The Toll and Rewards of Conflict Journalism
April 29, 2011
Amy Alexander is the author of the forthcoming book Uncovering Race: A Black Journalist's Story of Reporting and Reinvention. The 2008 Alfred Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute, she has been a staff writer at the San Francisco Examiner, Fresno Bee, and Miami Herald, and has been a contributing writer at the Nation, Boston Globe, and Washington Post. She was media columnist at Africana (later, AOL's BlackVoices) and has written for the Village Voice, Chicago Tribune, Black Issues Book Review, MSNBC.com, Salon, and The Root, among other publications. Alexander has also been a regular commentator on National Public Radio and was associate producer of NPR's Tell Me More, with Michel Martin. She is co-author, with Alvin F. Pouissant, of Lay My Burden Down: Suicide and the Mental Health Crisis Among African-Americans.
Earlier this week, on April 25, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported that 80 attacks had been made on members of the press in Libya since political unrest began there during March. The attacks that led to the deaths of photojournalists Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington were among that figure. News of the two photojournalists’ deaths rocked the media industry, spurring coverage that was more somber than anything in recent memory, including reports of the attacks on high-profile cable network news personalities that took place earlier in the spring in Egypt.
The deaths of Hondros, a veteran photojournalist for an international news agency, and Hetherington, a photojournalist and filmmaker, also brought to me memories of domestic unrest that I covered nineteen years ago. At that time – Los Angeles, April 29, 1992 – no journalists were killed in the line of duty. But there were many close calls. In hindsight, I now see clearly a through-line from that two decade-old conflagration that runs directly to our contemporary political reality. And it highlights the inherent tension that exists in the concept of democracy.
American journalists have long been the shock troops in the centuries-old battle between democracy and monarchy. But how to square the contextual realities of 18th Century America, when our democracy was first forged, with the realities of today? Can American journalists still expect that their role as Watchdogs of Democracy is secure? What happens when citizens no longer need journalistic shock troops to capture, project and validate citizens’ struggle for democracy? Apart from any early ideological reluctance that sometimes led political or corporate leaders to try to stop journalists from recording civil unrest – see the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, 1968 – what happens to journalism’s role as the watchdogs of democracy when citizens stop trusting the Fourth Estate? And what will conflict journalism look like now that citizens have acquired the tools to record their own stories of protest against affronts to democracy?
The core definition of democracy, as Aristotle saw it, is this: "In a democracy the poor will have more power than the rich, because there are more of them, and the will of the majority is supreme."
In Los Angeles, on April 29, 1992, “poor people” took to the streets to protest what they viewed as the unfair acquittal of four white police officers who had been captured on videotape beating a black male motorist a year earlier. So it was that on April 29, 1992, I was dispatched by the Fresno Bee to the streets of LA within hours after the four white LA city police officers were acquitted.
Call it a riot, an uprising or civil unrest. What I experienced over the next four days was chaotic, frightening-- but also exhilarating, at least for someone who takes seriously the role of recording the various manifestations of democracy in action. Messy, loud, and dangerous though they sometimes may be, the efforts of “poor people” to defend and preserve their role in a democratic society have to be recorded. But, as we saw from the tragic deaths of Hondros and Hetherington in Libya recently, recording those efforts in their most volatile expression can exact a major toll on those who undertake the task.
In LA of 1992, for example, I personally saw journalists harassed and beaten by protestors. On the first night of the upheaval, at a corner not far from Florence and Normandie avenues in the South Central district of LA, I watched hundreds of residents (Latino, African-American, white and other ethnicities) take to the streets breaking windows at corner markets, furniture stores, eateries and other businesses.
As I lived it, the members of the press who came up for direct confrontation were broadcast journalists. I wrote about one such incident that I witnessed in an online journal of African American news and opinion, Africana.com. (Read Amy Alexander's posts from Africana.com (pdfs): Part 1| Part 2 | Part 3) I began by describing how I and two other journalists-- a photographer, Russell Yip, and a senior reporter, Marji Lambert-- had jumped into a company car within an hour of the verdict and raced three hours south of the San Joaquin Valley into South Central Los Angeles. After we arrived at a section of South Central that was already ablaze, we parked, and walked into the neighborhood not far from Florence and Normandie avenues; along a commercial strip, thousands of residents gathered, chanting, yelling, smashing windows and taunting police officers who stood near their cruisers along the side-streets:
As I took in the scene, a white television cameraman came lurching up the street. Looking over his shoulder, he moved quickly, a heavy video camera swinging from his hand at his side rather than from atop his shoulder as it should have been. Two young black men followed closely behind him, yelling as they closed in. One reached out and pushed the cameraman.
The cameraman stumbled, his face red and stunned. He kept walking, though, and the tense procession moved down the block, out of sight. I met the eyes of the Fresno Bee photographer. We exchanged an "oh, s—t” look and kept silent.
Uniformed police officers, their black and white cruisers idling nearby, stood at the end of the block. I veered over to speak with them, walking deliberately near the engines in the street. I stopped to speak with a white officer (I didn't see any black cops). I wanted to know the police department's direction – would they arrest looters or fire starters? How many arrests had they made thus far? Did he know of any officer-involved shootings? Leaning against the grill of his car, the officer smiled at my questions. He couldn't comment, he said, because he wasn't a department spokesman.
I looked over his dark blue uniform, its steel handcuffs, gun and wood baton clanking slightly when he adjusted his weight. A white helmet obscured all but a crescent of his face, and his eyes were light. He seemed interested in the activity, but was firmly planted well away from it. The radio at his waist began squawking. Turning his back to me, he reached for the handset that dangled from a cord strung over his shoulder. I walked away.
The lack of interaction between law enforcement officials and the protestors during the earliest hours of the Los Angeles riots in 1992 was evident – and quite unsettling. Ironic, to say the least. The actions of police officers who had beaten the black male motorist, Rodney King, had lit the match that ultimately led to the rioting; the cops were the focus of the anger that residents now poured onto the streets of LA. I understood that anger, yet I also knew that the protesting could spiral out of control if the officers on scene did not step in, during that first night. But they did not: somewhere along their chain of command, a decision had been made that the officers would not engage in battle with the “protestors.” And as the night wore on, and protesting steadily morphed into flat-out looting and destruction of private property throughout downtown LA and surrounding neighborhoods, we journalists worried about our own safety as we reported amidst the fracas.
Ultimately, we three Bee journalists spent a week in Los Angeles, delivering as many as four stories daily to McClatchy Newspapers and to subscribers of the McClatchy News Service. The Associated Press gave us and other out of town teams work space at its offices at Second Street and Figueroa Boulevard in downtown LA. And because we had arrived so soon after the riots began, we had secured hotel rooms not far out of the city, at the northern edge of Hollywood, for ourselves and for other McClatchy reporters and photographers who eventually joined us.
These conditions were far from the combat-like experiences that Chris Hondros, Tim Hetherington and other journalists experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and other “hotspots” in 2011.
Here is another important distinction between the challenges contemporary journalists covering conflicts now face, and what I experienced in LA twenty years ago: I also felt, acutely, that as a black woman, I enjoyed an advantage over many of my reporter colleagues in Los Angeles during the unrest.
More than once, I was approached by black or Latino residents who were on the streets, and asked which news organization I worked for. I managed to talk these residents down but I felt instinctively that they might had reacted differently were I white. When I watched the March 2011 footage of CNN anchor Anderson Cooper being jostled and knocked around as he tried to report on the unrest that took place in Cairo, Egypt, I couldn’t help but wonder if his pale skin and white/gray hair was somehow impeding his ability to gather news under those circumstances.
Yet while two decades and many thousands of miles separate my experiences covering the LA riots from the current events in North Africa and the Mid-East, the mechanics of news-gathering in such conditions, and the goal of those who enter such circumstances willingly, remain the same: Tell the story of what is happening on the ground. Avoid judging those who seek to guard or exercise democracy with action that you may find frightening or, yes, dangerous. I cannot answer the question of whether engaging in this work is “worth dying for,” I only know that in 1992, I felt utterly compelled to be in Los Angeles, recording the events of that week.
Read Amy Alexander's posts from Africana.com (pdfs):
Part 1| Part 2 | Part 3