Why Are There No News Helicopters Over Ferguson?


Reason Magazine

One of the strangest things about the tense situation in Ferguson, Missouri, in which heavily armed cops, and now the national guard, have clashed with protestors in the wake of the police shooting of an unarmed teenager nine days ago, is that there have been no overhead shots of the action. We've seen maps of the town, with graphics explaining where the demonstrators are, and where the police have gathered. But we've seen none of the context-setting live aerial news photography that we typically see at major news events.

There's a reason for that. Last week, when the protests began, the Federal Aviation Administration banned low-flying vehicles—vehicles like news helicopters—below 3,000 feet over Ferguson airspace, in order "to provide a safe environment for law enforcement activities." The no-fly-zone was created at the request of local law enforcement, following a police report that a police chopper had been shot at. Yesterday, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon renewed the ban, citing the same police-safety justification.

The police safety justification is hard to buy. What possible threat could a news helicopter, circling hundreds or thousands of feet above the scene, be to the activities on the ground? If anything, helicopters, which would not block emergency vehicles, which would not get in the way of cops or crowds, which would remain at a remove from the action, would be safer than the rest of the media.

No, safety isn't the issue. That's not what this is about. It's about local law enforcement not wanting to be watched—and not wanting media to capture a complete picture of the scene.

As it stands, media can't always follow police off the main road in Ferguson and into the side neighborhoods, where police have sometimes pushed protestors, using tear gas in residential areas. The media can't show overhead images that give a full sense of how occupied the main part of the town is. The media can't show an overhead shot of a street-wide column of riot cops advancing on a relatively small group protestors, which is what appears to have happened late last night.

I say "appears" because, watching multiple news networks from my home in Washington, D.C., it wasn't possible to tell exactly what was happening. A row of armed and armored law enforcement formed up, some with shotguns drawn and pointed forward, and began to push down the street while a man with a bullhorn ordered protestors to disperse. On CNN, anchor Don Lemon attempted to describe what he could see, but he couldn't get access to the scene. And while it was happening, press were being ordered back to their designated areas, then told that they would also have to clear out from where they had set up operations. They weren't being allowed to watch. They weren't being allowed to report what they saw. 

The entire chaotic night, which featured more than 30 arrests, gunshots, and heavy use of tear gas—including some that wafted into the media area, causing national news correspondents to don gas masks for their reporting—played out on TV in scattered and fragmented fashion. The overall action was never clear. We'd see something happen in one part of town, then hear reports that some separate conflict was occurring in another. But in many cases, neither reporters nor camera crews could get there.

News helicopters would have made that possible. News helicopters would let journalists and viewers follow the action, from place to place, from eruption to eruption, as it happened, providing a clearer, more coherent view than the ground-locked cameras that are being used now. It's hard to justify banning those images from being recorded and shown. 

But banning their use is frustratingly consistent with the bullying behavior we've seen from law enforcement against media in Ferguson so far. Over the last week, we've seen clear video evidence of reporters being arrested and illegally ordered to stop filming, of cops threatening to mace and shoot members of the media, of major news network anchors being forcibly pushed from their locations in the middle of live shots. It keeps happening, even as the situation drags on. Last night, Intercept reporter Ryan Devereaux was shot with beanbags and taken into custody. On CNN, reporter Jake Tapper was struck by teargas.

At this point it seems fair to say that local law enforcement officials in Ferguson don't like the national press. Late last night, MSNBC anchor Craig Melvin described a conversation with a law enforcement official in which the official told Melvin that the police believed that the media presence was "exacerbating"—Melvin's word—the situation. Melvin said the official indicated that they were considering changing the way media are handled going forward.

Think about that for a minute. The cops apparently believe the media is exacerbating the situation. They want to manage the media presence. Not their own.

Let's be fair. It's not that the heavy media presence has no effect. But the protests, which started immediately after the shooting of Michael Brown two weekends ago, existed before the media circus began—and the local cops showed up dressed for war. That's where the exacerbation began.

This is, of course, not a media story first and foremost. It's a story about people who are upset because a young unarmed man was shot at least six times, and killed, by a police officer after being stopped for jaywalking. And part of the reason they are upset is that police have been so unwilling to come forth with basic information—taking days to release the name of the officer involved in the shooting, not releasing a full and detailed account of the shooting itself. The shooting details we have were released as a result of an independent autopsy, ordered by the family. 

The protestors in Ferguson want to know what happened. And the people watching the protests on TV across the nation and the world want to know what is happening. That's what the press is there for: to watch, to record, to report.

But the cops seem irritated by the presence of professional watchers, showing the world what's happening, and have intimidated them, restricted their access, and shut down traditional points of view. They don't want helicopters flying overhead. They don't really seem to like allowing media any presence at all. It's almost as if they don't want a clear picture of what's happening, and what they're doing, to emerge.

Update: I've updated the post to note that police reported that a police helicopter was fired on the first Sunday night of the protests. This is still a pretty thin justification for banning news helicopters. If the issue is that helicopters over the scene draw fire, and thus need to be removed, then why are the police still flying their own chopper over the protests? And if the media are in danger from armed protestors while in helicopters, aren't they in at least as much, and arguably even more, danger when reporting on the ground?