Distrust of media doesn't give government permission to harass journalists

Distrust of media doesn't give government permission to harass journalists
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In an unsettling, patently ridiculous exchange at Dulles International Airport Thursday, a news editor was held by a passport screening official and repeatedly questioned if he wrote "propaganda" before finally being released.

The unwarranted ambush has rightly prompted a formal complaint to be lodged by the journalist, Ben Watson of the national security news publication Defense One, with the Department of Homeland Security.

According to Watson, the unnamed U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer held his passport in what appeared to be a routine check that, one we're all accustomed to going through in the post-9/11 era, before it took a bizarre turn. 

Here's how things went down, per Watson's account in a Defense One story.

CBP officer, holding Watson’s passport: “What do you do?”

Watson: “Journalism.”

CBP officer: “So you write propaganda, right?”

Watson: “No.”

CBP officer: “You’re a journalist?”

Watson: “Yes.”

CBP officer: “You write propaganda, right?”

Watson: “No. I am in journalism. Covering national security. And homeland security. And with many of the same skills I used in the U.S. Army as a public affairs officer. Some would argue that’s propaganda.”

CBP officer: “You’re a journalist?”

Watson: “Yes.”

CBP officer: “You write propaganda, right?”

Watson waited five seconds. Then: “For the purposes of expediting this conversation, yes.”

CBP officer, a fourth time: “You write propaganda, right?”

Watson, again: “For the purposes of expediting this conversation, yes.”

CBP officer: “Here you go.”

Watson finally was given his passport after wisely “expediting this conversation.” 

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In a statement provided to The Hill, the award-winning journalist, whose work has included reporting from the front lines in Afghanistan, says he's received "overwhelming private support" for reporting on the exchange.

"What happened was not normal, irrelevant to the matter of re-entry into the U.S., and seemingly part of a pattern of hectoring journalists in America at the border," Watson says in an email. "Looking back, I'm enormously encouraged by the overwhelming private support I've received for speaking out and for doing what we felt was the right thing in these circumstances."

The Hill has reached out to CBP for comment.

Defense One noted that CBP “is aware of and is investigating the ‘allegation about an officer’s alleged inappropriate conduct at Washington Dulles International airport,’ adding that the agency holds its employees accountable and does not tolerate inappropriate comments or behavior.”

Watson's decision to speak up on the matter appears to have gone up the food chain and onto the radar of acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan, who is a no-nonsense guy, if his recent interviews on border security and immigration are any indication. 

At a White House press conference, Morgan was asked about harassment of some U.S. journalists at border-control points, including Seth Harp of The Intercept, who was held for several hours without apparent cause by CBP in May at an airport in Austin, Texas. 

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“Let me say that any journalist — right? — that is stopped and harassed and treated improperly because they’re a journalist is absolutely unacceptable, unequivocally,” Morgan said on Tuesday. “We, proactively, if we see something in an article, even if it hasn’t been reported, we’re going to report it to our Office of Professional Responsibility.” 

“There’s a little thing in the country called freedom of speech. So, anything that we do that would impede that, we are going to hold people accountable as unacceptable, 100 percent," he added. 

Every journalist who experiences this kind of treatment should show the moxie reporters that Watson and Harp did in letting the public know specifically what happened. 

The media is as unpopular as ever right now: A Gallup poll on media in 1976 showed that 72 percent of the country trusted the institution. By 2018, an Axios/Survey Monkey poll showed 72 percent now “think news sources report news they know to be fake, false or purposely misleading.” That included 92 percent of Republicans, 79 percent of independents and a majority of Democrats (53 percent).

That doesn't give anyone permission, particularly government workers in agencies like CBP, to use a broad brush and harass those just doing their jobs. 

We will follow developments in the Watson story to see what accountability, if any, is ultimately applied. 

Joe Concha is a media reporter for The Hill and co-host of "WOR Tonight with Joe Concha" weeknights on 710-WOR in New York. Follow Concha on Twitter @JoeConchaTV.