If you’ve been following Reason.com or Reason.tv for the past 48 hours you will know that Jim Epstein, a Reason TV reporter, was one of two journalists arrested Wednesday for videotaping a meeting of the Washington D.C. Taxi Commission.
Epstein and Pete Tucker, who blogs for TheFightBack.org, a site that spotlights local D.C. issues that affect minorities and low-income residents, were reporting from what was expected to be contentious meeting as the Taxi Commission was set to address a plan to introduce a medallion system for the District. The proposal had generated considerable opposition from the city’s large base of cab drivers, many of whom attended the meeting to voice their opposition. They essentially believe a medallion system will concentrate cab ownership among a handful of large fleet operators and likely result in the loss of their livelihood.
The arrests were regrettable all around. Epstein’s video, which shows Tucker, dressed neatly in a white shirt and tie, being handcuffed and led away, captures a deeply uncomfortable “it-can’t-happen-here” moment. Epstein was arrested next. Epstein’s video and statement can be found here.
Aside from the fact Epstein and Tucker were released a few hours later, the best thing that can be said is that the arrests were ordered by someone who can charitably be described as a low-level local government functionary, namely Dena Reed, interim chairman of the Taxi Commission. But that doesn’t excuse it. Reed emerges from this affair looking like a third-grade hall monitor who's allowed that modicum of authority to go to her head.
What triggered Reed to have Epstein and Tucker arrested was Tucker’s request to place a microphone near her chair. It was clear from the beginning that Reed did not want the meeting videotaped, although any journalist—make that any individual—had every right to under open meeting laws. Furthermore, in this day and age of Internet-based news and blogging, video is a legitimate means of documentation. Reed may as well have had the reporters arrested for taking notes.
Reed cited a policy that allows Commission officials to ban taping at their discretion. Policies like this need to change. When daily newspapers are giving their reporters camcorders with an eye toward Web media, there is no line between print and electronic media. A policy that bars video recording amounts to direct interference with modern newsgathering. If local officials insist on banning video, more reporters are going to push the issue. Good for them, because these acts of civil disobedience end up embarrassing the government far more than the reporter.
And let’s not forget the Streisand Effect. Reed’s power play to shut out news coverage resulted in D.C. medallion issue receiving much more attention than it would have if she had allowed Epstein and Tucker to do their jobs unmolested. Instead, now on a national stage, she validated critics’ claims that the commission is arbitrary, unfair and incompetent.
It’s also worth noting that the incident comes just two weeks after the Federal Communications Commission, in its "Future of Media" report, said that local news media does not need a government lifeline. The matter has been raised in Congress and in some state legislatures who see local newspapers and TV stations facing declining readers, viewers and advertisers as more people turn to the Web for news. The FCC itself, in its National Broadband Plan, raised the idea of subsidizing local media via the Universal Service Fund. Yet, after examining the issue, noted the potential of the Web to pick up the slack. Others have noted that more specialized sites, like TheFightBack.org, would improve local news coverage by tailoring coverage to narrower interest groups broadcasters overlook. Case in point here. No local TV stations were at the Taxi Commission meeting, but TheFightBack.org and ReasonTV were. Moreover, Tucker and his site are not outliers. The cab drivers were aware of his coverage of the mediallian issue and showed their outrage by walking out the meeting after the arrest.
But the primary lesson here is for all those petty bureaucrats and officials who still think they have a say in who covers their little part of the political mechanism and how they do it: Video is a part of everyday news reporting. Deal with it.