Given her support for the First Amendment and press access, Ryan would surely recoil at an episode that occurred Aug. 3 at the fourth annual New Jersey Parent Summit. Founder and editor of community news site New Brunswick Today Charlie Kratovil had his video equipment removed from the conference room by a bodyguard. Then the bodyguard allegedly removed Kratovil by force from the lobby of New Brunswick’s Heldrich Hotel.
The bodyguard, as it turned out, was working for Ryan, the summit’s keynote speaker. Joel Morris, 30, has been charged with assault, theft and harassment in connection with the incident.
According to Kratovil, he arranged to attend the event. He set up his camera and covered about an hour of proceedings without incident, until Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (D-N.J.) began introducing Ryan. At that point, Morris approached Kratovil, mentioned the video setup and asked, "Who are you with?” A bit later, he threatened to “take … down” the video camera.
A scramble of sorts followed the threat, Kratovil said. Public relations reps crowded around him, “pressuring me to stop recording.” Video of the event captures what happens next: Morris approaches Ryan as she’s beginning her remarks. He appears to say something, and she nods in approval. Then there’s an awkward pause of nearly 30 seconds, after which Ryan says, "When I speak, I do not have news covering my speeches.”
Just as Ryan was articulating this anti-media stance, Kratovil can be heard exclaiming, “Don’t touch my camera, please. Don’t touch my camera, please. Put that down. Don’t you dare. Put that down, sir. That’s my camera.” The commotion apparently marks the moment that Morris allegedly grabbed Kratovil’s equipment and made his way out of the meeting space, with Kratovil in pursuit. Once he recovered the equipment, Kratovil received some assistance from Morris in finding the exit. “[H]e began assaulting me without provocation in the lobby & continued his assault as he forced me out of the building,” Kratovil said on Twitter. “I screamed and used some profane language towards Mr. Morris as he grabbed my left arm and twisted it behind my back, injuring my forearm and shoulder.”
In a phone interview, Kratovil told the Erik Wemple Blog that other media reps attended the event yet didn’t get the heave-ho from Ryan’s bodyguard. (Another reporter at the event told Kratovil he received a warning from Ryan that he couldn’t use the video he’d taken of the speech. Efforts to reach that reporter have been unsuccessful.)
There’s a reason Ryan’s speech was being covered by local media: She is a big deal. In addition to her job as Washington bureau chief for the American Urban Radio Networks, she is a CNN political analyst and author of “Under Fire: Reporting from the Front Lines of the Trump White House.” Those front lines have been a contentious place for Ryan, who has been treated with condescension and contempt by Trump communications officials. She has responded with glorious pluck, pressing officials on the matters of race and generally refusing to accept their nonsense. As Ryan told the Hollywood Reporter’s Jeremy Barr, her heightened profile has a dark side. “They’ve put a target on my head. … I’ve had death threats. I’ve had craziness,” said Ryan, who hired a bodyguard with her own funds.
It’s one thing to hire a bodyguard to protect a freedom-of-press advocate from death threats; it’s another thing when the bodyguard undermines freedom of press on behalf of the freedom-of-press advocate. The New Jersey Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists issued a statement on the episode that reads, in part, “As a first principle, it is never under any circumstances permissible for a person aggrieved at being photographed or videotaped to lay hands on the journalist, or attempt to take away the journalist’s equipment.”
Though Ryan is happy to light up CNN’s airwaves with outrage over the Trump administration’s heavy-handed actions vis-a-vis press access, what does she have to say when her own actions are in the mix? The Erik Wemple Blog emailed her with a request for an interview. She called and requested to speak off the record. No thanks, we replied. Nothing that occurs at the fourth annual New Jersey Parent Summit is so secret, so sensitive as to warrant an off-the-record conversation.
CNN’s PR folks didn’t bother returning email inquiries about the matter. Here are the questions we asked: "Given CNN’s various fights for journalistic access and respect during the Trump administration, what does it have to say about this incident? Does it take issue with any of the facts alleged? Ryan appears to say in her address that she didn’t want media types in the audience. How does that square with CNN values?”
“I have not seen or heard anything,” Kratovil said when asked whether CNN or Ryan had issued any statement or apology on the event. The strategy here is to ignore the situation in the hopes that it will blow over. Such an outcome shouldn’t be furnished to CNN and Ryan, given the level of professional hypocrisy at hand.
Speak now or relinquish your standing as First Amendment champions.