When a Sacred Trust is Distorted
by Posted Tue, Apr 6 2010
On Sept. 25, Melissa Hill of Minneapolis, Minn., was arrested in Pittsburgh, Pa., while she was “covering” protest demonstrations at the G-20 summit meeting. She was there as a journalist representing Minneapolis Independent Media, an anti-establishment online publication.
She said her camera was broken and her recorded material taken when she was arrested. She was charged with disorderly conduct and a month later she was convicted and fined $300. She is appealing the fine.
I became interested in Hill’s situation because more than 40 years ago, I was arrested in Chicago while covering a demonstration at the raucous Democratic National Convention that nominated Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey to oppose Richard M. Nixon in the presidential election that year.
On my way to the Convention Hall to cover Humphrey’s acceptance speech for the Los Angeles Times, I stopped to listen to the famous comedian Dick Gregory address thousands of anti-Vietnam War demonstrators in Grant Park.
He announced that Chicago authorities had refused demonstrators’ permission to parade to Convention Hall for a demonstration there. But, he said, he was staying in an apartment near the hall and invited all of the demonstrators to walk to the apartment for a party.
The good-humored demonstrators started off on their “walk,” and my friend Erwin Knoll, editor of The Progressive magazine, and I walked with them, thinking there might be a good story in the making. There was.
In a darkened part of the city at the corner of 8th Street and South Michigan Ave., there was a barricade of trucks with mounted snow-plows blocking the street and a police line at the sidewalk. As the lead walkers approached the corner, a policeman announced through a bullhorn that anyone going through the police line would be arrested for disorderly conduct. A priest, a rabbi, a paraplegic Vietnam veteran, a college president and a half-dozen others stepped off the sidewalk and were hustled into a waiting police van. Knoll and I, showing our press credentials, approached the line and were told that if we crossed we would be arrested. “We are covering the story,” one of us said as we stepped off the curb.
“Be very careful with these men, they are gentlemen of the press,” the officer-in-charge said as we were delicately lifted into a paddy wagon.
We were driven to the local jail, fingerprinted, mugged, charged and taken to night court where we were all released on our own recognizance. We arrived back at the Conrad Hilton Hotel before dawn and were asked to show room keys. At first I refused and got into an argument with the security people. Knoll, known for a droll sense of humor, said, “Stuart, you know what I think about you?”
“What?” I barked.
“I think you are becoming a hardened criminal, that’s what,” he said. Hardened criminals or not, we walked into yet another story. Followers of Sen. Eugene R. McCarthy, the defeated anti-war candidate for the Democratic nomination, staged a sit-in in front of the elevator bank, and the police were breaking it up by whacking those who refused to move with billy clubs.
The Progressive and the Los Angeles Times together hired the Times’s anti-trust law firm, Chadwell, Keck, Kayser, Ruggles & McLaren to defend us as we pleaded not guilty to the disorderly conduct charge, which carried a $25 fine. The organizations spent thousands of dollars to protect the rights of journalists.
Knoll returned to Chicago to testify for us, and the court dropped the charges.
At first, I had great sympathy for Melissa Hill, but the more I read about her and her organization, the feeling evaporated. Minnesota Independent Media has a bias mentioned in its mission statement: “We do not claim neutrality; rather, we report from inside social movements against capitalism, imperialism, and injustice.”
And Hill herself was a candidate for the Minnesota City Council at the same time that she was in Pittsburgh. She was running on a Civil Disobedience ticket.
The difference between my status in 1968 Chicago and Hill’s in 2009 Pittsburgh was insignificant. As journalists we were both entitled to the same right to cover a story, and authorities had no right to prevent us. But obviously there is a vast difference between those who represent organizations seriously interested in covering news and those who have a bias.
That is one of the problems created by the unlimited Internet access those representing themselves as journalists have. At the very least they should make their prejudices known. Unless they do, they can be taken seriously as reporters in whom the public places a sacred trust.