This week, a Dawson County jury acquitted citizen-journalist Nydia Tisdale of felony charges of obstruction of an officer three years after she was dragged screaming from a GOP political rally at a local pumpkin farm.
Tisdale was convicted on misdemeanor obstruction charges and still faces the prospect of jail time or a fine, but the verdict came as a modest relief to advocates for press freedoms and government accountability. It also illuminated deep divisions in our culture.
To some, Tisdale is a hero — a tireless, unblinking advocate for the First Amendment, shining her light on government officials. To others, especially in deeply conservative Dawson County, she is an outside agitator — a gold-digging troublemaker with no respect for law enforcement or regard for private property.
I sought local residents’ opinions prior to the verdict among the members of “Focus on Dawson,” a local interest Facebook group. Pretty soon my cup runneth over.
“I have yet to hear of anyone in Dawson have anything good to say about someone who comes into our community to cause problems,” one local resident wrote. “She goes places looking to cause problems, then cries foul afterward looking for money.”
“An officer in uniform asked her multiple times to leave and she acted like a unemployed 20-year-old, video game-playing liberal protester,” another offered.
For the unaware, a quick summary:
In August 2014, Tisdale, a Fulton County resident, was forcibly removed from a Republican rally at Burt’s Pumpkin Farm, a Dawsonville tourist spot where she had come to record speeches by Gov. Nathan Deal and other top GOP candidates.
During the rally, farm owner Johnny Burt was approached by Republican staffers and asked to object to Tisdale’s presence. When approached by rally organizers, Tisdale said co-owner Kathy Burt had given her permission to record. A Dawson County sheriff’s captain came next, forced her out and had her arrested.
Local opinion of Tisdale was further colored when she won a $200,000 judgment in federal court against Cumming in neighboring Forsyth County for a 2012 incident where longtime Mayor H. Ford Gravitt ordered police to have her removed from a public meeting. In 2016, she announced she would file suit against Dawson County over the Burt’s Farm incident.
Resident David Hopkins said the trial treads on delicate ground for Dawson County.
“This is a small, rural town and the Burts are a pillar of the community,” he said. “It’s a lot of old families, country folks that have been here for generations. They know each other, back each other. It’s a very tight-knit community.”
It’s also a community undergoing a dramatic and existential change.
As the century dawned, Dawson County had a population of 16,000. Today it has grown to more than 22,300. That’s a 39 percent increase in less than two decades. By comparison, Georgia has grown in population just 6 percent since 2000.
One resident I spoke to said longtime residents’ suspicion of the new arrivals factored into the fury over Tisdale.
Hopkins knows Tisdale and supports her. “She is a very decent and good person,” he said.
But when her arrest hit Atlanta media, the Burts and their community were shown in an uncomplimentary light. People dug in and got protective, Hopkins said. “There is no place it was ever going to end up but in court,” he said. “This is a tribal dispute at the county level.”
Deep distrust of media
That Tisdale was identified as a member of the media, did not help her cause. Dawson County last year voted 85 percent for Donald Trump, making it one of the deepest red counties in the state. Throughout the campaign and his first year in office, Trump has routinely criticized the news media to loud applause from supporters.
According to a survey by the non-partisan Pew Research Center from earlier this year, just 11 percent of Republicans say they trust the information they get from national news media. Local news organizations fare a lot better, but only by comparison. Fully three-quarters of GOP voters don’t trust their local press either.
The partisan divide has widened dramatically in the past year, according to Pew polling.
In 2016, strong majorities of Democrats and Republicans agreed the press did a good job keeping government officials accountable. But in 2017, their paths diverged. Suddenly 89 percent of Democrats back a strong media watchdog role, while just 42 percent of Republicans feel that way.
That distrustful feeling about the press may be why a shirt featuring the slogan “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required” was discovered last week on Walmart’s website. When a broadcast journalism association rang the alarm, the discount chain pulled the item. The shirt was famously spotted last year at a Trump rally by a Reuters photographer a few days before the election.
The sentiment may be hyperbole, but that kind of violent metaphor was in the wind during the Tisdale trial.
“I hope they have a ‘hanging judge!’” one local resident posted on the “Focus on Dawson” Facebook group during the trial last week.
One of Johnny and Kathy Burt’s adult children, Crystal Burt, also posted a passionate diatribe on a Dawson County Facebook group referring to Tisdale as an “assailant” who was there to “take unwanted pictures or video of you, your spouse, your children or grandchildren.” The younger Burt also suggested Tisdale was at the farm “filming a smear campaign for her own selfish desires.” She offered no evidence to support the claim.
Journalists’ roles misunderstood
These are ridiculous suggestions. Her body of work — years of videos — show her sole interest is in capturing government officials, candidates and opinion makers in public settings. There are no lurid shots of grandchildren there.
Depending upon the speaker, Tisdale’s videos may cause drowsiness, but they do not smear anyone. They are long, unedited segments of zoning meetings or candidate forums in which she offers no commentary. But that distinction often gets lost when people talk about the incident at Burt’s Farm.
Richard Griffiths, a retired CNN executive and board member for the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said the Tisdale trial poses a challenge for journalists.
Tisdale has a right to point her camera at powerful politicians and Republican staffers should have known better before they set the wheels in motion.
“If she had been allowed to do her work, all of this would have gone away,” Griffiths said. Since she was not convicted of trespassing, the jury verdict seems to carry that same message, he said.
But he said the whole episode underscores the need to narrow the gaps in how the public perceives the role of journalism.
“Journalists in general have to do a better job of explaining how we do our jobs and why we do it,” he said. “We are not an enemy of the people in our work, we are there to represent the people. … When a Tisdale is removed from an event, it is really removing the public from that event.”
As AJC Watchdog, I’ll be writing about public officials, good governance and the way your tax dollars are spent. Help me out. What needs exposing in your community? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.