Why America needs the Journalist Protection Act

Greg Nash

Local reporters and photojournalists are tough. They have to be. They are, after all, wearing out shoe leather 24/7 to report the news.

Once in a while, though, a local journalist encounters someone who is annoyed when approached by a reporter and photojournalist. Violently annoyed.

That’s what happened on Feb. 6, when WPIX-TV reporter Howard Thompson and photographer John Frasse went to an auto repair shop in the Bronx to confront the owner on behalf of a customer whom the owner owed $2,000.

{mosads}You might call Thompson a consumer advocate reporter. To say his “intervention” at the auto repair shop was unwelcomed would be an understatement. As Thompson opened the door under a sign reading “we’re open,” with Frasse in tow, the owner charged toward them, swinging a baseball bat.

Thankfully, Thompson and Frasse were only slightly injured. The owner was promptly arrested and charged with assault.

While this attack happened on what some inaccurately consider the mean streets of the Bronx (this isn’t the 1970s), it could have happened anywhere in America. And it could have been much more serious.

According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, of which the Radio Television Digital News Assocaition is a founding partner, there were 44 physical attacks on journalists throughout the United States in 2017. Thirty journalists were attacked while covering civil unrest — in Charlottesville, St. Louis, Berkeley, at Standing Rock, on Inauguration Day in Washington, D.C. and in other cities. Two were attacked by politicians — in Montana and Alaska.

On Feb. 5, the day before WPIX’s crew was attacked by a baseball bat-wielding shop owner in the Bronx, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) introduced the Journalist Protection Act, which would make it a federal crime to assault journalists. Specifically, the bill would amend Title 18, Part I, Chapter 7 of the U.S. Code, which also makes it a crime to attack members of Congress, government officials and judges, among others.

In his news release announcing the bill, Swalwell said the power of the entire federal government was needed to protect journalists because of the statements and actions of the president of the United States.

“President Donald Trump’s campaign and administration have created a toxic atmosphere. It’s not just about labeling reports of his constant falsehoods as #FakeNews — it’s his casting of media personalities and outlets as anti-American targets, and encouraging people to engage in violence,” he said.

While the president most certainly has empowered those who don’t like, or don’t understand the role of the news media to act out, too often in unnecessarily harsh ways, attacks on journalists come from people whose ideological beliefs fall all along the political spectrum. Many of the 30 journalists attacked while covering protests last year were assaulted by self-identifying anarchists or others labeling themselves with names associated with the far left.

The evidence is clear. America needs the Journalist Protection Act. Not because journalists deserve “special treatment.” In fact, RTDNA abhors violence against anyone. Rather, we need the Journalist Protection Act because the sad fact is that journalists across the United States today have targets on their backs.

And some journalism loathers proudly wear slogans on their backs openly advocating violence against members of the Fourth Estate. Even though RTDNA recently compelled Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, to stop selling t-shirts that read “Rope. Tree. Journalist. SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED.,” a quick search of Google Shopping shows that the shirts are still available for purchase on a handful of other e-commerce websites.

Replace “Journalist” on the t-shirt with another profession: teacher doctor, minister, police officer.

Can you imagine the universal outrage? Why, then, is it acceptable — even in quarters where there has been a nearly complete erosion of civil discourse — for some to wear t-shirts calling for the lynching of journalists?

If you have any doubt about the need for a federal law protecting journalists, just ask any of those who were attacked this year.

Dan Shelley is the executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA).

Tags assault. Dan Shelley Donald Trump Eric Swalwell Fourth Estate Journalism journalist media press Press freedom Protests

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