On November 20th, I was standing outside a taco place in Minneapolis when a housemate called from back home. This isn’t someone who usually calls me up to chat. It was one of those phone calls that inspired an intuitive gut reaction: something is wrong!
As she told it, the Dakota Access pipeline resistance camp at Standing Rock, called Oceti Sakowin, was being forcefully evicted by pepper spray and water cannon. Not only that, but people were being shot with guns. “How could this be possible?” I thought. I had just been there a few hours ago. Two friends and I had driven straight from the camp to our taco destination, rediscovering for the first time in a week that eating food and being warm were not mutually exclusive.
There we were on the concrete huddled around a small iPhone, playing a crappy Facebook livestream sent out by another phone in North Dakota. We could barely make out the grainy images. Maybe this was the promise of neoliberalism in the digital age? Without much in the way of contextual details or analysis, 50,000 people were watching and listening to scenes of chaos on some random guy’s feed—while cash-strapped mainstream outlets were only covering the story from afar, if not ignoring it all together.
My heart racing, I tried to confirm the alarming facts I had heard on the phone. Was it an indiscriminate raid on the entire camp? It turned out my friend was somewhat mistaken. The police were shooting at water protectors, as the pipeline resistors are known, with rubber bullets, not regular ones. And it wasn’t an eviction—it was a crackdown on the protectors who were trying to clear a barricade of burned-out trucks, which the cops had erected on the main road to Bismarck (cutting off the camp from emergency services).
None of this made what the cops did OK: it was still a violent attack on a peaceful action. But at least we had some idea of what was really happening.
After digging into the details, I did what anyone else would do: I joined the social circus and wrote my own Facebook post. I tried to explain to my friends that while violence was the emerging narrative about Standing Rock, it wasn’t what I had seen there. What I had seen was a blueprint for a better society. I wrote that the camp “is not only a threat to the pipeline and the gas companies, but it is a threat to settler colonialism, capitalism, and our broader unhinged society. A city without financial transactions where the most important jobs are cooking food, leading direct action trainings, and building communal winter housing—for old and young, rich and poor, native and non-Native people to sleep side by side.”
I had gone to Standing Rock bracing for a war zone. It had been one once, and little did I know that a few hours after I left, it would become one again. But the camps were safe, at least from my vantage point. Sure, things were disorganized sometimes, but the sense of normalcy was overwhelming. By the time we arrived home, people wanted action and drama, and I had to tell them, “No, I just chopped wood and did the dishes.” And doing the dishes had never felt so good.
Back home on the East Coast, where I write a regular music column for an alt-weekly, my editor caught wind of my trip to Standing Rock and asked to interview me for the paper. The story quoted me on how peaceful everything was. But like much of the rest of the coverage, it reached for a conflict frame in places where it didn’t belong. It invoked the police crackdown that I wasn’t present for, suggesting (at least implicitly) that perhaps the water protectors had been the violent ones and not the police. This was reinforced by the choice of accompanying images: readers saw conflict with police, but not the reality of camp life. No one laughing or eating or sorting donations. No one praying.
To be sure, covering movements is hard. Their cycles are distinctly different than news cycles, as their evolution isn’t linear and narratives can be messy and take lots of time to unfold. That is certainly one reason why journalists reach for conflict in covering them.
Another reason is that basic, day-to-day coverage of #NoDAPL has been spotty at best. One journalist, Jenni Monet of the Indian Country Today Media Network, declared Standing Rock a media blackout—noting that with a few exceptions from independent sources, the journalism coming out of North Dakota was primarily on social media, and Facebook Live in particular. From the comfort of offices in New York or San Francisco, reporters who wanted to give “both sides” of the story often lifted social media posts, maybe got a quote or two, threw in a bit of context on the company behind the pipeline and the dispute, and called it “objective.”
The New York Times rightfully criticized the police’s statement on that night for failing to include the dispersal methods used to break up the action. But then the article laid it on thick with a thinly and confusingly sourced claim, citing the Bismarck Tribune, about officers being struck by “rocks and logs.” (The Bismarck Tribune piece, which relied on a report by the Associated Press, attributes this claim to the sheriff’s department.) Ultimately, the Times didn’t reliably explain what happened, but did offer an exposé of a different sort: the paper demonstrated just how sparse resources are for journalism, both in Bismarck and nationally.
By repeatedly linking the water protectors to violence, shoddy journalism has benefited the cops especially. The tactic here is to cast doubt about what is going on, which finds its way into the news coverage, putting a prayerful movement on the defensive. And that’s exactly what happened. The Guardian and the Times both quoted a Morton County Sheriff’s Facebook post that, ludicrously, described an “ongoing riot” between protesters and police. The cops accused the water protectors of “setting fires and using aggressive tactics,” which was laughable given that the authorities had used a concussion grenade to almost blow off somebody’s arm that night, while an elder went into cardiac arrest.
In an essay in The Baffler, author Aaron Miguel Cantú describes how police departments have embraced social media—not only for targeted surveillance, but also as a go-to platform for public relations. Cantu argues that even the apparently frivolous, as in the case of one officer who cultivated a following on his puppy and kitten Instagram page, can be a sinister mask for the military-grade brutality of “law enforcement.” He chronicles the growing cottage industry of social media specialists and strategists hired by police departments and deployed to win the war of public opinion (on the taxpayers’ dime). One reason they’re succeeding is that journalists’ numbers have shrunk substantially over the past fifteen years or so, while the ranks of PR people have swelled over the same period; according to communications scholar Bob McChesney and author John Nichols, there are now as many as five public relations professionals for every journalist. “In spite of all the ways it has changed in recent years,” Cantú writes, “journalism is still one of the best defenses against the new vanity of the security state.” But only if there are journalists—who are allowed to do their jobs.
Among the hundreds who have intentionally risked arrest protecting their land and water in North Dakota, journalists have been rounded up and thrown in jail for merely observing events in order to report to the public. One news story suggested that reporters covering Standing Rock were “test[ing] the boundaries of the First Amendment.” Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, writing about the case of Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman, commented that reporters were arrested because they weren’t representing mainstream outlets—and thus, mainstream values.
Indeed, not only has independent reporters’ status as members of the press been questioned, but so has their objectivity. “She’s a protester, basically. Everything she reported on was from the position of justifying the protest actions,” one prosecutor charged of Amy Goodman. A rubber bullet fired by the police went through the press badge of another journalist, illustrating the contempt that police and private security forces have for the press—the only profession that is mentioned in the First Amendment. The hand of the state would, in theory, in an actual democracy, protect its democratic pillars.
Today, the media doesn’t primarily exist to inform the public, but rather to sell the public’s attention to advertisers. Until we stand up to the profit motive, Donald Trump’s tweets and the Morton County Sheriff’s Facebook posts will continue to color our understanding of events.
Now is the time to support independent media and Indigenous journalists, both at the personal and systemic levels. If we don’t, we’ll all be stuck with a grainy and distorted live feed like I was, lacking context and analysis.
Top photograph by James MacPherson/AP.