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As Protests Continue Nationwide, Some Say Police Are Hurting Journalists

NOEL KING, BYLINE: In cities across this country, police are confronting protesters - sometimes violently. Reporters say the police are targeting them, too. Here's NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Molly Hennessy-Fiske has covered cops and wars. Even so - the LA Times reporter says she was stunned by what happened Saturday in Minneapolis as she covered the George Floyd protests alongside other journalists.

MOLLY HENNESSY-FISKE: Multiple officers broke off and came specifically over to us and started shooting at us. They had rubber bullets, tear gas. And then they had these canisters of pepper spray that they were spraying in people's eyes from, you know, less than an arm's length away.

FOLKENFLIK: Others were arrested. She had gaping wounds in her legs after being hit by rubber bullets and a tear gas canister. Her colleague, the photographer Carolyn Cole, was tear-gassed after being unable to catapult over a wall away from police.

HENNESSY-FISKE: And Carolyn was saying, Molly, I can't see. I can't see. And I had to leave her behind, which felt really terrible.

FOLKENFLIK: A bit later, she called Cole. A neighbor answered the phone.

HENNESSY-FISKE: Being a good Minnesotan, she came out to render aid. And - I'm sorry. I was very moved by the help that people gave us.

FOLKENFLIK: From D.C. to Denver, from Louisville to Los Angeles, scores of journalists say they're receiving intentionally rough treatment from police. In Long Beach, a police officer fired a rubber bullet that hit Southern California Public Radio's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez in the throat as he was wrapping up an interview.

ADOLFO GUZMAN-LOPEZ, BYLINE: What policy, what rationale, you know, led this police officer to single me out of the crowd?

FOLKENFLIK: In Columbus, Ohio, journalism student Julia Lerer (ph) says a police officer tear-gassed her at close-range as she was walking alone to her car.

JULIA LERER: But there's just no way I could've been conceived as a threat. I wasn't coming at them. I had my hands up. I had a camera in one of them. And I was yelling that I was a journalist. So I just - I'm not sure how this could've happened.

FOLKENFLIK: The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker cites about 140 assaults of journalists at the demonstrations, some by protesters. In the vast majority, police were targeting journalists.

CHRIS BURBANK: Without a doubt. Without a doubt. They are viewed as the enemy.

FOLKENFLIK: That's former Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank. He's now with the Center for Policing Equity, which helps police improve ties with their communities. As police chief, Burbank relied on reporters to communicate with the public.

BURBANK: I made sure to include the media, that was in crisis and it was also in good times when we wanted to celebrate the success of the police department. And so this notion that reporters or journalists are being targeted in some way, shape or form, are not being allowed access to what's going on, is very concerning.

FOLKENFLIK: Burbank says part of the problem lies with the nation's leaders, the demonization of the press from the White House on down. In Minneapolis, Molly Hennessy-Fiske says she wasn't targeted by accident.

HENNESSY-FISKE: We were not caught in the crossfire. They pursued us. And they knew that we were reporters and photographers.

FOLKENFLIK: On Tuesday, news organizations demanded that Minnesota law enforcement agencies stop attacking journalists.

David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
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