timoney garnered accolades from Philadelphia civic leaders and from the Philadelphia Inquirer, which printed flattering profiles of the top cop.
In preparing for the FTAA summit, Timoney copied a page out of the Pentagon's playbook and invited a dozen news organizations to "embed" reporters with police units as they confronted anti-globalization demonstrators in downtown Miami. Accepting the invitation were representatives from the Associated Press, CNN, Fox News, the Miami Herald, MSNBC, Reuters, the Sun-Sentinel, and local television network news affiliates. "Our embedding program was a success," says Miami police spokesman Lt. Bill Schwartz. "It gave the media the perspective from behind police lines."
But in agreeing to participate in what amounted to a glorified police ride-along, the press played into the hands of cops and elected officials who portrayed anti-FTAA demonstrators as radical thugs intent on causing mayhem in the streets, say media critics.
Michael Wolff, a respected media commentator, New York magazine columnist, and author of the best-selling book Autumn of the Moguls, was appalled to learn that the embedding formula had been adopted for a domestic civil disobedience event. Wolff is adamantly opposed to the military's embedding program in Iraq, denouncing such journalists as flacks for the Bush administration. "Embedding is nothing more than a public relations gimmick to make it appear that the government is bending over backward to accommodate the press," Wolff says. "Reporters are complicit because they like to tell their readers or their viewers, 'I have been embedded.'"
Embedding reporters, Wolff explains, is a way for government to control the media's message. "But they already try to do that anyway," Wolff continues. "To some degree, police press credentials are a form of embedding. They are hard to come by here in New York, so it creates a situation of 'I'll do this for you, if you do that for me.' The only difference is that reporters in Miami got to wear expensive protective gear, a uniform, and call themselves 'embedded.'"
Edward Wasserman, a journalism ethics professor at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, and a Miami Herald columnist, finds it disturbing that news organizations opted to participate in the police embedding. "The whole notion of embedding reporters is dubious because it results in stories that appear overly fair, overly sympathetic, and reflective of the police mentality," Wasserman says. "Rather than use the access to cover the police, you instead cover the event from the police perspective."
Furthermore, says Wasserman, embedded journalists had to adhere to rules that suggested the media and the cops were working together. For instance, the reporters had to wear protective equipment such as riot helmets and gas masks in order to ride along with police units. "There is some symbolism in demanding that the media wear the same gear as the cops," Wasserman muses. "From the get-go, [Miami police] required the media to sign on to the most extreme and most fearful expectations."
Wasserman cautioned that he had not seen or read blow-by-blow news coverage of the FTAA protests. "But what I did see and read appeared to promote the police's 'us versus them' attitude toward the demonstrators, even the retired union workers who have legitimate beefs with the FTAA," he says.
The police also demanded that news organizations agree to numerous restrictions. Reporters were not allowed to disclose specific numbers of officers in a unit, the number of units deployed, equipment or unit locations, and other "sensitive" information. The journalists also had to rely on the police department's public information officers to escort them to their assigned units.
Manny Garcia, the Herald's assistant managing editor, says the newspaper had no ethical problem with the embedding concept. "We wanted to have reporters who could go in with the squads as they met protesters," Garcia says. "No matter what, we were going to report the event accurately, dispassionately, and in context." Managing editor Judy Miller dismissed the notion that embedding reporters somehow slanted the news coverage in the police's favor. "In addition to four embedded reporters, we had twelve reporters covering the action in the streets," Miller says. "That is where the majority of our reporting came in. We were set up to see everything from a 360 degree angle."
Wasserman points out that the Herald does have a stellar history of covering events on the street, from the Arthur McDuffie riots in 1980 to the Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Elian Gonzalez saga in 1999-2000. "They've done a terrific job without any sort of embedding relationship with the police," says Wasserman, who competed with the Herald when he was editor of the Miami Daily Business Review. "I'm not sure how they benefited by participating."
One could also argue that the embedding program was a complete bust. Journalists embedded with police "cut" teams ended up twiddling their thumbs. Cut teams are police units trained to detach protesters who form "sleeping dragons," in which individuals link arms through PVC piping wrapped in chicken wire. As they spread out they create undulating lines of bodies, making it difficult for police to round people up. Cops in Miami were taught to subdue such protesters by carefully cutting through the pipe and the chicken wire so as not to lop off fingers. Unfortunately for reporters embedded with cut teams, no dragons went to sleep during the FTAA protests. "I had a big fight with one news outlet I won't name because they didn't like that assignment," Schwartz says. "But if they were bored, they had the option to leave their unit and strike out on their own."
Schwartz also acknowledges that he prevented some embedded journalists from joining certain police units during the protests. "We were concerned that if we took reporters to their unit we would be dropping them off in the middle of some protesters confronting cops," Schwartz explains. But doesn't that defeat the purpose of embedding reporters? "Sometimes, the value of embedding can be overly estimated," he says.
In one instance, Schwartz notes, he was unable to transport WSVN-TV (Ch. 7) reporter Brian Andrews to his assignment: "Everywhere we went, it was blocked off. I didn't want to leave him in the middle of some melee. Eventually, he told me not to worry about it because he had gotten enough footage from the field on his own." Andrews declined comment, referring questions to station management. Alice Jacobs, WSVN's news director, did not return several phone calls seeking comment. News managers and reporters for other local television affiliates also did not respond to interview requests.
Schwartz says the department was pleased with the results of its embedding program. "I think embedding reporters was a beneficial thing," he says. "If we have another FTAA or another Elian Gonzalez, we would definitely do it again."
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