A journalist was violently confronted in Mississippi on live national television on Monday, and our state is the talk of the nation for it. I wish I could say I was surprised.
NBC correspondent Shaquille Brewster was doing a live shot for MSNBC from a Gulfport beach on Monday morning when a pickup truck drove up behind him. A man jumped out and ran toward him.
The man, broadcast live to the world, got in Brewster’s face and could be heard shouting “cover this accurately.” Brewster, who remained calm, raised his forearm to block the man. The live report abruptly ended, and Brewster later tweeted that he was OK. Later in the day, Gulfport Police announced they had identified the man and were searching for him.
What the world saw this week: When a national journalist came to our state to report the extent of the damage of Hurricane Ida, he was accosted on live national TV. And few overlooked that Brewster, who is Black, was charged by an angry white man — all, apparently, because Brewster was doing his job.
Gulfport police later said the man who attacked Brewster was an Ohio native, and we still don’t know why he was driving around the Mississippi Coast breaking curfew. But his actions, no matter where he was from, caused real damage to Mississippi’s reputation.
We’ll soon know more about what truly motivated that man, but as I watched the replay of the attack, it was difficult to separate it from Mississippi’s top elected official’s recent comments about the press. This national embarrassment, unfortunately, is the product of the political climate that has been sown in Mississippi for months.
Gov. Tate Reeves has used his platform in recent weeks to antagonize journalists, to cast doubt about truthful reporting of his response to the uber-politicized COVID-19 pandemic, and to paint the press as the enemy of Republicans.
“If you intend to use this press conference as a platform to grandstand or to get MSNBC clicking on your story, please do not expect me to do that,” Republican Gov. Tate Reeves said, unprompted, in an Aug. 19 press conference that was broadcast live to televisions across the state.
“There are those on the left, including most of the reporters in this room, who want to make political hay and grow their Twitter platform because I will not issue mandate after mandate after mandate,” Reeves said the same day.
“If you really want to virtue signal, why are you here?” Reeves asked a masked Mississippi Today reporter during an Aug. 13 press conference. “Why don’t you lock yourself up in your house because you will not give (the virus) to anybody if you don’t see anybody.”
“What (Mississippi Today) has been writing is a figment of your imagination as to what I have said,” he said on Aug. 13.
This is all part of an old strategy that Reeves has reused over and over: If data show that things are bad, question the data. If experts say things are bad, challenge the experts. If reporters ask why things are bad, blame the reporters.
That last part is becoming more and more troubling. Reeves has really been leaning in — conveniently, by the way, as his leadership is being challenged more broadly than ever.
Crediting Reeves alone for this behavior doesn’t reflect reality. Reeves, a close ally of former President Donald Trump, has taken several chapters from the Trump playbook.
I’ve covered five Trump rallies in Mississippi. Each one included some level of disparagement of the press, including by the president himself. At a 2018 Southaven rally, Trump went after a reporter by name. I sat next to her, and the vitriol that came her way the rest of the night from dozens of rally attendees was just disgusting.
Echoes of “Lock them up!” — a chant referencing the reporters in the back of the room — bounced off the walls of the Mississippi Coast Coliseum when Trump visited in 2018.
And it will be difficult to forget the straight face of the elderly man at a 2019 Trump rally in Tupelo who walked by me, noticed my press pass hanging around my neck and said, “I hope your family suffers.”
Why was Trump there that night? Campaigning for Tate Reeves.
At best, this environment encourages the mistreatment of people who work to seek truth and inform the public — as much a public service as running for political office. At worst, it puts journalists in danger as we saw on the Gulfport beach on Monday.
Reeves didn’t create this climate, but he’s certainly perpetuating it. His continued targeting of the press is a choice — one that is, no doubt, made on political merit. When the politics gets turned up, making the story about the press rather than the results of his leadership is his most trusted move.
What elected officials, particularly ones in positions of power like Reeves, publicly say about journalists matters. The governor has a choice to make: He can take to heart what happened to Brewster this week, or he can continue to ratchet up the rhetoric and put journalists in danger.
Maybe the choice he makes next will be what surprises us.
Editor’s note: This analysis was updated on Sept. 1 to reflect that the suspect was identified as an Ohio man. An earlier version included phrasing that was perceived by some to blame Mississippians at large for the actions of an out-of-stater. I apologize for not being more careful with that phrasing.
Unfortunately, where he’s from doesn’t change the negative national publicity Mississippi received because of his actions. The crux of this analysis, as ever, remains sad but true: Politicians on the statewide and national stage have perpetuated an environment in this state that allows for the mistreatment of journalists.