Image caption: CNN has spoken out on behalf of its reporter, who was arrested on live TV, but we must interrogate how the network has also wrung the ordeal for drama.
The President has had plenty of success in his pet project to abrade public trust in our country’s newsrooms. Yet there remains, among the media class especially, a strong conviction that individual journalists are members of a protected group, and reap certain benefits accordingly. Early on Friday morning, that notion was shockingly upset, when Omar Jimenez, a CNN journalist reporting on the ground in Minneapolis, about the mass uprising against the police killing of George Floyd, was arrested on live television.
It was a little after 5 a.m. local time when the news generators became the news; the sky was still purple as Jimenez and members of his television crew were handcuffed. One by one, they were escorted from their station on a city block strewn with the detritus of rebellion. While he was in the process of being detained, a cameraman, struck with a documentarian’s foresight, left his device on the ground, still recording, facing upward at a gonzo angle. We watched and heard the recession of an officer’s boots as he retrieved the camera, which was also our aperture to truth. Viewers watching live would have heard the honest bafflement in the voices of the anchors back in the studio, disturbing the detached tone of morning TV. Jimenez’s arrest was not only wrong, like the arrests of journalists in Ferguson, Missouri, six years ago. Its occurrence on live television made it also cretinous, serving to highlight the state’s delay in apprehending Derek Chauvin, the officer who killed Floyd, on Monday night, by pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck for a period of more than eight minutes. (Chauvin was finally taken into custody on Friday afternoon.)
Here is the point in the piece in which the media critic rhapsodizes about Jimenez’s comportment as this scene unfolded. I could mention his startlement as the officers approached him, looking, in their visors and riot gear, less like humans than automatons. I could describe the crush of officers as a frightening, encroaching mass of the color black—how they looked like the Gestapo in a dystopian film, or the Gestapo in a foreign and undemocratic country. I could transcribe Jimenez’s comment—“Put us back where you want us”—when the officers told him that his crew was out of some unspecified bounds. I could mention Jimenez’s poise, the careful way he extended his limbs to produce his press credentials, his surrender when the officer informed him that he was under arrest. I could mention how the mask he was wearing accentuated his brown skin, and the fact that one of his white CNN colleagues, who was also questioned by the police, was not arrested.
Which is all to say: I could make an exception out of Jimenez. He gets slotted into a certain spot in the gradient of victimhood, just as Christian Cooper, a black birder in Central Park, was, several days ago, after a video he recorded went viral, showing a white woman, Amy Cooper, calling the police on him after he asked her to heed park rules and put her dog on a leash. The police in Minneapolis were brazen enough to arrest a journalist, to actively suppress speech, on live television, just as Amy Cooper was brazen enough to feign fear at a man who satisfied every fantasy we have of the kindly black bourgeoisie. As an acquaintance on Twitter mentioned to me on Thursday, the outrage over the treatment of Christian Cooper depended on a “libidinal value” assigned to him by voyeurs, based both on his looks and on the élite appeal of his interests. The outrage over the arrest of Jimenez depends on assigning him a professional value. The problem is that fixating on the supposed singularity of these events, and the behavior of these good black men (even with caveats about how that behavior should not matter), is part of the same matrix that calculates the killing of someone like George Floyd, a trucker and erstwhile rapper, as inevitable, a matter of the season.
Jimenez was released from police custody nearly an hour after his arrest. The governor of Minnesota issued an apology to him and to CNN. The Minneapolis Police Department claimed, on Twitter, that Jimenez and his crew had not adequately responded when asked what they were doing standing where they were, even though the footage we’d all watched had shown that they had. This is another tool of authoritarianism: to warp the relationship between the camera and the truth. Tell people that what they’re seeing isn’t actually what they’re seeing, and eventually they’ll start to believe you.
Jimenez went straight back out to work, and the news grew meta-referential, as CNN made its employee’s ordeal a story. The network has spoken out on behalf of its reporter, and in defense of journalism, but we would be remiss not to interrogate how it has wrung the injustice that Jimenez experienced for high-drama TV. Since the uprising in Ferguson, CNN has descended on cities in crisis and arranged its disaster tableaux: the single intrepid reporter, backgrounded by the faceless, angry black crowd. Occasionally, a demonstrator might give a passing interview, but mostly it’s the telegenic anchor who narrates events from his own first-person vantage. CNN makes a spectacle of its own act of watching, which is not the same as neutral investigation. The chyron on the freeze-frame of Jimenez, as he was led away by the officers—“Third Night of Protests, Fires in Minneapolis”—put rhetorical distance between the uprising and its cause, which was the killing of Floyd. If you’d just tuned in, you might have assumed that Jimenez, now anonymized, was a protester.
Written by: Doreen St. Félix
Image source: CNN