Reporting On Protest | Amid Protestors, Police And Looters, A Fox News Reporter Finds Moments Of Authenticity
My singular goal in covering the protests against racial injustice in the U.S. has been to go to as many locations as possible in New York City and bring people a raw, authentic view of what was happening on the ground.
I realized early on that I could not describe the history of racism or police brutality in 90 seconds. Nor could I give the police perspective fully and equivocally in 90 seconds. It’s an impossible proposition.
In my first shift covering the protests on a Saturday night, we were on Bedford Ave. in Flatbush, Brooklyn. What started as a peaceful protest quickly turned into a riot. The majority of the protestors had been peaceful, but there were agitators in the crowd who clearly wanted to start a confrontation with police. A couple of them got on top of two police vehicles and began destroying them. At that moment, the police line charged at the protestors, and for the next three hours there was a terrible back and forth between them.
The peaceful protestors put up their hands. Agitators behind them threw things at the police from further back including glass bottles, bricks and even a fire extinguisher. Two police vehicles were lit on fire. I felt like I really needed to get that detail right. I needed to describe in nuance that agitators had hijacked an otherwise nonviolent protest and had turned it into a riot.
We let the cameras roll — our camera was always hot — wanting to show every moment. Oleg Vernik, my photographer, shot as much of the scene as possible. We watched as an African-American woman in a nurse’s uniform started speaking above the crowd, trying to deescalate the situation. We pulled her aside for an interview as she tried to stop the riot on her own.
She was a nurse in America’s COVID-19 epicenter. She had just sacrificed her own well-being to protect New Yorkers, and now she was doing what she could to deescalate the situation so more people in her neighborhood wouldn’t get hurt. It was an important moment to capture for my Fox News audience.
Here was a woman, a hero, putting herself in harm’s way between protesters and police not because she didn’t care about the issues; on the contrary, it’s because she understood their pain and wanted to protect her neighbors from more violence.
Two days after the protests in Brooklyn, we were hearing calls on the scanner about looting in SoHo. When we arrived there, an eyewitness approached me to describe what he’d seen — large groups nonchalantly going between the shops with shopping bags and garbage bags full of stolen goods.
He took us to a location where it was still happening, and right off the bat, there was a different feeling in the air than in Brooklyn. The goal here was to steal, and they were doing that. We did what we could do, which was to show people in real time what was happening. It was clear from our reporting that these were large groups of adolescents who were not the same protesters who were in the streets.
Over the first 12 days of this, I noticed an evolution. It started with anger and rioting, it turned into two nights of mass looting and then it became about the curfew that the city imposed to stop the looting and criminal behavior.
That curfew almost immediately spurred more confrontations between the police and peaceful protestors. The police were trying to do their jobs by enforcing what elected officials had put in place. The protesters were trying to do what they thought was their right, exercising their free speech by continuing to march in the streets. The dichotomy was at the heart of the tension. The irony is that the curfew implemented to bring peace only guaranteed confrontation between anti-police brutality protesters and officers.
One night after the curfew had been in place, we were following another group of protestors. We positioned ourselves between them and a line of police just minutes before we were supposed to go live on Sean Hannity’s show. I wanted to be in that place on the frontline, in between both groups so viewers could see how the police were acting and how the protestors were acting. And the images said it all.
The protestors got on their knees and put their hands up in the air, peacefully. The police moved in and began arresting them en masse in the torrential rain. Their only crime was violating the curfew.
A man came up to me, impassioned. He saw my microphone. “We are just trying to be heard,” he said. “We are just trying to do something to help. I don’t understand why they won’t negotiate.”
It was impossible to deny his authenticity. I knew it was important that we were there to hear him and to let our audience hear his perspective as he was being taken away by police. Minutes later, I interviewed the NYPD Chief of Department live, and he explained why his officers were making the arrests. I felt real humanity and empathy in both interviews.
When you are a reporter, any time you are on an opinion show you don’t have any control about what is said before you or after you. The only thing you have control over is what you say. To Hannity’s credit, he came to me every night, and I led his show. He allowed the people I spoke to on the ground to speak. He could have cut them off. He gave one black woman I spoke to at a protest four-and-a-half minutes on primetime television as I interviewed her about why she feared the NYPD.
Covering this story only emphasizes the importance of diversity in newsrooms. My life experiences as a gay, brown, Hispanic man allowed me to mediate a thoughtful conversation between a black woman who feared the police and Sean Hannity, whose politics did not align with hers.
I wanted her perspective to be heard. I knew if I asked my questions in a tone or manner that turned her off, then our audience wouldn’t hear her perspective. If any audience in America needs to hear from a black woman about police brutality, it was Sean Hannity’s audience. I credit him for allowing me to do my job as the eyes and ears on the ground.
I have worked at Fox News Channel for 10 years now. I welcome conversations that I have to have at parties and social gatherings all the time about why I work there. And that’s because the bottom line is they allow their news people to do the news.
Many of us in the news department feel that it’s more important that we are right about the facts than if we were at any other organization. It’s more important that we bring a diversity of authentic voices to the table when we do our reporting. We feel that sense of responsibility keenly. We are trying as hard as we can.
Talking to people about where I work is a challenge I welcome with open arms. But on the other hand, it is physically and emotionally exhausting. After seven nights of working 4:30 p.m.-4:30 a.m., I woke up and cried. I cried because I just wanted to meet the moment. Had I been fair? Did I do enough to show the truth on the ground?
To Fox’s credit, they allowed my crew to make decisions in real time on the ground and trusted us. I’ve had to use that judgement constantly. I’ve gotten a lot of calls from my mother concerned about my health because I’m not wearing a mask on camera. I put my fiancé, Kyle, on a flight home to Illinois because I don’t want to jeopardize his health for risks I’m choosing to take to get the story (I’ve since tested negative for COVID-19).
But I leave off the mask when I do because what’s the point of describing what is happening here if you can’t understand me? It would be a disservice to our viewers. I am constantly negotiating that risk.
Other times the danger has been more immediate and visible: the people throwing things at us because our cameras were live as they were looting a Chanel store; our security detail pulling us away from a crowd closing in, one security guard saying, “Enough is enough.”
And there is vitriol out there for the press whether you are covering a Trump rally or a Black Lives Matter protest. There’s a real sense of harm that can come to you just by saying your affiliation, whatever it may be.
For me, I hope the more respect we show people on the ground, the more we elevate our reporting.
When I go back out to the streets, my message to the protestors is if you want to enact change and speak to people, don’t stay away from my camera. You want to speak to me. You want to give your perspective. Whoever you are, my job is to make sure I give you the space to do it.
Bryan Llenas is a national correspondent at Fox News.
TVNewsCheck wants to hear from journalists on the ground reporting from the protests across the U.S. Email Editor Michael Depp at [email protected] to share your story.
To read more TVNewsCheck coverage of how TV journalists are covering the protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, click here.