We still don't know enough about how the legitimate protests of last summer branched into forks of destruction like flame itself. There are answers in sociology, psychology, criminology, ideology — but they are at least to some degree speculative. None of it adds up to a definitive account. Not yet.
But we had more of the story than we might have had, and sooner, because of the journalists who risked their safety to relay the first draft of that chaotic history. When nearly everyone has a smartphone and social media account but also a favored narrative, professional reporting — raw as it may be in early moments — is as necessary a guide as it ever was, if not more.
As the protests ramped up last May in response to the death of George Floyd, some authorities made the proper sounds about allowing news media members to do their jobs. The results, however, were disappointing.
Since 2017, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, 158 journalists have been arrested in this country while covering protests, most of those in 2020. Most of those cases were dropped, but a handful weren't. In Des Moines last week, one such reporter went to trial. Andrea Sahouri was charged with failure to disperse and interference with official acts while covering a May 31 protest for the Des Moines Register. The case came down to her version of events against that of the police as to whether she had identified herself and responded quickly enough to directives.
The jury found her version persuasive. She was acquitted.
The case shouldn't have been brought. There can be some level of understanding for mistakes made by rank-and-file law enforcement officers who are under immense pressure during protests, although they should welcome the work of observers. What isn't acceptable is for prosecutors with the time to reflect on the facts and implications of such cases to pursue them anyway.
One of the Iowa prosecutors said in a pretrial hearing that Sahouri's role as a journalist was "irrelevant to her charges." He couldn't have been more wrong. The executive editor of the Des Moines Register, Carol Hunter, stated it clearly: "Freedom of the press rests on newsgathering. This really is an attack on a fundamental part of being able to bring people the news."