Waltner: Democracy demands journalists be allowed to do their job

Retired Freeman Courier publisher and editor Timothy L. Waltner is chair of the South Dakota Newspaper Association First Amendment Committee.

Our nation is hurting in the wake of the May 25 death of George Floyd, an African-American man who died after a Minneapolis police officer restrained him by placing his knee on the back of his neck; three other police officers were involved.

It’s not surprising that protests quickly emerged, not only in the Twin Cities but in cities large and small from coast to coast, including South Dakota. Stories and images of these protests have emerged. They include the rioting, looting and violence as extremists hijacked the peaceful protests causing major disruption, violence and horrific damage to property.

We know this because journalists have been telling this unfolding story as residents in scores of communities continue to react to Floyd’s death.

Sadly, some journalists themselves have become victims of violence and unjustified police harassment and detention.

  • A CNN crew was arrested in the Twin Cities while giving a live television report Friday morning.

  • In Louisville, Kentucky, a crowd swarmed a television photographer and knocked him to the ground, laughing and taking pictures of him.

  • In that same city, a police officer fired more than a half-dozen non-lethal PepperBall rounds that hit a television reporter and photojournalist.

  • A television photographer in Minneapolis was taken into custody by the Minnesota State Patrol Saturday night.

  • On Sunday, police arrested a Des Moines Register reporter while she was covering a demonstration that turned violent.

Time and again, journalists identified themselves to law enforcement as “press” and flashed their news media credential badges, but to no avail.
Last weekend, Bruce D. Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, made the following statement:


“The numerous, targeted attacks that journalists reporting on protests across the country have faced from law enforcement over the last two nights are both reprehensible and clear violations of the First Amendment. These attacks not only endanger our free press, but also threaten our democracy and the essential role that journalists play in safeguarding constitutional rights.

“Many of these attacks were captured on live broadcasts. The video evidence showing journalists under police assault simply for doing their jobs is harrowing. We strongly condemn these actions and will be contacting law enforcement in each jurisdiction to demand a full explanation and accountability for officers who knowingly targeted journalists.

“We also condemn all attacks on reporters by protesters. Media coverage of the demonstrations is indispensable to helping our nation bear witness. Assaults on journalists from protesters are unlawful and make it harder for reporters to keep the country informed during this period of civil unrest.”

It’s a shame we need a statement like this.

Sadly, this does not come as a surprise.

President Donald Trump has used Twitter to seed mistrust of journalists. Not only has he called legitimate, credible news organizations “fake news” and the “lamestream media,” he also personally insults and demeans reporters to their faces. Attacking the press has become a key element in his political playbook.

You can’t directly link the president’s verbal attacks on the press with the physical attacks we’ve seen in recent days; he did not tell people to do that.

But the words President Trump uses and the attitude he promotes have impact. Those sentiments and the constant barrage of those verbal attacks encourage, empower and enable the mistrust of journalists.


Journalists have thick skin and will continue to do their jobs.

But I fear for our culture, our social fabric and our democracy.

At its essence the work of journalism is to gather information and inform the public. That means sharing objective, truthful facts and information; not spin, not political rhetoric, not prepackaged sound-bites; the truth.

That’s why America’s founders enshrined a free press in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution as part of the Bill of Rights. It is the essential difference between a democracy and a dictatorship.

Journalism is not perfect. Journalists are not perfect.

But the ideals we promote – truth and accountability – are essential.

Journalism has never been more important than at this moment. We need to protect it from those who, by word and deed, seek to diminish or destroy it.

So where do we go from here? Dialogue – earnest conversation among journalists, elected and law enforcement officials – is a logical first step. We need conversation and training at every level – local, state and national. It’s important that government and law enforcement officials better understand the roles and responsibilities of journalists under the First Amendment. It’s also important that journalists better understand the work and responsibilities of elected and law enforcement officials.


We all need to understand what’s at stake and why a fair, free press doing its job unfettered is so important today in America.

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