On Monday evening, after a highlight clips show of The Bachelor wound down on ABC, the channel threw it over to local Des Moines affiliate We Are Iowa. The newscast opened with a highly promoted segment on the ongoing legal battle faced by Viet Tran, a Black Lives Matter protester facing the unusual felony charge of “unauthorized dissemination of intelligence data.”
Tran allegedly shared three pages of printed-out images and text, which he said he had found and not taken from police, with station reporter Eva Andersen on July 1 that identified those present at a protest outside a Hy-Vee grocery store in June. In a tweet promoting the “investigative” segment, Andersen claimed it was “going to be different than my typical ones because I’m involved in it.”
This statement turned out to be only barely true. Andersen’s involvement in the story extended only as far as admitting that she filmed Tran holding the documents and tweeted an image of them, and that law enforcement never asked that she or We Are Iowa delete the images of the documents she shared. In the televised segment — but not in the online digital version — Andersen claimed that she “didn’t see” a disclaimer on the documents that identified them as confidential to law enforcement.
After she was segued into the segment by Jack Miller, the We Are Iowa news anchor who constantly affects the demeanor of a cranky and somewhat curious child just awoken from a nap, Andersen breathlessly brought viewers into her harrowing story. It’s a story she is both a part of but not, concerning a crime that she was technically an accomplice to but for which she faces no charges. Since she apparently couldn’t say anything further about her own involvement or responsibility in it, she left it up to eyewitnesses, so-called experts, and law enforcement representatives to help viewers puzzle it out.
As is generally true for the medium of local TV news, the seven-minute segment took a complex issue and reduced it to coverage that’s as shallow as a tide pool. A theoretically balanced setlist of interviewees was presented, some filmed in-person and others through their appearance on Andersen’s desktop computer inside her unassuming apartment made up with Target-chic decor.
The experts brought out in Tran’s defense were Poynter senior faculty member Al Tompkins and Drake law professor Sally Frank, who was present as a legal observer at the Capitol when the alleged crime took place. Tompkins voiced skepticism about the charges and objected to police choosing to hold Tran in prison during a pandemic. Frank went a step further, pointing out that the printouts, which appeared to have been hastily assembled on some word processing software with a slapped-on disclaimer, were not really intelligence documents at all.
In response, Andersen dutifully trotted out the usual suspects to defend the trumped-up charges against Tran. A Des Moines Police Department statement (likely provided by the embattled Paul Parizek, although he wasn’t named) and an interview with a representative from the Iowa Department of Public Safety were presented in support of the charge, even though the law it was based on was crafted with the intent of preventing leaks from within the police department. A surprise “expert witness” appeared in the form of retired police commander Patrick Fitzgibbons — who in reality is less an actual expert on the law than an adjunct professor in Colorado who also runs a podcast. It’s unclear why We Are Iowa dug him up for this report, but he unwittingly lended support to the argument that Tran’s charge was an overblown intimidation tactic.
“We need to send a message,” Fitzgibbons said, referring to the Black Lives Matter protests. “In law enforcement, we’re not going to tolerate this anymore.”
The report only brought up the notion that the legal action against Tran and another 26-year-old protester facing the same charge could, in fact, be an attempt by law enforcement to intimidate Black Lives Matter protesters to shoot it down. For anyone actually paying attention to these protests, it’s clear that Tran has taken an active part in them and attended many events, often speaking about the anti-black racism he was raised to accept in his community and the importance of speaking out against it.
Tran foresaw and addressed his own arrest with this final statement on his Twitter account before he was taken in: “I know y’all watching me, I say this with my whole heart. Suck my dick we’re going to tear you down brick by brick, day by day. I wasn’t fucking lying when I said I’ll die behind this shit. Fuck you Parizek, fuck you DMPD, fuck you Iowa State Patrol, fuck you Kim. Suck my dick.”
The segment ended on a curious note. After some musing from colleague Jack Miller, Andersen said that “prosecutors have resisted a motion to lower Tran’s bond in the case due to tweets they believe make him a threat to the public.” It’s unclear what these threatening tweets might be, but before he was arrested, Tran tweeted: “Also if I have a warrant out soon because of the videos going around on the news I want y’all to burn down WHO 13 and KCCI. Gas and matches, that’s all you need.” Curiously, the tweet didn’t mention We Are Iowa, the station that primarily shared the documents that led to his arrest.
In the end, an investigation that promised to be a “closer look” at Tran’s extreme charge, along with We Are Iowa’s and Andersen’s role in facilitating the circumstances for it, came off as more of a shrug and an excuse. Andersen and her employer are both identified in the criminal complaint against Tran, but they continue to accept no responsibility for the situation. Tran had attempted to assist Andersen in clarifying the police department’s motives at the Capitol on July 1 and provided them with information to aid them in informing the public. In response, they’ve hung him out to dry.
If you read between the lines, this investigation was clearly more of an attempt to save face and assuage public complaints concerning dereliction of duty by We Are Iowa than anything else. Although local news station KCCI has received the brunt of criticism from Black Lives Matter organizers over biased coverage of the protests, We Are Iowa has not avoided it, either. On the same day as the segment on Tran was aired, the station began running a promotional advertisement for their news program to reassure their viewers that they believe “Black Lives Do Matter.” But the report on Tran’s arrest clearly showed that We Are Iowa doesn’t intend to actually engage with criticism they’ve received or change the way they report on law enforcement in any meaningful way.
It’s unclear whether this segment would have even been produced had the AP story bringing attention to the severity and irregularity of Tran’s charges not gone viral both nationally and internationally, or if Black Lives Matter protesters hadn’t rallied around Tran’s case with calls to #FreeViet. When looking at the motivating factors, it’s more than likely that We Are Iowa and Andersen produced the report in an attempt to shield themselves from criticism while absolving themselves of any further responsibility toward their informant.
If either the news station or Andersen really believed the information they obtained from Tran to be of a sensitive and confidential nature as police claim, they wouldn’t continue to show it over and over again in their broadcasts. But they also refuse to support the first amendment rights of their informant or push back in even a small way on his treatment. They’re content to capitalize on the information provided to them by Tran, but refuse to acknowledge their own culpability in his punishment at the hands of the justice system.
Even before the incident with Tran, Andersen’s relationship with the Black Lives Matter movement was strained. On June 5, I reported on Twitter after a protester tipped me off about an incident in which Andersen could be seen on a Des Moines Register livestream apparently referring to a protester as a “bitch” at a protest on the steps of the Iowa Capitol. The protester Andersen apparently directed the remark at was Des Moines community organizer Chelsea Chism-Vargas, who has since called for an apology from the TV reporter.
Andersen accosted me in person at a community event in response to my tweet and asked me what “my problem” was. She also seemed to deny the allegations made by the protester that she called Chism-Vargas a “bitch” and told me to reach out to her next time. But she did not respond to a request for comment for this story that I sent her which included a question about the alleged incident with Chism-Vargas.
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Eva Andersen’s last name Anderson.