For days, President Trump has been on a rampage against Twitter for its treatment of him, and it’s easy to see why. Early Friday morning, after a tweet from him about the violence in Minneapolis declared, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” Twitter dispatched police officers to the White House, who handcuffed Mr. Trump and took him into custody on live television in view of the entire nation.
Oh, sorry, quick fact-check: That did not happen at all. The president remains free and tweeting. Twitter, a private company, remains free to set rules on the use of its service. The president’s flagged tweets — the “shooting” remark and a misleading attack on mail-in voting — remain available to read, the first behind a notice that it violates the service’s rules on glorifying violence, the second with a fact-checking link appended.
The incident, which unfolded over several tense minutes, was brazen and appalling. But at least it served a clarifying purpose. After days of hot air expended insisting on a politician’s “right” to use a private platform without correction, America got to see what an actual offense against the First Amendment looks like.
It looked like world news footage from a police state. Mr. Jimenez, wearing a mask in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, calmly negotiates with officers, visored and bunched in around the camera. He tells them they are live on the air, and he offers to get out of their way: “Put us back where you want us.”
He’s told, “You’re under arrest.”
He asks why and gets no answer. And he’s walked off, to the stunned play-by-play of the anchors in the CNN studio. (Mr. Jimenez is black and Latino. Notably, given the racial dynamics of the Minneapolis protests, a white CNN reporter also covering the story said he was treated much more politely.)
Then the producer is arrested, then the cameraman, until finally an officer picks up the camera and walks it off, the screen jostling into motion as if we, the audience, were being taken into custody, for getting too close, for seeing too much, for looking at someone the wrong way.
The official explanation for the arrest was that the CNN crew refused to move on police orders, an absurdity given what the world saw and heard live. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” the network anchor John Berman said.
But we have seen things like this, not long ago, if not so flagrantly and shamelessly. Police in Ferguson, Mo., gave a similar rationalization in 2014 for arresting two journalists — ordering one to “Stop videotaping!” as he recorded his arrest — during the unrest after the police shooting of Michael Brown.
In the past, though, the arrest did not happen to journalists who work for a news organization that the president had designated the “enemy of the people.” It did not happen under a president who once retweeted a doctored video that showed him beating on a person with the CNN logo covering his face.
And it did not happen in a week when that president threatened punitive measures against a private social-media platform for suggesting that the misinformation he tweeted was misinformation. The president, it seems, considers his inconvenience to be a violation of freedom, and actual press freedom to be an inconvenience.
Which in the end is the only real connection between Mr. Trump’s claims of oppression and the violation we watched on morning cable TV. Actual censorship happens when a government acts to suppress protected speech, not when a private company sets rules for using its platform.
Just hours before the arrest, Mr. Trump posted his tweet with the “shooting” line, which the Miami police chief Walter Headley used in 1967 to justify crackdowns on civil rights protesters.
And for years, he has used his speech, copious and unfiltered, to argue that the police should have a free hand in dealing with threats, and that among the greatest threats are news outlets like CNN.
By noon on Friday, the president was still freely grousing about Twitter, on Twitter. His account made no mention of the CNN arrests.
That morning, Mr. Jimenez and his crew were released, with an apology from Minnesota’s governor. But the messages had already been sent. The arrest told all media that there are people within law enforcement who now feel empowered enough to shut down coverage of unrest — unrest resulting from police violence — flat out in the open.
And it told American viewers what kind of country they are living in. This country was captured in the final seconds of video by the CNN camera, laid on the concrete, still rolling, the booted feet of police lined up at a 90-degree angle. A country angry, frightened, smoldering and tilted sideways.