Americans turn against reporters as rage against the media surges

By David Bauder  /  AP, NEW YORK

Fri, Nov 02, 2018 - Page 9

The hostility she has felt from the public recently was not necessarily the last straw in TV news photographer Lori Bentley-Law’s decision to quit the business after 24 years, but it was one of them.

Bentley-Law’s recent blog post explaining why she was leaving Los Angeles’ KNBC-TV hit home for many colleagues. While US President Donald Trump’s attacks on the media are usually centered on national outlets like CNN and the New York Times, the attitudes unleashed have filtered down to journalists on the street covering news in local communities.

When a president describes the media as enemies of the people, “attitudes shift and the field crews get the brunt of the abuse,” she wrote. “And it’s not just from one side. We get it all the way around, pretty much on a daily basis.”

The US Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) is spreading safety and self-defense tips to reporters, most notably advising limits on the use of one-person news crews.

The RTDNA has begun compiling anti-press incidents, like last week, when an intruder was shot after kicking down glass doors at Fox Broadcasting Co’s local station in Washington.

The National Press Photographers Association is also developing workshops to spread safety advice to its members.

“The environment has changed,” said Chris Post, a photographer for WFMZ-TV in Allentown, Pennsylvania. “I’ve witnessed the transition.”

CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta last week made news by saying that Trump’s attacks on the media “have got to stop” because he feared someone would get hurt.

He has been the target of chants and epithets when covering Trump rallies, including one where a man looked at him and made a motion like he was slitting a throat. Since then, three suspicious packages have been addressed to separate CNN offices.

While the examples of Acosta and others who follow Trump are most visible, there are countless other, more private examples that happen across the country — like when Post arrived to cover an immigration rally and a man in a car asked him where he was going.

Told it was a pro-immigration rally, the man became agitated and stepped on his accelerator, stopping just short of hitting Post and giving him a self-satisfied look, Post recalled.

“I’m 6-foot-5 [1.96m], 300 pounds [136kg],” he said. “I’ve had somebody try to grab my camera. When it gets to that point, where does it stop? It’s a tough time to be a journalist.”

Caitlin Penna, a freelance photographer from Durham, North Carolina, said she constantly has her guard up on assignments. Even her conservative family is suspicious of her.

“I’m pretty sure my grandmother thinks I’m this far-left liberal because of the things I cover,” she said.

One night, she was unwinding at a local bar and struck up a conversation with a man nearby. When she discussed what she did, the man said, “you report fake news” and walked away.

Bentley-Law was startled when the essay on leaving her job got 11,000 hits in three days. She usually counts readers to her personal blog in the dozens. Her intention was to tell friends and colleagues why she was leaving, and instead was flooded with texts and e-mails from frustrated journalists across the country.

“I suppose my experience isn’t unique and certainly resonated,” Bentley-Law, who declined to be interviewed, said via e-mail.

On her blog, she wrote: “I don’t want to be immersed in sadness every day. I don’t ever want a cute little girl in pigtails to look up at me and say: ‘We hate you.’ I don’t want to hear ‘fake news’ shouted at me anymore, or to be flipped off while driving my news van.”

She said that some of the incidents she wrote about — the hateful little girl and the man who stuck his bare butt out the window and defecated — predate Trump. There are other factors that contributed to her desire to leave, including shoulder woes from carrying heavy equipment for many years, and a constant diet of murders and other depressing story assignments.

However, the current environment is definitely part of it. People who drive vans emblazoned with a TV station’s call letters are obvious targets.

One recent day, Bentley-Law wrote that a person in a Mercedes prevented her van from getting off a highway until several exits beyond her destination.

Video journalist Joshua Replogle of The Associated Press was filming flooding from Hurricane Florence in North Carolina’s Bladen County when a nearby man knocked over his camera and began punching him in the face.

His friends muttered: “Fake news.”

So far no charges have been filed, Replogle said.

So far this year, the RTDNA’s “press freedom tracker” counts 39 incidents of journalists being attacked in the US, including the June 28 shooting at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, where five people were killed.

In less lethal examples, a man purposely crashed a pickup truck into the side of a Dallas TV station, a Miami reporter and a photographer were physically attacked while doing a live shot and a North Carolina crew had its power cable cut while covering a demonstration.

Last year, the first time a count was kept, there were 48 such cases.

While one-person crews have become more popular for television stations looking to cut costs, the RTDNA recommends that their use be curtailed in certain times and places, association executive director Dan Shelley said.

However, despite Bentley-Law’s experience, colleagues are finding that more people want to get into journalism, he said.