I have worked with, counseled and represented newspaper and television reporters and photographers for 50 years.
In all that time, I have never known a nicer or more professional reporter than Tim Funk, who covers religion and writes a “Faith and Values” column for The Charlotte Observer.
In all that time, I also don’t recall any representative of the North Carolina news media being arrested while covering a demonstration until last week, when Tim was taken into custody as he interviewed members of the clergy who were participating in a “Moral Monday” protest at the North Carolina General Assembly.
Even in 1963, when Chapel Hill was roiled by civil rights sit-ins and protests, the police readily distinguished between the people making the news and the people covering the news. Reporters and photographers for The Daily Tar Heel and other news organizations waded into the demonstrators’ midst with no thought or concern about being arrested.
You can see the legislative police handcuffing Tim and hauling him off here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1m4Tq-nrLoI. He’s easy to spot, not only because he is the dumpy little guy in an Irish cap, but also because he’s scribbling in a reporter’s notebook and wearing his Observer credentials around his neck.
It’s not all that unusual for news people to be charged with obstruction or trespass at crime or accident scenes, but those are chaotic environments where reporters, photographers, police, fire fighters and emergency personnel alike operate under stress, adrenalin flows freely on all sides, and the definition of “too close” varies widely. By contrast, the “Moral Monday” protests and arrests are as orchestrated as a Rockettes routine. The video of Tim’s arrest makes it plain that anyone on the scene who didn’t understand that he was not a protester was either stupid or obtuse.
Most of the time, cooler heads ultimately prevail and the charges leveled against reporters and photographers are dismissed if it’s clear that they were just doing their jobs. I expect (and hope) that’s what will happen with Tim.
Even if this unfortunate incident has no lasting legal consequences, however, its political consequences may linger. According to a PPP poll published on June 17, 67% of North Carolina voters disapproved of Tim’s arrest. Given the unprecedented nature of his arrest and the public’s distaste for it, legislative leaders and Governor McCrory could have shored up their standing with both journalists and the voters by urging Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby to drop the charges against Tim, but they apparently are too stubborn, or too tone deaf, to have grasped the opportunity.