TRAVERSE CITY — The Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s Office is investigating a report of an attack on a Traverse City (Mich.) Record-Eagle reporter while covering an anti-mask, anti-vaccine event at a township park Thursday evening.
“We are interviewing witnesses and a report will be forwarded to the prosecutor’s office probably Monday or Tuesday,” Sheriff Tom Bensley said.
“I know the concern you have,” Bensley said. “There are some people out there that are not happy with the news outlets. We’ve had two incidents in a short period of time. This is the second one.”
In May, Leelanau County Sheriff’s deputies arrested a man after a local television news crew covering a visit by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, recorded video of the man attempting to destroy a microphone and spitting at the camera.
The Thursday evening event took place at Silver Lake Recreation Area in Garfield Township. Social media posts show the gathering was organized by Citizens Liberating Michigan and also promoted online by a private Facebook group, TCAPS our kids our choice!
The groups oppose what some call “mask and jab mandates” for schools and others, information posted online shows.
Record-Eagle education Reporter Brendan Quealy said tension developed between the groups and local school officials when Traverse City Area Public Schools trustees voted to require universal masking for all K-12 students and staff through Sept. 27 — a reversal of an Aug. 9 decision by the superintendent and the board which strongly recommended masking but made wearing a face covering optional.
Quealy said he was told of the Garfield Township event by a source and wore a mask while covering it.
Quealy said he arrived at 6:15 p.m. and began recording audio of the event with his cellphone. He estimated between 80 and 100 people gathered at one of three pavilions inside the park. On the recording one of the organizers, Heather Cerone, who says she is with Citizens Liberating Michigan, introduces herself, mentions the Record-Eagle and states she is not authorizing video or audio recording of the event.
“There’s no reporting, Brendan,” Cerone can be heard saying. “We don’t authorize that. So, you guys feel like standing in front of him? Because we’re on private property here because we have that rented. That would be great.”
Quealy said he called authorities after the confrontation and dispatchers sent a sheriff’s sergeant to the scene.
He said he told the investigator he was approached by two men who told him to leave, pushed him and then one of the men shoved Quealy into a wooden fence and punched him in the face with both fists.
On the recording, which was shared with law enforcement, two voices yell, “Put the phone down,” and “Get out of here,” then a scuffle can be heard before others intervene, saying, “No fighting,” and “There is no violence. No violence.”
Sheriff Bensley declined to share details of the report of the attack, though confirmed law enforcement was called for a report of a possible assault and regarding the presence, at the event, of a news reporter.
“He was there, they didn’t want him there, we’re investigating,” Bensley said.
Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Noelle Moeggenberg said her review of the sheriff’s department’s report could take days or a week, depending on the information she received from law enforcement.
Moeggenberg declined to speak about this specific incident, but said, in general, her review of a report regarding a possible assault includes reading the law enforcement report, ascertaining the criminal history of any named suspect or suspects, reviewing footage from an officer’s body camera and interviewing all potential eye witnesses.
Silver Lake Recreation Area on East Silver Lake Road includes three picnic pavilions which can be reserved in advance for a fee and the anti-mask, anti-vaccine event was held in one of these pavilions, information posted online shows.
Moeggenberg said while the pavilion may have been rented by a private group for a private function, the area around the pavilion remains open to members of the public, including news reporters.
“That’s an open area, its open to anyone,” Moeggenberg said. “I could go and walk my dog there even though they’ve rented the pavilion, and potentially be hearing what they’re saying and they wouldn’t have any recourse.”
Information posted online shows Cerone of CLM and Erik Aungst, who is associated with a private Facebook group, TCAPS our kids our choice!, helped organize the event.
Cerone did not return calls seeking comment Friday.
Traverse City Area Public Schools Board President Scott Newman-Bale said he heard similar rumors of possible in-person protests and TCAPS Superintendent Jon VanWagoner said he was aware of some online chatter about protests, but nothing concrete.
“We certainly don’t want to tell anyone they don’t have the right to protest, and I’m happy for people to give us feedback on what we’re doing in the schools,” Newman-Bale said. “But we need to consider what’s best for kids, of managing their stress level, and protesting at the schools is probably the least responsible way of achieving that objective.”
Record-Eagle Executive Editor Nathan Payne said increasing aggression toward journalists who do their jobs, who keep their communities informed, is both alarming and unacceptable.
“Our journalists have an important job rooted in public service,” he said. “They should be able to go to work without fear of being attacked for doing nothing more than asking questions, gathering facts and telling truths.”
Moeggenberg said she is aware of increasing reports of violence directed at news reporters in other parts of the U.S.
“It’s a huge concern,” she said, of any potential violence directed at reporters working in northern Michigan during the pandemic. “We’re seeing it more and more around the country and I really hoped we wouldn’t see it here.”
The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a centralized data repository of more than two dozen press freedom groups, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, reports 515 journalists have been attacked since 2017 while covering protests.
“We are greatly concerned by the growth of anti-media sentiment across the United States,” said CPJ’s U.S. and Canada Program Coordinator, Katherine Jacobsen, when told of the reported attack on Quealy.
“Reporters should not be attacked simply for doing their jobs and covering matters of public interest,” Jacobsen said. “Local newsrooms have become strapped for resources over the past decade and their reporters deserve respect, rather than retaliation, for doggedly covering community news.”
Quealy on Friday filed a story on possible protests over mask mandates at TCAPS buildings on Sept. 7, the first day of school.
“It’s my job,” Quealy said. “My job is to chase the news, to accurately report it and that’s what I was doing. ”
The Record-Eagle is a CNHI newspaper and a sister paper of the Valdosta Daily Times.