Tony Norman: ‘Democracy Now!’ and the ‘crime’ of journalism

For the crime of practicing journalism, Amy Goodman of “Democracy Now!’” has incurred the wrath of a North Dakota state prosecutor determined to send her to prison for decades.

State’s Attorney Ladd R. Erickson hit Ms. Goodman with a specious charge of participating in a “riot” after dropping the more obviously trumped-up charge of criminal trespassing last Friday.

The “riot” at the heart of the criminal complaint against Ms. Goodman took place on Sept. 3 when the “Democracy Now!” host filmed an officially sanctioned attack on Native Americans protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Most readers can be forgiven for hearing about “the Standoff at Standing Rock” for the first time. The issues swirling around the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline as an environmental disaster and an affront to Native American sacred burial grounds has barely been mentioned by mainstream media.

“Democracy Now!” is a radio and TV program (broadcast locally at 8 a.m. on WRCT-FM and PCTV) that has been around since 1996. Because it covers many of the events that fall between the cracks of corporate media coverage, it was inevitable that Ms. Goodman, an indefatigable journalist with an intact moral compass and a nose for the kind of news that really matters, would visit the site to get the story.

So the cameras for “Democracy Now!” were rolling when security contractors with dogs straining against leashes descended on hundreds of Native American protesters attempting to prevent bulldozers from breaking the earth of their sacred burial ground.

It was a chaotic scene involving helicopters, tear gas and physical altercations, but fortunately no shooting. Ms. Goodman’s camera crew captured much of it, which presented a problem for local authorities determined to see the project through with a minimum of national debate.

Dramatic footage featuring Ms. Goodman interviewing protesters was picked up by mainstream media that had once been completely indifferent to the issues of environmental justice that the protests raise.

The Obama administration, which had stayed on the sidelines since the protests began in April, was finally compelled to order a halt to the project “pending review” after images of hundreds of protesters from dozens of Native American tribes getting the Bull Connor treatment began circulating on social media. There’s nothing like comparisons to the violent treatment of civil rights workers in Birmingham and Selma a half a century ago to prick consciences in Washington.

A federal review of the $3.8 billion oil pipeline project will generate the kind of public scrutiny of environmental issues that the companies that stand to profit most from the pipeline through sacred Native American land fear.

The danger to the water supply for millions of Americans, should the pipeline have a major breach near the Missouri River, deserves more than a pro forma industry insistence that it won’t happen. Every pipeline that has ever been built has suffered leaks and breaches.

The clumsy intimidation tactics of North Dakota’s state prosecutor won’t intimidate either Amy Goodman or the media, now that the project is on its radar. By issuing a warrant for Ms. Goodman’s arrest for simply doing her job as a media watchdog, Mr. Erickson showed how much contempt he holds for both the First Amendment and the public’s right to know.

It was obvious to all but the most high-strung law-and-order zealot that Amy Goodman was not encouraging “rioting” when she was observed practicing journalism on Sept. 3 on land that the Standing Rock Sioux hold sacred. That charge, like the earlier charge of trespassing that the state attorney dropped because it was too flagrantly laughable, is just as ridiculous.

Those with enough integrity to practice journalism like Amy Goodman shouldn’t have to hire attorneys to fight threats of 30 years or more in prison if charged, convicted and sentenced under North Dakota’s vague rioting statutes.

That didn’t stop an experienced state prosecutor from making a serious attempt at shredding constitutional protections for free speech. All Mr. Erickson needed was a likeminded judge to agree with him that Ms. Goodman should get more time in prison than people who try to crash the economy.

Instead of finding a right-wing stooge on the bench, Mr. Erickson found himself in the court of District Judge John Grinsteiner, who wasn’t going along with any of his nonsense.

On Monday, the judge threw out the “riot” charge against Ms. Goodman. It was a blow for freedom of speech, press freedom and the integrity of North Dakota law against the tyranny of a vindictive attorney general. Once again, Amy Goodman proved to be on the right side of both history and the law. With any luck, her adventure in North Dakota will inspire the rest of the media to follow her example.

Tony Norman: or 412-263-1631; Twitter @TonyNormanPG.

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