McAdams On: Ferguson Unraveling

BEHIND THE LINES— There is no escaping scrutiny in a connected world. The city officials of Ferguson, Mo., discovered this the hard way. My first email on Thursday was from an Al Jazeera America flack who said the network’s news crew there was tear-gassed.

“Last night at 10:30 p.m. CD in Ferguson, Mo., an Al Jazeera America news crew was reporting behind police barricades. They were easily identifiable as a working television crew. As they were setting up their camera for a live report, tear gas canisters landed in their proximity and police fired rubber bullets in their direction. Police continued to shoot after crew members clearly and repeatedly shouted ‘Press.’

The situation, as reflected in the press for the ensuing hours, was one of dystopian chaos; of generations of bad blood exploding across the media from a suburb no one heard of until Sunday. Where the shining light was not welcome. Where Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post and Ryan Reilly of Huffington Post were detained for allegedly trespassing in a McDonalds, where they were both posting over the franchise’s Wi-Fi. Lowery wrote a first-hand account of his arrest, which in turn fanned flames on Twitter, where Anonymous tweeted what it said was the name of the police officer who shot Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black kid with his hands in the air, according to witnesses.

The press picked up on it and reported the reveal, but not the guy’s name. Anonymous, meanwhile, hashtaged him, opening an electronic conduit of hatred in his direction. The St. Louis and Ferguson police said they’d outted a dispatcher. Twitter suspended Anonymous, or rather, @TheAnonMessage—one of many Anonymi—which then moved over to @TheAnonMessage2. The Internet officially doesn’t care if the outted guy was a dispatcher or the police officer who shot and killed Brown. He continued getting hate messages after reports emerged that he was misidentified.

Meanwhile, headlines kept rolling about journalists being targeted. “Journalists Arrested, Assaulted, and Teargassed in Ferguson” in Newsweek includes a photo of the Al Jazeera news team running from a tear-gas canister billowing smoke. “Press freedom? Police target media, arrest and teargas reporters atFerguson,” at RT has the same image, plus a group shot purportedly of Ferguson police officers dressed in military garb and standing in front of what appears to be an armored Humvee.

KDSK-TV has video of the Al Jazeera crew being tear-gassed. KDSK, the Gannett-owned NBC in St. Louis, had two photojournalists and reporter Elizabeth Matthews at the scene. One of the camera operators, a 23-year veteran news shooter, was recording a confrontation between a citizen and a police officer before taking a “bean bag round” to the camcorder, according to KDSK. They were subsequently run off.

Al Jazeera followed up with comments from the news team in Ferguson.

“We were very surprised by this. We had been there for about an hour,” said Ash-har Quraishi, chief correspondent for Al Jazeera America’s Chicago Bureau. “We had been in contact with police officers who were just feet away from us. I had spoken to police officers who knew we were there. We had had discussions with them. We understood this was as far as we could get in terms of where the protest was going on, about a mile up the road. So, we didn’t think there would be any problems here so we were very surprised.

“We were very close to where those [tear gas] canisters were shot from. We yelled, as you heard there [on the video]. We were yelling that we were press. But they continued to fire. We retreated about half a block into the neighborhood, until we could get out of that situation.

“Police have said that protestors tossed Molotov cocktails in their direction. We didn’t see that because we weren’t close enough in. Again, as you mentioned, we didn’t have gas masks because we were about a mile away…. We thought we were at a safe distance but clearly, they pushed through and actually fired [tear gas] canisters into the neighborhood.”

From Marla Cichowski, Al Jazeera field producer:

“We were clearly set up as press with a full live shot set-up. As soon as first bullet hit the car we screamed out loud, ‘We are press,’ ‘This is media.’Police that were there at the intersection directing traffic earlier knew we were there. We never drove around the police barricade…. There was another station local NBC parked across the street from us the whole time. They shined a huge floodlight at us before firing and I can only imagine they could see what they were shooting at.”

And from Kate O’Brien, president of Al Jazeera America:

“Al Jazeera America is stunned by this egregious assault on freedom of the press that was clearly intended to have a chilling effect on our ability to cover this important story. Thankfully all three crew members are physically fine.

“We believe that this situation must be investigated along with those involving our colleagues at other media outlets.”

Elsewhere in the media fabric, @TheAnonMessage2 continued to tweet. “Operation #Ferguson was created long before EMS allegedly came to the scene of #MikeBrown's death. If that doesn't shock you... In fact, we know that EMS never ended up coming.”

There is no escaping scrutiny in a connected world.