donald trump speaks to a group of reporters
(Image: ABACAPRESS.COM/Yuri Gripas)

American journalists have suddenly discovered where four years of Trump characterising the media as the enemy of the people have landed them: in the sights — often literally — of police.

The shock has rolled over the media in a breaking wave, from “surely there’s been a mistake”, to “a few rogue cops”, to the chilling realisation that, no, this is no accident.

Journalists are the enemy of the people in the eyes of the increasingly Trump-aligned US police forces.

It’s not the first time the media gaze has been shut down. But now that mobile video has made that impractical — as NSW Police discovered again in Sydney last night — scenes in the United States look much more like a deliberate strategy of violent intimidation against journalists.

It challenges the reluctance of America’s media to respond to presidential provocations. As The Washington Post editor Marty Baron said in Trump’s early days: “We’re not at war. We’re at work.”

Journalists need to question the limits of a naive both-sides-ism that continues to shape coverage in the social media age.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists reports more than 100 attacks on media in the US during the nationwide protests kicked off by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week. Foreign media — including Australians — haven’t been left out. A Seven network crew was assaulted by military police yesterday while broadcasting from Washington DC during the Sunrise program.

It’s forcing the most sensible centrist of the US press corps to go all Angela Davis, warning America: “If they come for me in the morning …”. (Although the point of the protests about police violence is that it’s already late evening in America.)

It’s not supposed to be like this.

In the both-sides world, media at protests are the impartial eyes of the world. It’s a belief that has, in response, shaped the politics of non-violent resistance. As Martin Luther King Jr said after Selma in 1965: “We are here to say to the white men that we no longer will let them use clubs on us in the dark corners. We’re going to make them do it in the glaring light of television.”

Now that mobile technology allows both protesters and police to bring streaming services, the media likes to think it offers, instead, a mediated understanding of the actions. Here the police are, like them, often just caught in the middle, between the protesters and the state.

But these attacks are forcing a deeper realisation: too many US police are active players in Trumpism, in white supremacy and in violence against African Americans.

Police unions create the problem by actively lobbying and campaigning for police powers. The National Fraternal Order of Police endorsed Donald Trump in 2016, and many city and state police unions have done so again for 2020.

Digital media are quicker to pick up what’s happening. Slate, for example, headlines its weekend report on the violent escalation with, “Police erupt in violence nationwide“. Traditional media have been slower. The New York Times fumbled the ball in print yesterday, headlining the Trump Washington circus with “As chaos spreads, Trump vows to ‘end it now’”.  (Could have been Brietbart, tweeted BuzzFeed.)

Of course, in the News Corp echo chamber there’s a different reality.

Fox News is close to all-Antifa-all-the-time.

Here in Australia it can turn up the reverb. On Sky after dark last night, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s interviewer of choice, Paul Murray, was behind the chyron “STOP THE LOOTING PANDEMIC NOW”, attacking The New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 project on the history of slavery as “self-hatred”, and calling out its lead author Nikole Hannah-Jones over a Martin Luther King quote on riots.

In real-world Australia there are lessons for all on our social and political differences from the US, including the policies and practices of Australian police (and police unions). The report in The Guardian yesterday that 432 Indigenous Australians had died in police custody since the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody — with no officers held accountable — demonstrates the urgency of applying those lessons here.

One big lesson? Even in the both-sides world, police are a powerful side. In that world they are increasingly likely to use that power against journalists.