The Trial of Andrea Sahouri and Defending the First Amendment

The things we don’t say matter just as much as the things we do say

The Des Moines Register's Executive Editor Carol Hunter walks under the newspaper's logo with a clock on Wednesday, January 29, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

This week, Des Moines Register journalist Andrea May Sahouri is on trial after being arrested on May 31 while covering a Black Lives Matter protest for her job. She was charged with failure to disperse and interference with official acts. In a live video she streamed from the back of a police van, Sahouri said that she had been leaving the protest, when she was tear-gassed and then arrested. 

The arresting officer Luke Wilson says he didn’t know Sahouri was a journalist. And Wilson revealed this week that he failed to save his body camera footage of the arrest. Sahouri’s account of the incident has been corroborated by eyewitnesses.

To be clear, Sahouri was covering the protest as a journalist. Many news outlets don’t allow reporters to attend protests as citizens. She was arrested while doing her job.

According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, 126 journalists were arrested in 2020. Sahouri’s case is just one of a handful that are being prosecuted. The managing editor of the Freedom Tracker told USA Today that the reason Sahouri’s charges remain are "surprising and unknown.”

The trial is happening in a red state within the context of a lot of societal pearl-grabbing over the First Amendment and “cancel culture.” And provides a crucial window into power and the media, and who is defended and who isn’t. 

Initially, condemnation of the arrest was strong. In July, 150 local media outlets and organizations signed a letter asking the prosecutor to drop the charges against Sahouri. The Register, Sahouri’s employer, continues to vigorously defend her. The paper’s editor, Carol Hunter, stated that she sees this fight “as a fundamental principle… that a reporter has a right to be at a protest scene to be able to observe what is going on and to report.”

On February 25, The Sioux City Journal published an editorial, which stated, “When reporters are arrested, assaulted or otherwise prevented from doing their jobs, it’s not an attack on just a single journalist or a media company. It’s an attack on everyone’s rights to be informed and to hold those in power accountable for their actions.”

Iowa Public Radio tweeted on March 5 that they stand with Sahouri.

Also, on Twitter, Douglas Burns, co-owner/columnist of Carroll Times, called out the arrest as racism.

These defenses are important, because when an outlet doesn’t send a clear message of support, it has a silencing effect on journalists in their newsrooms and across the state.

To be fair, many of the state’s smaller papers and outlets have been vocal about press freedoms in general, but because of their audience, they keep a hyper-local coverage. Hyper-local media outlets are often strapped for time and staff. And several outlets pointed me to the July letter as their statement on the trial.

But the trial of Sahouri represents a critical moment for local journalism in a state that has sustained relentless attacks on the free press from the GOP (the party in power), which has refused to comply with open records requests, meet with editorial boards, and, to put it mildly, has been less than transparent.

Sen. Chuck Grassley has railed against “cancel culture” but has not said anything about Sahouri’s trial. Same with Sen. Joni Ernst and Gov. Kim Reynolds. 

In 2019, the Iowa GOP was quick to defend Carson King, who went viral for asking for beer money, after Register reporter Aaron Calvin accurately reported that King had once tweeted racist things. Reynolds even declared a Carson King day. Currently, Iowa GOP legislators are apoplectic about what they see as attacks on the First Amendment, championing the stories of white men who have been “wronged.” As a result, GOP leaders have pushed through changes to Iowa’s universities to protect First Amendment rights. Meanwhile, Iowa is one of 21 states without anti-SLAPP laws. Anti-SLAPP laws prevent lawsuits that are designed to censor, intimidate, and silence critics. Such as when the Carroll Times Herald had to start a GoFundMe campaign to fight off silencing lawsuits after reporting on a police officer who had inappropriate relationships with teen girls.

The paper won the lawsuit, but racked up legal fees and lost advertising revenue. At the time, Burns wrote, “Standing up to the patriarchy, particularly in a rural reach of the nation, and especially now, is a financially perilous choice, one fraught with pressures from a host of sources and power centers, many of whom sought to kill the story and then retaliated against the newspaper.”

For journalists in the state, the news has been a costly and dangerous enterprise. And these same state leaders, who champion the cause of white men, have been silent as state prosecutors take a journalist and woman of color to trial.

It’s the kind of silence that strangles dissent. It’s the kind of silence that’s louder than a scream.

In the book Wilmington’s Lie by David Zucchino, he tells the story how, in 1898, white supremacists enacted a violent coup to overthrow the multi-racial government of Wilmington, North Carolina. What struck me the most was how complicit the media was in the cover-up of the violence. Josephus Daniels, the editor of the most influential newspaper in the state, chose to publish stories of Black men, focusing on their violence and their danger, to justify the coup. “More than a century before sophisticated fake news attacks targeted social media websites,” Zucchino explains, “Daniels’s manipulation of white readers through phony or misleading newspaper stories was perhaps the most daring and effective disinformation campaign of the era.”

And during the coup, journalists arriving from out of town to cover the unrest were met by local officials and embedded with the white supremacists, so that just one side of the story was told. National newspapers then reported on the violence as a necessary corrective to the Black misrule in the city.

That account illustrates how important it is to have journalists covering protests. It helps push back against lies and rumors about the violence that paint victims as perpetrators. During the George Floyd protests in Minneapolis, officials went to great lengths to paint violence on agitators from out of state. The reality was far more complicated. The violence was a mixture of local social unrest and extremists (some of the same who stormed the Capitol). Painting protesters as “violent others” who “don’t belong here” perpetuates a racist narrative about reality and justifies police brutality. 

Having Sahouri at the protest was necessary, not just because she is a good reporter, but because she is a woman of color. Her critical work as a reporter covering the Black Lives Matter protests is necessary in a state that is overwhelmingly white. Newsrooms in the state are also overwhelmingly white, as a result the stories that are told often erase Black voices.

The example of Wilmington also illustrates another point. Public perception was influenced not just by telling false stories, but by simply choosing which stories to tell and which stories not to tell. When every story that is written about Black people in your newspaper is about violence in the Black community, then the media is perpetuating dehumanizing stereotypes and perpetuating a culture of white supremacy.

Season 4 of the podcast Slow Burn follows David Duke’s rise to power in the state of Louisiana and the crisis of identity it gave to the state and to the nation. The podcast particularly talks about the difficulties that the Times Picayune faced while covering Duke. At first they ignored him, not giving him the time of day. But that just allowed his narrative to go unchecked. So, they put a reporter on him and investigated the hell out of him. But that just allowed Duke to say he was being persecuted. So, in the end, they published a series in the editorial pages about Duke and racism and Louisiana, titled “The Choice of Our Lives.” And in doing so, finally, treated Duke and his white supremacy not as a story but as the moral crisis it was.

I think about this story a lot because I’m not sure the paper was wrong to try those other tactics and they all worked together. But the story of how they grappled with the crisis shows the importance of not just telling a story but of how a story is told.

In the end, Duke lost. And as the podcast host Josh Levine points out, not because of one thing, but because of a culmination of many different forces. But I am struck, always, by that story of the Times Picayune and the trajectory of a local media outlet, recognizing the moral voice they have in a community and the impact it can have.

Reporting does not happen in a moral vacuum. The stories we tell and how we tell them matter, not just to public perception, but to the annals of history. 

In a time of shrinking media, what stories are told and what stories aren’t told is a matter of national importance. As I wrote this, 30 journalists from the Huffington Post were laid off.

In response to the layoffs, journalist Maxwell Strachan tweeted, “journalism is a public service playing by the rules of private enterprise—a contract that appears increasingly untenable.  

the result is lost careers; click-bait incentives that readers and writers both hate; and a wonderful environment for committing white-collar crimes.”

This might seem far afield of Sahouri’s trial, but I don’t think it is. When journalists are arrested for doing their job, and doing it well, when journalists are fired for the same. It sends a message about what is valued and what isn’t in the industry. 

As the industry contracts, it stifles reporting rather than encourages it.

The end of the Trump era does not mean an end to the attack on the free press. The trial of Sahouri is an actual threat to the First Amendment. It’s a tactic that shows other journalists how to behave and what they can and cannot cover. And it has an impact. Other journalists will think twice before covering a protest and telling bold stories, because not all of them will be so vigorously defended by their editors and publishers and leaders in the state who claim they defend the Constitution, but only do so selectively. 

And how will they know who has their back and who doesn’t? By the silence.

This newsletter was updated to include the full charges against Sahouri.