Updated Monday at 12:00 p.m.
Attorney General Eric Holder waded into the latest Ferguson controversy on Monday, when he was asked about the recent revelation that the Ferguson no-fly ban was put in place to keep the media from seeing the violent protests from above.
“Transparency I think is always a good thing,” he said. “The American people need to understand … what was happening or what is happening in Ferguson. Anything that would artificially inhibit the ability of news gatherers to do what they do, I think, is something that needs to be avoided.”
For 12 days in August, a 37-square-mile no-fly zone was declared over Ferguson, Missouri, amid violent protests against the killing of unarmed, African-American teen Michael Brown. Police told reporters at the time that the flight ban was put in place because police helicopters had been shot at, but audio recordings obtained by the Associated Press reveal another motive: to keep the press away.
The recordings raise significant questions about how police were able to obtain the Federal Aviation Administration’s agreement to such a ban and what the police were trying to keep the media from seeing. The police were widely criticized during the protest for the arrests of several journalists and the harsh suppression of protests.
“They finally admitted it really was to keep the media out,” one FAA manager is heard saying one recording obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. “But they were a little concerned of, obviously, anything else that could be going on.”
The Justice Department announced an investigation into the shooting months ago, but it’s unclear whether the no-fly ban would play a role in it. ”I haven’t prejudged anything. I’m aware of the investigation that we have ongoing,” Holder said. “We’ll reveal, you know, in a more fulsome way what changes we think need to be made at the conclusion of the investigation.”
In a different recording, another air traffic manager in Kansas City is heard saying the 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 officials wanted to allow commercial flight traffic to continue at a nearby airport and worked with police officials to craft wording they thought would keep the media out. “There is really … no option for a TFR that says, you know, ‘OK, everybody but the media is OK,’” the Kansas City manager continued.
“The St. Louis County Police Department reaffirms the reason the request for restricted airspace was made, was due to the hostile nature of certain persons on the ground that fired gunshots at the police helicopter, as well as used a laser device pointed at the police helicopter,” police officials told St. Louis news channel KSDK following the audio release.
Police officials maintained to the AP on Friday that shots fired at a police helicopter were the cause of the restriction but confirm there was no damage to their helicopter or even an incident report on the supposed shooting. In conversations by FAA air traffic managers the helicopter shooting was discussed as a “rumor” and keeping the media out as a motive. Police helicopters continued to fly above Ferguson during the no-fly ban.“The media is not being allowed to show what we need to be able to show,” Rachel Maddow argued when the flight ban was renewed in August, arguing that a big picture view was crucial to the media’s work. Police were widely criticized for arresting protesters and even journalists and violently suppressing protests with tear gas; she notes that a big picture view was crucial to reporting on their response.
In August, the police told NBC News they weren’t trying to keep the press out with the flight ban. “We understand that that’s the perception that’s out there, but it truly is for the safety of pilots,” a police official said.
“Police should not be bullying and arresting reporters who are just doing their jobs,” President Barack Obama said two days after police told FAA officials the flight ban was intended to keep the media at bay. “The local authorities, including police, have a responsibility to be transparent and open.”