June 12, 2024

Whole Community News

From Kalapuya lands in the Willamette watershed

City Club outlines multiple threats to journalists

10 min read
Peter Laufer asks: "What news reporters are regularly covering what were traditional beats: the city council, the mayor's office, the police, those government institutions?... Where's the coverage? Who's responsible? Why aren't we demanding more?"

City Club explores the many current threats to journalists, from actual physical threats to reputational and financial. On Oct. 27:

Joel Korin (City Club program coordinator): This program will provide new insights on the dangers to journalists, and therefore, the threats to democracy. Our speakers today include our own local favorite: Eugene Weekly‘s editor, and recently crowned Best Journalist in Eugene, Camilla Mortensen will talk about the attacks on journalists here in Eugene.

Camilla Mortensen (Eugene Weekly): …During the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, Eugene Weekly reporters were out almost every night at the protest. The city had declared a curfew after the first night of protest, which had been accompanied by some arson and some looting.

[00:00:47] The second night of protest, my then-reporter Henry Houston was downtown. The city had made clear that credentialed media could be there. Henry was in the thick of it. He was doing his job documenting the actions of protesters and police alike.

[00:00:59] The police rolled up in an armored BearCat, broadcasting that those who didn’t obey and leave were subject to arrest, chemical munitions, or impact munitions. Henry was filming the vehicle, filming what was going on, he was holding his press pass and he was shouting that he was media.

[00:01:15] From the turret of the BearCat, the police threw a tear gas canister at his chest. It bounced off him and hit the ground, throwing up sparks everywhere. They shot pepper balls at him.

[00:01:25] Not only is that something traumatic in the moment, that is something that you can hold onto for a long time after that when you have to go back out into that situation. The Register-Guard got it all on video. The city apologized, Henry sued, and the city settled

[00:01:40] Why not leave? Why put yourself in the path of angry police officers who might shoot you with tear gas or drag you away and arrest you, while erroneously saying you violently resisted?

[00:01:49] It’s our job as journalists to document and show the world what’s happening. In the aftermath, you might have the police saying one thing happened and protesters saying another thing. An informed journalist documents what’s going on and can provide context and background.

[00:02:02] But we have to be there to see what’s going on. If we’re not unsafe, and if we’re not interfering with the work of the police, there’s no reason to prevent a journalist or another citizen from observing from a public sidewalk, from a public park. And there’s every reason for us to be there.

[00:02:15] Had people not documented and observed the death of George Floyd, the press release in the Minneapolis Police saying that he died after ‘a medical incident’ would have been the public record.

[00:02:25] John Q: Camilla also commented on Eugene’s current news ecosystem.

[00:02:29] Camilla Mortensen (Eugene Weekly): You hear the phrase ‘news desert’ coming up a lot, a lot of the time these days. We’re not really a news desert in Eugene. We’ve lost a lot of news coverage, but we’re not a desert the way some of these small towns around the rest of Oregon are.

[00:02:40] And I like to think of it a lot as a news ecosystem because there are other places filling in. So KLCC fills in a lot of these breaking stories and these ongoing stories. The Register-Guard is really trying to fill in and do that boots-on-the-ground effort.

[00:02:55] And I think it’s just really important to sort of think about supporting the local media and the local journalists who are still here and not opening the door to out-of-town entrepreneurs who might want to come in here and turn a profit off of this idea that we’re a news desert, when I think we really can support our local journalism.

[00:03:11] Eugene Weekly is happy to fill in. We’re doing tons of online extra coverage as well.

[00:03:16] John Q: Introducing the second speaker:

[00:03:21] Joel Korin (City Club program coordinator): Micah Loewinger of WNYC’s On the Media will discuss reporting that led to his being called as a witness in the Oath Keepers trial..

[00:03:34] Micah Loewinger (WNYC): …This is how I came across what has effectively been the biggest story of my short career. An investigation I did into a walkie-talkie app called Zello.

[00:03:44] Zello is an app you can download on your phone. You can have big groups with hundreds or thousands of people sharing information really, really fast on certain topics—whatever you’d like.

[00:03:55] Unlike Facebook or WhatsApp, which is mostly text and image based, Zello is mostly a voice-based app. When you join a group, what you mostly hear are people talking.

[00:04:07] And I began joining groups because I’m a radio producer and in radio, we have to write for the ear, right? It’s not enough to just narrate things that people say online. You want to put listeners in a place, and Zello allowed me to do that.

[00:04:20] And as I was listening to these open public walkie-talkie channels, I started to find that this app was populated by far-right militia groups, groups like the Three Percenters, groups like the Oath Keepers, groups like the Boogaloo Bois, in some cases, outright neo-Nazi groups. All kinds of, I would say, far-right fringe political groups were using Zello to organize themselves and… I had a front-row seat to a type of political organizing that is often done in secret.

[00:04:54] We warned Zello (the company), and we said, ‘According to your terms of service, you don’t allow this type of violent ideology on your app, and yet you have allowed this ecosystem to flourish.’

[00:05:06] …Fast-forward several months to Jan. 6: This ecosystem is still very much alive, and I’m still tracking these militia groups, and that’s when I hear this woman, Jessica Watkins from the Oath Keepers saying: ‘We have a group, 30 to 40 of us sticking together, sticking to the plan.’ And I made a recording of these communications.

[00:05:25] Jessica Watkins (Oath Keepers): We’re boots on the ground here. We’re moving on the Capitol… We have a good group. We got about 30-40 of us. We’re sticking together and sticking to the plan.

[00:05:34] Micah Loewinger (WNYC): I put it online, I reported on it, it went viral. I was on TV, I was on 60 Minutes. And that’s when I started to hear from federal prosecutors. They’d seen me on TV. And they said, we want to use this recording as evidence in our criminal investigation into the Oath Keepers. And that put me in a very uncomfortable situation.

[00:05:57] On one hand, this was a significant scoop. This provided important context into the planning that went into that anti-democratic violence on Jan. 6. On the other hand, I personally don’t believe that journalists should be playing buddy-buddy with law enforcement, and certainly not federal law enforcement.

[00:06:19] I believe that to maintain trust with readers, listeners, and viewers, we really need to be an independent check on power. And so I was reluctant and frankly uninterested in giving what they perceived to be a piece of evidence to the government.

[00:06:37] And what I decided to do instead is, I just put the entire recording online. It was about two hours, anyone could listen to it. Congressional staffers got ahold of it. They played recordings of it at the Jan. 6 special committee hearings multiple times.

[00:06:51] And it certainly had a life online. And armchair sleuths got ahold of it, even, I would say, far-right journalists got ahold of it, and they began spreading a conspiracy theory that I had somehow been tipped off by the FBI to be there, like, in this chat room, at the right place, at the right time, and that’s how I got the scoop.

[00:07:09] Actually, it was just… It was luck and a year and a half of investigative journalism that got me there. But this was exactly what concerned me: the perception that I would be perceived as working with the federal government.

[00:07:22] Ultimately, I was subpoenaed. And in October of last year, I was compelled to testify in the criminal trial for the Oath Keepers. And I took the stand, I explained very much as I am now to you all, how I made this recording, how I happened to be there, and I authenticated the evidence.

[00:07:43] That was the role that I played as a journalist on the stand, in a very narrow sense, to say: ‘This is a legitimate document of what took place. I can prove to you that it’s true because I’m the one who made the recording.’ At no point that I have to point the finger and say, ‘You’re guilty,’ or ‘You did this.’ That was not my job.

[00:08:03] But it was a very uncomfortable position for me. I was cross-examined by the defense. There were attempts to smear me. And unfortunately, you know, if you Google my name, you do see that I was affiliated with this criminal trial. And that affects my ability to do this type of reporting.

[00:08:21] I have sources in these far-right groups. I can both vigorously report on them critically and call them out where I see fit. But I can also earn the trust of sources within these communities, or at least I could before all this happened. Now that this has happened, if people look me up, maybe they’ll think that conversations I have with sources in confidence could be revealed at a later date if a federal agent forced me to or something.

[00:08:48] And this is, unfortunately, just kind of zooming out, why we need federal shield laws. We need federal regulations to basically protect journalists from a certain kind of pressure from federal law enforcement. Sources need to be able to see journalists as people who can keep secrets and can protect them.

[00:09:10] And audiences need to see journalists as doing investigations outside of the reach of governments. This I think is an underappreciated problem that journalists are facing and continue to face without sufficient protections.

[00:09:25] John Q: The City Club also welcomed UO professor Peter Laufer.

[00:09:31] Joel Korin (City Club program coordinator): Professor Peter David Laufer from the University of Oregon is a former international correspondent for NBC News. He’s written books and articles. And he will be hosting a conference on migrating journalists, journalists who are forced out of their country in April here in Eugene. Peter.

[00:09:54] Peter Laufer (UO): Well, thank you so much and thanks to the City Club for this opportunity…

[00:09:57] So first I want to look in our own backyard here, where we can see evidence of the evisceration that is rampant across this country and elsewhere of newspapers.

[00:10:14] Here in Eugene, we have seen the worst of the hedge fund attacks on local journalism, and we’ve seen a vibrant, rigorous, important, award-winning, well-written, well-edited Eugene Register-Guard be reduced to what I’ve said in op-eds in various places: something that ‘you might not want to even use to wrap your fish or line your birdcage.’

[00:10:47] Those who are still working at the paper—and the staff has been eviscerated—they struggle, struggle valiantly, to create a product that’s worthwhile for us. But those of us who were around during the local family ownership of the paper—before it was sold—can remember a newspaper that covered our community and our state and the world in a manner that could give us an understanding (from the point of view of the newspaper) of what was going on at the time in the world.

[00:11:21] And currently, that just is not the case. The paper does not have the staff and Gannett, the owner, has absolutely no interest in us, no matter what their lip service may be.

[00:11:34] I suggested to Gannett that they should just donate the newspaper to the University of Oregon, and our School of Journalism and Communication could run it (with our hands tied behind our backs) better than it was being run, by the way they had wrecked it.

[00:11:54] The executive in charge of mergers and acquisitions,…he said, ‘No, we’re still making some money with it. And so we’ll keep it going as long as we’re making money with it. And then, then maybe we can talk.’

[00:12:06] Well, that, I would suggest, sums up what Gannett thinks about us in Eugene, and more broadly, what Gannett thinks about journalism… And I should point out, especially since Camilla is here with us today, the Eugene Weekly is doing an admirable job of trying to fill in those blanks left by the Register-Guard, as is KLCC.

[00:12:32] The growing staffs at both of those institutions covering local news, that’s important, but it does not replace the kind of work that a newspaper like the Register-Guard did for us for our community.

[00:12:46] So those of us who are the news consumers have to think about our own apathy, about allowing disinformation, misinformation, propaganda to fill the void.

[00:13:00] And that void is real. Who in Eugene—or other Eugenes around the country—who, what news reporters are regularly covering what were traditional beats: the city council, the mayor’s office, the police, those government institutions?

[00:13:17] Private businesses, the rampant construction of the four-one kind of housing and retail that get thrown up. Who’s looking at how well these things last? That monster project on Willamette that looks like it’s falling apart just a few years later.

[00:13:37] Where’s the coverage? Who’s responsible? Why aren’t we demanding more? And that includes the University (of Oregon). We’re a company town in many regards. Who’s covering what we do at the University?

[00:13:51] John Q: The City Club hears of threats to journalism and democracy. You can do your part by supporting independent local media. Donate to the Eugene Weekly, KLCC, the Daily Emerald, Double Sided Media, the Chronicle, Highway 58 Herald, and more.

[00:14:07] You can also become a neighborhood correspondent and report on news and events in your own neighborhood, when it is convenient and as you are able to do so. Your volunteer hours will be recognized in your favorite time bank. For more, contact your local neighborhood association.

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