If you’ve been following the Occupy Wall Street protests, either in person or online — and I imagine pretty much everyone has, especially after a top NYPD officer pepper-sprayed demonstrators and his own colleagues and got rewarded with his own TV show, courtesy of The Daily Show — you’ve probably heard about Saturday’s arrest of 700 demonstrators who attempted to march across the Brooklyn Bridge, including a New York Times reporter and a 13-year-old girl.
Soon afterwards, an image began circulating on Facebook showing the front-page story on the New York Times website, and how its report of the event had changed from:
After allowing them onto the bridge, the police cut off and arrested dozens of Occupy Wall Street demonstrators.
In a tense showdown over the East River, police arrested hundreds of Occupy Wall Street demonstrators after they marched onto the bridge’s Brooklyn-bound roadway.
What happened in the interim isn’t clear: an editor concerned about fact-checking, a complaint from the NYPD? (The Times yesterday updated its story yet again, including both police claims that demonstrators took the bridge themselves, and protestor claims that they were led into a trap.) But with further video evidence and the eyewitness report of that arrested Times reporter, it’s becoming increasingly clear what happened:
- A bunch of demonstrators jumped the fence separating the pedestrian path from the bridge approach ramp. (per Times reporter Natasha Lennard)
- Several police officers warned the demonstrators (albeit not very audibly given the loud chanting going on at the time) that they’d be arrested if they stayed on the roadway. (per the video)
- The police backed off toward the middle of the bridge without further addressing the marchers, who followed, letting up a huge cheer. (video)
- Once they reached the middle of the bridge, dozens more police officers showed up, and began arresting people in a “random and aggressive” manner. (Lennard)
The Times, in other words, got it right in its initial report, only to back off and use the NYPD official version, and finally to resort to “he-said-she-said” competing claims by the police and demonstrators.
I know it’s tough doing reporting of breaking news, sifting through rumors and word-of-mouth while on a tight deadline — doubly so since the web has made all deadlines be “right now,” and triply so when your lead reporter on the scene is sitting on a bus in handcuffs. Still, it’s all too easy to fall back on official sources, or throw up your hands and just present competing claims without trying to verify either side. Millions of people following on YouTube can get a pretty good sense of what went down on the Brooklyn Bridge on Saturday; you’d hope that the Times could do better than “We dunno, here’s what the two sides tell us.”