A Portrait Of Journalism In Crisis
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It doesn’t take long for the news photographer wearing dark sunglasses and a Covid face mask to finish capturing the scene around him. Once he’s done, he starts to edge away from the crowd. His head is bowed as he walks. Protestors, meanwhile, continue to chant in unison around him. Order seems on the verge of breaking down when the sound of an unseen and terrifying boom adds menace to the chaos and cacophony.

As sirens wail, the photographer wheels back around and unslings the camera from his shoulder. He brings it up to eye level. Snap, snap, snap.

Sirens scream in the distance. Policemen brandish long guns across their chest.

The photographer captures it all, in a flurry of images. Snap, snap, snap.

Protestors plead not to be shot. The staccato wail of sirens is unrelenting. And then, a loud crrrrack. The hiss of tear gas. The photographer moves with precision and purpose along the fringes of the scene. Snap, snap, snap.

Miami Herald photojournalist Carl Juste gets back into his car. Immediately, his phone buzzes. An editor.

“Uh, do you have anything? If you can send just one, that’d be great.”

Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, working with executive producer Ronan Farrow, included that scene — of Juste, covering a Black Lives Matter protest after the murder of George Floyd — earliy on in their new documentary “Endangered.” A sobering and cautionary tale about press in peril around the world, their film debuts on HBO Max later this month (June 28), just weeks after its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.

What’s so striking about the scene that day in Miami, of Juste matter-of-factly going about his work of bearing witness, is how seamlessly it also blends with others that “Endangered” presents from elsewhere around the world. Of journalists in countries like Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro is shown at a public event using vulgar, sexist language to dismiss the reporting of an inconvenient journalist.

And in places like Mexico City, where a photojournalist like Sashenka Gutierrez works in a profession whose members are killed all too frequently there.

In Juste’s case, in Miami, cops in the city later on start to respond aggressively to the press covering similar protests and gatherings. “Anger Boils Over Again,” the headline in the Miami Herald declares, atop one of Juste’s photographs — depicting a small band of police in silhouette, one of them holding a gun that wouldn’t look out of place on a battlefield.

When the George Floyd protests began, Ewing told me in an interview, the Committee to Protect journalists was “getting hundreds of calls a day, regarding safety protocols — from American journalists! In the US! That had never happened before. So, right when we were rolling, this came home, big-time.”

The “this” being assaults, harassment, roadblocks, threats to physical safety, online vitriol — anything, really, that’s meant to make a reporter’s job more difficult and to dissuade them from holding power to account.

“Endangered” begins with footage from a pro-Bolsonaro rally in Sao Paulo. Brandishing a megaphone, a hype man for Brazil’s Trump-friendly president works the crowd into frenzied roars of approval. “We must destroy the mainstream media! Someone has to do it.

“These reporters are criminals! These people need to be exterminated!”

Newspaper reporter Patricia Campos Mello was in the crowd that day. The “Endangered” filmmakers had already started a conversation with her early on about the story they wanted to tell — which, by the way, pre-dated the Covid pandemic.

Ewing and Grady had been developing the idea for this project with Farrow for about a year. And then Covid hit, quickly bringing the imperative for a documentary project like this into stark relief.

All of the sudden, Ewing told me, “all of these leaders around the entire world were put in a spot where, you know, they weren’t able to control the narrative. And the narrative was very, very bad. So, there was more aggressiveness to the press and to the people bringing this bad news — but the essential, and true news … It was not convenient for them.”

There is, furthermore, a straight narrative line from footage of Bolsonaro insisting that Mello was trading sexual favors in order to find dirt on him — a lie that millions of his supporters would believe, because it came straight from the president’s mouth after all — to other crackdowns on journalism and reporters around the world. In extreme cases, some of those journalists have ended up dead, like Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi, murdered by a hit squad under the auspices of the Saudi regime; and, in recent days, a freelance British journalist killed in a remote Amazon region of Brazil.

“Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist,” Gutierrez says at one point in “Endangered.” “A lot of my colleagues have disappeared or been killed.”

This year, in fact, has been an especially deadly one in Mexico for members of the profession. For reporters like José Luis Gamboa in Veracruz, and Margarito Martínez and Lourdes Maldonado in Tijuana.

Gamboa — who founded and edited multiple news websites, in addition to publishing news to his Facebook page — was stabbed to death in mid-January. Also this year, Martínez, a 49-year-old photojournalist who covered police and crime, was shot to death outside his home in Tijuana. Maldonado, who’d written for several major Mexican news outlets, was likewise found outside her home, shot to death in her car.

Elsewhere in “Endangered,” meanwhile, journalists are shown being railroaded by hospital leaders into reporting rosy Covid data. The film, in other words, takes viewers behind the scenes to get an up-close look at the broad spectrum of obstacles that confronts reporters on a daily basis — from readers who insist on consuming a news product that only conforms to their worldview, to the politicians who weaponize their bully pulpit.

And to the killers who, when all else fails, target reporters who aren’t afraid.

“Over the years, with these catchphrases that have popped up like ‘fake news’ … I really hope that people realize (the press) is not some big monolith,” Grady told me. “That these are people that have families and are doing this work for all different reasons. Every article you read, every picture you look at — there was a massive amount of work that went on behind it.

“These are individuals, they do a really hard job … and hopefully this film will remind people about what’s behind that byline.”

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