Why We Were There

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It’s like this:

If University of Missouri biologists cured cancer, you — you, reading this — would want to know how they did it.

You’d want a picture of the pill that would save the lives of millions. You’d want to know what it looked like. How many times a day do you take the pill that cures cancer? Do you have to consume it with food?

You’d want to know how Mizzou paid for it, because you’d want to send the funder a thank you note. Maybe the government funded it, so you’d want to write your state rep and tell them which program’s funding to double.

You’d want to hear the emotion in the lead MU researcher’s voice as she told you that she worked 20-hour days and worked through years of failed trials because her dad died of cancer when she was 7. Left fatherless, she devoted her life to a goal that everyone told her was impossible to attain.

You’d also want to know if they were kidding. You’d want to know how many Nobel laureates reviewed their data. You’d want to know how solid were their experimental controls. You’d want to know whether the pill has side effects. You’d want to know whether the biologist was simply toying with our emotions in a gambit to double their program’s funding, win sympathy for herself or paper over the fact that the cure wasn’t scientifically proven to work at all.

In other words, you’d want to know all the things they didn’t put in the varnished press release.

But if anything, you’d want someone there who’s good with a camera so the picture of you looks good in the history books.

You want us there so you can always remember exactly how it was that day we all gathered on Carnahan Quad to celebrate — of all things — the end of a pestilence; that we partied like Mizzou Football was No. 1 again; that we danced for joy that cancer would soon claim its last life.

Who does this job? Journalists. On their good days. On our good days. We do this job. We live to cover that cancer cure, that World Series win, that school defying the odds, that time the little guy — once, just once — stuck it to the man.

On our bad days, we ask the Klan what the fuck they’re doing in our town. We ask the displaced disaster victim what they need right now — water? food? shelter? blankets? How can the watching world help you at this very moment? We ask the politician why he squandered our money — and we feel like an ass doing it because we ambush him and stick the mic in his face. But this elected douchebag has been dodging the voicemails and emails and knocks on his door that all of you — that’s you, again; all of you reading this — absolutely did not have the time, wherewithal, gumption or resources to carry out.

We do all of that, too. And when we mess up, we’re transparent about it. Few professions are quite as open about their faults as we are. We correct stories. We put liars out to pasture. It’s messy business, and we’re not perfect. There are bad apples among us.

But the point here is that there are plenty of Fortune 500’s that make bad calls, too, but when they make bad calls, they can simply lay off 2,200 employees and call it capitalism. When we make bad calls, you threaten us.

And even when we make good calls, when we’re there for the right reasons, when we act within every boundary of our profession’s ethics and our society’s laws, sometimes you threaten us for that, too.

You threaten us with “muscle.” You block our cameras.

We’re “the media,” you spit at us with derision. You wave our sins — the dirty laundry we often air ourselves — in our faces. You coveted our presence when few of us are there, yet you deny the value of our presence when many of us arrive.

We know that it’s a sensitive request to ask students of color to share their stories of pain and victimization. We know not everyone is willing to share these stories.

But so many of you gathered in hopes of spreading awareness that students are in pain and are being victimized. We imagine your critiques of “the media” would be far harsher if journalists didn’t attempt to ask you about it at all — or if “the media” ignored your protest entirely.

Honestly, we saw you gathered in a public place. Although people typically do want to speak to the media when they’re gathered in this way, we know you are under no obligation to do so. But in a public place, journalists are going to do what they are paid to do: ask the question and take the picture. And we cannot ever apologize for that.

We don’t think you — yes, you again… you still there? — would want us to. Some police officers disregard the laws about cameras in public when it’s convenient. Some government agencies would rather have embarrassing or controversial public business conducted in secret. Journalists have to know what American citizens can and cannot do while they’re in a public space, meeting or right-of-way — and we’re sensitive about this because it’s so fundamental not only to our jobs, but to our society’s belief in the free exchange of ideas.

Journalists don’t suspect #ConcernedStudent1950 is trying to maintain opacity because they have something embarrassing to hide. We have no right to expect protesters to comment for our stories. And we also can understand that many simply don’t know about laws governing our rights in public spaces and right-of-ways. (The only laypeople I have encountered who get it are truly abortion clinic protesters who take meticulous care to stay on public sidewalks.)

But why was “muscle” necessary to remove journalists, and not Brother Jed? As in, the homophobic, hate-spewing preacher who for years occupied Speakers’ Circle — the campus’ famed venue for anyone who wants to protest publicly without a permit just yards from where #ConcernedStudent1950 camped?

I want to be clear: #ConcernedStudent1950’s victory today is not the cure for the cancer of racism. I have no illusions of that. That’s not the analogy I’m trying to make. And on this point, too, I’ll be clear: Tim Wolfe and Bowin Loftin aren’t cancer or the Klan or a natural disaster. That’s not the analogy I’m trying to make, either.

The analogy I’m making is that #ConcernedStudent1950 won a victory that will be remembered at the University of Missouri for ages to come. As a proud alum, I’ve learned something from them. I hope they start a conversation that will not cease until their are no more slurs, cotton balls, swastikas, or any other manifestation of racism, overt or not.

When University of Missouri students deal a great blow to racism, you — you, reading this right now — want to know how they did it.

And that’s not only why journalists are there. That’s why you want us there.

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24 thoughts on “Why We Were There

  1. Abbie Brown says:

    I was there and I appear in the videos as part of the chain. I want to point out that the students had given the media a lot of footage (speeches, marching, emotional reactions, chanting, singing We Shall Overcome, the whole bit) by the time they retreated to their tent camp and requested privacy. Supporters formed the human chain.
    The photographer approached the chain where I was, and pushed me and the woman next to me. We are both old & sturdy so we did not budge. He then moved down the line and picked smaller, younger women to push instead. He started that altercation, and the protesters came out to defend against him. He was being totally inappropriate. For him to then claim that he was being pushed was pretty rich- he started it all by pushing. The students had given plenty of footage by that time; the request for privacy was not unreasonable. They have nothing to gain personally and everything to lose from exploitation by the media.

    • Kyle Stokes says:

      To be clear, Abbie, are you talking about the student in the widely-circulated video? Or another photographer?

    • Matthew says:

      I saw the video and I saw you and all the other protestors and in my opinion not only did you violate the photographer first amendment rights…but you were just plain rude and mean to Tim, who I thought showed great respect to you and demonstrated great restraint in doing his paid job of reporting on the events. In the end you did more damage to your cause than helping spread the word about your cause. I have gone from a protest supporter to one of indifference. You say that you gave the media all the marches, chanting, interviews earlier. Well, let me educate you about the media. It’s not one person…it thousands. And media outlets compete against each other so they do not share their video with others. As with the case with media outlets, they are often dispatched to scenes late. Tim may have gotten there because his boss sent him late…did not have a car available…or was on another assignment as reporters often cover multiple stories through the region in one day. So you decide to take your anger out on Tim by denying him what you gave to other media outlets…because he did not get their on time. I just hope you know…. There is no protest unless the media shows it to all of America and no change can happen unless the media is there to show that to millions of Americans who will then create that change.

      • Amy says:

        Here’s one of the things we can talk about. The idea you state here: “There is no protest unless the media shows it to all of America and no change can happen unless the media is there to show that to millions of Americans who will then create that change.” — maybe not anymore.
        This is a role that Media used to serve, and the Pony Express used to be the way we sent messages to people across the continent.
        I believe that the press is just as important and needed as ever but it’s not for the reason that you state and maybe it’s not in the best interest of “The Media” to think this way.
        Perhaps what sets the professional journalist apart is the set of Ethical Principles journalists uphold. There is fact-checking and concern for bias. There is interest in being thorough rather than driven by a certain agenda.
        Is it possible that as the media you are not just competing with other media outlets but that you’re competing with the do-it-yourselfer who do it for free. What sets you apart?

    • James says:

      “The students had given plenty of footage by that time; the request for privacy was not unreasonable.”

      It is when you’re in a heavily traveled public space. To expect privacy in a public space like that is foolish and ignorant.

    • Joe E says:

      The students and protesters had no right to form a chain to keep others from entering. The area belongs to everyone and not just one small group who are trying to control it. If they wanted to be left alone, they should have left the area, not try to oppress those who want to enter it. Your excuse is just that, and excuse, not a reason to try to justify the wrong that was done. Particularly ironic was that this is a school of journalism. I hope none of this bunch involved in trying to suppress this cameraman and journalist don’t themselves ever become journalist.

    • Joe E says:

      If you wanted to retreat to privacy, you should have left the public area and retreated to private property where public access isn’t permitted. There is no expectation of privacy in an open public area. That’s why an area is called public, rather than private. To try to restrict another persons access to a public area is no ones right unless you are a public safety officer. And I’m assuming you weren’t operating in that capacity, but instead just using your numbers to intimidate individuals who were not part of your group.

  2. Kyle Yehle says:

    It still doesn’t matter. If you request to stay on public property to protest, THERE IS NOTHING you can do to inhibit a journalist from having the freedom of being on public property too. The journalist might have been inappropriate for all we know, but that is not what is on video. You are taking away the freedoms of another citizen. You don’t have to interview with the journalist, but he has every right to take pictures. Get off public property if you have a problem with it.

    • Amy says:

      Just to tease this out a bit…are you suggesting that if I’m standing on public property and don’t want to be filmed I can’t turn my back on you or lock arms with the people around me? Would either of these be inhibiting your freedom? Can I ask my friends to encircle me? If I turn my back…does the freedom of the press give you the right to physically turn me around? Does the freedom of the press give every journalist the right to break through a human wall like a game of red rover? And in a somewhat related matter…are each of us with an iPhone the press now?

      • Kyle Stokes says:

        As a matter of rights, you have the right to be there and to protest — and you have the right not to talk to us — but you do not have the right to restrict our access to the quad itself.

        Students are one thing, but as a legal matter, a university employee who physically obstructs or restricts a journalist does possibly expose MU to a lawsuit on the grounds they “tried to regulate First Amendment activity in a public forum,” according to First Amendment lawyer Jonathan Peters: http://www.cjr.org/united_states_project/university_of_missouri_protests_first_amendment.php

        But all in all, the argument seems a little back-door and disingenuous. What if the Board of Curators got a bunch of their friends to make a human chain to the door to their meeting room? “I’m not infringing on your rights, I’m just choosing to stand — as one can in a free country — in your way so you cannot see or hear a public meeting.” I cannot imagine that would sit just as well with the protesters.

  3. Abbie Brown says:

    I have the same right to exercise the same freedoms, and in this case I was exercising that freedom by standing arm in arm, toe to toe with my fellow supporters in order to create a human chain. It so happened that the journalist was outside this chain. He did not have the right to push me or others, instigating that conflict that appears on the video. I don’t agree with everything said or done in that video, but he had been aggressive towards supporters and emotions were already high. His aggression is conveniently left out of that footage.

    • Kyle Stokes says:

      Oh, I didn’t read this comment before posting the above. You are referring to Tim Tai.

    • Kyle Yehle says:

      Creating a human chain to keep the journalist out is still inhibiting his right to take photos. You can’t just create a human chain and somehow magically still be exercising your freedom to that property. It’s not your property. You are not letting him also have freedom of that property. You create all the human chains you want, but he has as much right as you to be inside the chain. You obviously don’t understand the laws around this.

    • Kyle Yehle says:

      Just saw JMB’s post a little lower. That sums it up very well.

    • Matthew says:

      Like I said I saw the video and the student protestors were the one being disrespectful and abusive. If you thrust yourselves into a national debate and take the spotlight you have given up your right to privacy as long as you are on public property. If you are on public property you have relinquished your right to privacy..in public your right to privacy ends at your clothing. You really should enroll in media law since you are a student at on of the most prolific journalism schools in the nation and I suggest you talk with the journalism professor about the rights of protestors and those of the media. In public YOU give up almost all rights to privacy and the protestors in this since had no rights to privacy as they have thrust themselves on to the national spotlight. If you want privacy…go home because that is where you right to privacy is 100%…not in public…go ask the journalism professor

    • MmarieR says:

      Yes, you absolutely have the right to stand toe to toe with photographers and create a human chain with other protesters. Those are your First Amendment Rights as protesters. You absolutely do NOT have the right to harass, assault (yes, it was legal assault) and threaten journalists. It is their First Amendment Right to be there, just like yours. It is a public event, in a public space, at a public University, and therefore the freedom of the press applies. The First Amendment is not applied selectively, and it doesn’t only apply when it’s convenient. That’s not how civil and constitutional rights work, as someone fighting for civil rights that is something you should keep in mind. While fighting the battle, don’t cost yourselves the war.

    • Joe E says:

      You had the right to stand, arm in arm. But you also had the obligation to move out of the way if someone else was exercising their right to enter. You have no right to restrict the freedoms of someone else. Your thinking is flawed.

  4. Reblogged this on TVNewsProdFall2014 and commented:
    Read this.

  5. NEC says:

    So, they want to ban media (Freedom of the Press) so they can comfortably express their opinions (Freedom of Speech). Nice bit of cognitive dissonance there. Should really be helpful for them in the workforce.

  6. JMB says:

    A much-needed and articulate explanation of what we journalists do and why. I recommend reading http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/11/how-campus-activists-are-weaponizing-the-safe-space/415080/ for, among other things, the bullet-point commentary on the video.

  7. […] Update 2:53 p.m. – Klyle Stokes, a journalist and Minnesota native who writes about public journalism, writes about why reporters cover events such as this. […]

  8. […] Stokes, a public radio reporter in Seattle who went to Mizzou, wrote a blog post headlined Why We Were There that laid out the media argument—that the media is tasked with being on site to get the true […]

  9. imo for pc says:

    Can I just say what a comfort to discover an individual who truly understands what they’re discussing on the internet.

    You certainly realize how to bring an issue to light and make it important.
    A lot more people should look at this and understand this side of your story.
    I was surprised you aren’t more popular because you certainly have
    the gift.

  10. […] Stokes, a public radio reporter in Seattle who went to Mizzou, wrote a blog post headlined Why We Were There that laid out the media argument—that the media is tasked with being on site to get the true […]

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