Jun
15
2010

Journalists Have the Right to Be Anonymous–and Not Get Beat Up

The thing that jumped out at me from the disturbing footage of Rep. Bob Etheridge (D.-N.C.) manhandling a young man, who had dared to approach him with a camera and a question, was the lawmaker's ominous assertion: "I have a right to know who you are."

He doesn't, of course–the Supreme Court has repeatedly reaffirmed that the Bill of Rights protects the right to remain anonymous, including when talking to strangers face to face. Indeed, it would be odd if it did not do so, given that the principles behind our constitutional framework were largely explicated by three guys who pretended their name was Publius.

While Ethridge was wrong about what his rights were (and subsequently apologized for his conduct), the First Amendment strongly protects his questioners' right to ask questions of a public official in a public place; the fact that they appeared to have a conservative agenda behind their query (they wanted to know if Ethridge supported the "Obama agenda") only means that they were engaged in the kind of political speech that the amendment was designed to safeguard.

One would think that it would go without saying that politicians physically attacking amateur journalists is a bad thing–regardless of the politician's party or the journalists' politics. But to judge by the discussion by readers at Talking Points Memo (6/14/10), there's a substantial contingent that agrees with this comment:

I don't think the man should even apologize for what he did. He was being willfully harrassed by political dirty tricksters plain and simple. Apologizing only plays into their hands. If he had really gone after them and kicked their asses like they deserved it wouldn't even bother me. After a certain point, harrassment and dirty tricks masquerading as "journalism" or "documentary" fimmaking is completely illegtimate. I have no sympathy at all for the jerks who harassed this guy and have no problem with his reaction to them because of who and what they are.

There are politicians in every party who are averse to critical questions, and some of them take physical action against those who ask them, as evidenced by video (pointed out by digby) of citizen journalist Mike Stark being attacked by Sen. John Cornyn (R.-Texas) and a staffer for Sen. George Allen (R.-Va.). It seems like something progressives should be against, regardless of who's doing the attacking.

UPDATE: Mike Stark makes several interesting points in the blog post he links to below in the comment thread, but I was particularly struck by his closing remarks:

One last point on the Etheridge video. Compare it to the Cornyn video. Any difference is superficial, at best. The Etheridge video has been seen far and wide; Politico did an entire story on it and it was splayed across our TV sets all day yesterday. The Cornyn video was mentioned in passing in a Politico story about an entirely different subject (the Republican objection to being asked questions about the Franken Amendment), but was otherwise not seen anywhere except DailyKos and starkReports (the two places I posted it). If you doubt the existence of a Republican noise-machine, let this be a lesson.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.