The Intrepid War Correspondents of Cleveland
It's not Iraq or Syria, but political journalists bound for the GOP convention are learning how to navigate what could quickly become a surprisingly hostile environment.
In Aleppo, Syria, security expert Shane Bell pulled a crew of journalists from a demonstration by the militant al-Nusra Front when a man made a throat-slashing motion at him. In Turkey, Bell was with other reporters who were caught without face masks when government forces used tear gas against a crowd of protesters.
“We’re lucky here because the West doesn’t do that as much,” Bell told a small group of journalists after showing them a photograph of an armored vehicle in Kenya using a water cannon to spray demonstrators — and potentially any journalists there to cover them — with magenta dye, so that they could be tracked down later. “But times are changing.”
Bell is the managing director of Global Journalist Security, which offers training courses modeled on those taught to journalists who are deploying to war zones. But the reporters attending Thursday’s course, which had the cringe-worthy name of “Put the Boot in the Campaign Boot Camp,” are instead heading to the hostile environments of Philadelphia and Cleveland, homes of the upcoming Democratic and Republican conventions.
Sipping on coffee in blue upholstered chairs that matched the rich carpet of Washington’s National Press Club, the reporters nodded along with Bell’s PowerPoint presentation, illustrated with his anecdotes from the world’s battlefields. Though you wouldn’t know it for his plaid shirt, square glasses, and Australianisms — his equally light-hearted and harrowing demonstration was peppered with “you’s all” — Bell navigated these conflicts as an Australian commando and later, as a journalist and security expert.
But Bell said the same lessons of foreign correspondence that can come at such a high cost still apply to covering the U.S. presidential election. Among the most important: Always trust your gut, come prepared, and have an exit plan. He also stressed the importance of never escalating confrontation, putting the story ahead of one’s safety, or thinking a press credential will offer protection; it might actually make you more of a target.
Later in the presentation, Bell showed another photograph and asked the reporters to identify the potential dangers. A brawl had broken out in the middle of a large crowd. One man sat on the ground looking dazed, shoulders sprayed in pink, as another pulled up on his shirt.
“This is at a Trump rally?” one of the journalists asked Bell.
“Yep,” Bell answered grimly.
“Is that blood on that guy?” another ventured.
While Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has yet to concede to presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, it’s GOP presidential pick Donald Trump who’s giving organizations such as Global Journalist Security new business.
Bell said demand seems to be growing for safety courses for journalists covering the 2016 presidential election, as continued violence surrounding Trump rallies and his campaign’s own targeting of the media forecast clashes in Cleveland in July.
“Trump has the ability to pour petrol on things,” Bell warned. He added later, “Donald Trump knows how to incite a crowd. He’s good at it.”
The city of Cleveland itself seems to have made a similar calculation, stocking up on thousands of sets of riot gear and taking full advantage of some $50 million in federal security funds. The government has designated both the Republican National Convention in Cleveland and the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia as special national security events. Yet just on Thursday, a district court judge ruled that the Cleveland’s proposed 3.3-mile protest-free zone around the convention site was unconstitutional.
Beyond the potential for any journalist to get caught up in a mob or between protesters and counter-protesters, Trump has a unique relationship to the reporters who cover his campaign.
At rallies and on social media, the big-haired and bigger-mouthed New York real estate mogul regularly calls out individual reporters or organizations for what he claims is unfair reporting or bias against him, and hints for supporters to commit violence against protesters.
“I’d like to punch him in the face,” Trump told a crowd gathered at a February rally in Las Vegas as a protester was escorted out.
The concern for security experts like Bell is that the jump from the campaign’s media blacklist to an agitator’s hit list isn’t all that far amid the potential powder keg of mass protests.
Asked by a reporter how bad he thinks the conventions could get, Bell cautioned that his job was to prepare them for the worst-case scenario. With the caveat that he didn’t want to be “discriminative” about a certain type of Trump supporter, he said his biggest concern was about a single anarchist or hostile actor, male aged 18-32, “who hasn’t got a job and sees this as you’re going to take the person he’s going to vote for away.” He may lash out even if no one explicitly tells him to, Bell said.
So, one journalist asked, should reporters lie about which outlet they represent?
“If I was at a Trump rally I’d say I’m Fox, of course, not CNN,” Bell said, though he added, “You don’t want to lie.”
Courses like those given by Global Journalist Security are hoping to fill the education gap that’s grown as much of the media attention of the past few decades focused on the conflicts of the Middle East rather than the growing unrest at home, Bell told Foreign Policy in an interview after his presentation.
Bell would know; at one point during his demonstration, he recounted how two journalist friends, Jim Foley and John Cantlie, were taken hostage by the Islamic State after lingering for hours in an internet cafe. The militants later killed Foley in a broadcast beheading; Cantlie is believed to still being held as a hostage.
“We’ve all been concentrating on the Middle East and these hostile areas and not realizing the problems you face back here,” Bell said. “There’s potential threats facing journalists at these conventions from both sides, as you see from the civil unrest lesson that journalists are often putting themselves right in the middle, without thinking of what’s behind you or beside you.”
Photo credit: JOSH EDELSON / Stringer