Ferguson No-Fly Zone Was a Big No-No

Why did the Federal Aviation Administration run interference for the Ferguson police department?
Would a bird's-eye view have been worse?

During the August protests in Ferguson, Missouri, the Federal Aviation Administration limited access to the airspace over the affected area, "to provide a safe environment for law enforcement activities." Now the Associated Press seems to have uncovered evidence that the purpose of the limitations was to keep media helicopters out, and the FAA went along with it anyway.

"They finally admitted it really was to keep the media out," said one FAA manager about the St. Louis County Police in a series of recorded telephone conversations obtained by The Associated Press. "But they were a little concerned of, obviously, anything else that could be going on.

At another point, a manager at the FAA's Kansas City center said police "did not care if you ran commercial traffic through this TFR (temporary flight restriction) all day long. They didn't want media in there."

FAA procedures for defining a no-fly area did not have an option that would accommodate that.

"There is really ... no option for a TFR that says, you know, 'OK, everybody but the media is OK,'" he said. The managers then worked out wording they felt would keep news helicopters out of the controlled zone but not impede other air traffic.

The conversations contradict claims by the St. Louis County Police Department, which responded to demonstrations following the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, that the restriction was solely for safety and had nothing to do with preventing media from witnessing the violence or the police response.

The deepest fault lies with the Ferguson police department, which seems to have held a deep institutional belief in the police right to take care of things without all that pesky oversight from journalists. Yes, I understand that the department felt under siege as armies of journalists arrived, many already convinced that the police were in the wrong and hoping to catch them in more failures. Yes, I understand the fear that media presence was inflaming an already tense situation. To which I reply: Welcome to representative democracy.

One of the first principles of democratic governance is that government officials are accountable to the public -- and ever-vigilant watchdogs are in charge of making sure they are held accountable. One of those watchdogs is the media, which records what happens and transmits it. There is no legitimate reason for the police to seek to keep television cameras from showing what they were doing -- no, not even if that subjects the police to all manner of dismaying, and perhaps even unfair, accusations. The alternative is to restrict media coverage to what government officials deem "fair," which is to say, "that which presents government officials in the best possible light."

I'm not saying that the media are supercitizens entitled to do anything they please in service of a story; they shouldn't communicate our troop movements in a war zone, and they shouldn't fly helicopters in areas where doing so might harm public safety. The problem is that the FAA seems to have authorized flight restrictions when nothing more precious than the Ferguson PD's public image was in danger.

This is the sort of official decision you expect in Fidel Castro's Cuba or Communist China, not the U.S. The Ferguson PD, and the FAA, should be deeply ashamed. And the White House should make it crystal clear that this sort of abuse is intolerable to the administration, and the American people.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    To contact the author on this story:
    Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor on this story:
    James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net

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