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13 Nov 2019 9:54
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  •   Home > News > International

    North America correspondent Conor Duffy reflects on three years of reporting in the US

    North America correspondent Conor Duffy is returning to Australia after three years, covering mass shootings, natural disasters and tumultuous politics.

    It's become customary for North America correspondents to end their postings with remarks on the tragedy of America's Second Amendment.

    There's plenty to prove the worth of that topic, not least of which was the 2:00am phone call I received on October 1, 2017.

    That was the night I was sent to cover the worst massacre in modern American history, a shooting in Las Vegas that left 58 dead.

    I still worry whenever the phone rings in the middle of the night.

    And when I think back on three years of work, I can still feel the urgency of that warm night on the Vegas strip with camera operator Adrian Wilson.

    But more than two years after the casino carnage, America has largely failed to take action on the sort of gun control measures that could prevent another massacre.

    So, I'm choosing to instead make my goodbye a celebration of the First Amendment, particularly its protections for free speech.

    It's made my three years working in the US easier every day, removing roadblocks to reporting that authorities in Australia regularly impose.

    The first amendment gave us a front row seat to natural disasters

    Last year, camera operator John Mees and I covered the biggest bushfire in Californian history — the Mendocino fire.

    A state law, based on the first amendment, recognizes the media's important role in witnessing what's going on.

    Unlike back home, no one can impede our access.

    During my time covering fires in Australia, access could be really difficult.

    When we covered the 2013 east coast fires in Tasmania, we were eventually waved through on the condition we brought in sandwiches.

    We were happy to provide the delivery service, but, at the other end, the authorities weren't pleased to see us.

    Here, where you stand is much clearer, allowing us a frontline account of what firefighters, like Captain Steve Kaufmann and his colleagues, were fighting in California.

    "A changing climate means a new reality, and these teams are flying year-round," he told us, as planes loaded with retardant whizzed by.

    "One of the things that's challenging is we've had more firefighter fatalities than I remember in my career as a firefighter."

    I remember that police roadblocks during Cyclone Larry in 2006 at times frustrated our reporting access.

    When cameraman Brad Fulton and I covered Hurricane Harvey in Houston, we showed our congressional media passes and were waved through every police roadblock.

    Using our experience of regularly covering traumatic and dangerous events, we were able to safely ride along and film the rescues that took place for a week in the second most damaging storm to ever hit the US.

    We captured stories like those of Dave and Linda West, who described what it was like to watch the water rise in their homes.

    "It was like the Titanic," said Linda West.

    "We had boarded up everything, and the water's coming through the walls. We were like, 'we're not going to be able to stop this.'"

    Providing crucial context for a high-profile murder trial

    The First Amendment also came in handy covering a major court case here in the US: the trial of Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor, who murdered Australian Justine Damond Ruszczyk.

    Cameraman Niall Lenihan and I had extraordinary freedom to report all aspects of the case, even as Australians were being prevented from hearing anything at all about a very prominent criminal case back home.

    Here, the burden of not prejudicing a jury sits squarely on the 12 people judging the case — in other words, juries have to stay away from media.

    The media doesn't have to limit its reporting to what happened in court.

    During the peak drama of the trial, we got a rare interview with Valerie Castile, whose son Philando Castile was shot by police in a live-streamed video just a few miles from where Justine was murdered.

    It allowed us to give our viewers crucial context about deep-seated problems with policing and race in the Twin Cities.

    Riots broke out after the officer who killed Valerie's son Philando was acquitted.

    "To take someone's life is wrong and that man shot in the car with no regards to human life," Valerie said.

    "In my case, my son's life wasn't worth shit. Because he was acquitted, and you had everything you needed."

    Imagine reporting that in Australia! You'd be locked up yourself.

    Despite all the rhetoric, Noor still got a fair trial, and our audience got the full story.

    The obvious comparison for me would be the manslaughter trial of Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley who was acquitted over the death in custody of aboriginal man Mulrunji Doomadgee.

    We'd have been in the Townsville clink if we reported the same way back home.

    In fact, my good friend, the award-winning photographer Eddie Safarik, was charged with trespass for trying to take a photograph of Officer Hurley as he was shielded from the media by his colleagues in a police vehicle.

    No conviction was recorded.

    That same dedication to getting the shot saw Eddie honoured one year later with a Walkley Award for an emblematic shot of Mohamed Haneef cuffed and doubled over in a police vehicle.

    In Minneapolis, Noor and his legal team entered through the public entrance and saw the cameras every day.

    The reporting I'm most proud of probably wouldn't have been possible in Australia

    Similarly, Australia's defamation laws have been called the worst in the western world.

    In the US, the onus is on the plaintiff to prove a story is false.

    In Australia, the media company must prove truth.

    As an example of the stakes of this, some Australian bookstores are caving to defamation threats and refusing to sell Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ronan Farrow's book on the #MeToo movement.

    In America, it took former Mossad agents to shut down Farrow's reporting.

    Movie mogul Harvey Weinstein wouldn't need them in Australia — solicitors would do.

    Reporting the US story I'm most proud of would've been enormously challenging had it occurred in Australia.

    (It also wouldn't have happened without a huge team effort from cameraman John Mees, producer Marc Corcoran and researchers Alison McClymont and Jill Colgan.)

    The story was a half-hour Foreign Correspondent program, Opioid America, on the Sackler family, whose role in the creation of oxycontin helped light the tragic fire of opioid addiction.

    "That drug just about wiped this county out it was so powerful," sheriff Martin West told me.

    "There are more injection drug users in San Francisco than there are high school students," said then San Francisco city attorney Dennis Herrera.

    It all comes back to the First Amendment.

    It increases the value of the fourth estate's watchdog role.

    The American media scene is more diverse and vibrant because of it.

    And it puts power back in the hands of journalists in the field.

    We captured the debate about border protection from the actual border

    Perhaps the best example of field access lies with America's border protection efforts.

    Even at the height of the immigration crisis, we, as a relatively small foreign broadcaster, were given access to Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in the field.

    We were in deep south Texas with border patrol agent Chris Cabalero on the very same nights that cartel smugglers and hundreds of refugees and immigrants marched across the border.

    "This is the busiest place in the nation," Chris told us.

    "Right now this little area accounts for more than half of the apprehensions in the United States."

    In Australia denying the media access to basic information is a key plank of border protection policy.

    I've seen President Trump try and fail to limit journalists' First Amendment protections

    Of course, I couldn't end this reflection without mentioning US President Donald Trump, the bread and butter of much of our daily reporting.

    I understand that the President's clear disdain of the media may make what I've just said about press freedom in the US seem far-fetched.

    While Mr Trump has increased his rhetoric toward the press, his actions in banning individual reporters, like Jim Acosta, have been successfully challenged on First Amendment grounds.

    Here, even as small foreign players, we got access to some remarkable events.

    I was in the room when former First Lady Michelle Obama gave her last address and was back when President Trump announced the controversial Brett Kavanaugh as his Supreme Court pick in what felt like a reality TV finale.

    We were also at Capitol Hill when impeachment was announced against President Trump — what's likely to be my last big story here.

    And what a big story it is.

    There are way too many historic political moments to count, but they include covering the testimony of former FBI boss James Comey, being in court for the sentencing of the President's former lawyer Michael Cohen, seeing Mark Zuckerberg in the flesh (and a suit!) in Congress, and watching US prisoners arrive from North Korea at 3:00am.

    Hanging around Congress, I was able to bounce some of the big players in US politics, including Democrats Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, as well as Republicans Ted Cruz and Bob Corker — not to mention former White House press boss Anthony Scaramucci, who didn't hesitate to speak his mind and make big claims in a very entertaining interview.

    That's why, when Australia is rightly proud of its gun laws, it should stop and take a good hard look at how it compares on First Amendment grounds.

    The answer, at least from a reporter's perspective, is a resounding fail.

    Thank you to all our listeners, viewers and readers.

    It's been the privilege of a lifetime to get to bring you the news from America.

    Listen to Conor Duffy's final report from Washington and stories from ABC journalists posted overseas on Correspondents Report on RN's Sunday Extra

    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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