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Defeating The Press

Self-censorship in local TV news



Where were you when you heard about the police riots last summer? Was it from a friend? The corporate media? The independent media?

Since Missoula has only two television stations, the question is important. On the evening many will remember as the night all hell broke loose—Saturday, July 29, 2000—one station, KECI, failed to have a camera crew downtown to cover the most notorious biker gang in the world leaving a downtown bar five hours after nearly 50 people were detained for demonstrating downtown. The other station, KPAX, imposed a strict curfew on its camera crews, denying its journalists the opportunity to report on the largest citizen uprising in recent Missoula history.

According to testimony from KPAX newscast director Toni Lynn, during the trial of her cameraman Josh Lamke on obstruction charges last week, news crews were barred by their station manager from reporting any news after 7 p.m. “What if there had been a fire?” asked Lynn from the stand. “What if there had been an accident? We couldn’t have covered it.”

Well, there was an accident, and it involved hundreds of officers, civilians and bikers. Lamke chose to buck station orders and cover it. In return for his attempt to capture the action that night, Lamke was tackled by a police officer and arrested. To make matters worse, a few weeks later he was fired from his job for what KPAX says were unrelated reasons.

Of course, the ability to film a tense situation at three in the morning from a sidewalk while being forced to remind police of the First Amendment is a sought-after trait by many news organizations, but KPAX is not one of them. KPAX and its curfew have serious implications for channel-surfing citizens who rely on the television for news.

“Part of the responsibility of local news organizations is to have reporters, photographers, videographers on call to cover news, whenever it happens, 24 hours a day,” says Deni Elliott, director of the Practical Ethics Center at the University of Montana. “If they don’t get the news, it means that news organizations are not meeting their moral or social responsibilities.”

But responsibility is exactly what KPAX CEO Bob Hermes says is what kept his crews off the street that night, citing crew safety and the proliferation of Hells Angels coverage as reasons for the curfew. But with more than 200 officers prowling the city and not a single citizen/biker conflict documented, safety concerns seem questionable. Instead of retiring early, Elliot says the media should accept their duty to report the news.

“Every news organization in town had a responsibility to have journalists on the scene for the entire event,” she says.

“I’m delivering an indictment that’s a lot bigger than KPAX,” Elliot says. “It’s not OK for The Missoulian and KECI and KUFM to not have anybody there. It’s not OK for KPAX to pull their people out. If the outcome of your article will embarrass news organizations into doing their job, that’s a good thing.”

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