Eric Alterman: He explains why he was arrested in the Spin Room

Historians in the News

Ok, here's what happened.

I came to New Hampshire with the Creative Coalition for a panel tomorrow morning and was supposed to be in the auditorium for the debate but because I am a journalist, they were told I would have to wait in the spin room. When I got to the spin room, which was an empty gymnasium, I noticed that there were chairs located on a balcony above us. So I went up there -- no one asked me for my ID or anything -- and went over to the bar and asked if it was a cash bar, because I had no idea what kind of event it was. I was told it was an open bar so I asked for a glass of wine and a glass of water and went to sit down and wait for the event to begin.

A guy came over and asked me who I was and I told him I was a columnist for The Nation and he told me I had to leave. I thought he was kind of rude, so I asked him his name, thinking it might go into Altercation the next day. He refused to answer me I asked again. He refused again. But I was following him out when he went to get a cop. The cop told me to leave the room and I did. We left the room, past where the people were handing out badges to go into the reception and I figured the entire drama was over. But the cop kept yelling at me to leave. I didn't understand. I thought I had left. I asked him to stop yelling, I had left. He kept telling me to leave. In retrospect, I guess he was kicking me out of the building and I didn't understand, but it was really mystifying and annoying and I told him I wanted to speak to his commanding officer.

We went over to the commanding officer and I, calmly and politely, sought to explain that I didn't know why this cop was continuing to hassle me. The first cop kept interrupting me as I tried to explain myself and finally I turned around and said, "Can I please finish a sentence here?" That's when the first cop decided to arrest me. He handcuffed me behind my back and took me outside.

(A funny aside, Congressman Ed Markey happen to walk by then and came over to say hello to me and stuck out his hand for a shake. I had to say, "Sorry, Ed, I'm being handcuffed." He laughed, and told the officers that he would vouch for my character and walked away.)

Anyway, I never refused to leave and the only time I raised my voice was when the first cop would not let me explain what I had thought was a massive misunderstanding to his commanding officer. Once I was arrested and brought to the Goffstown station, I actually had a pretty nice time with the cops there, who were very friendly and understanding of my situation. When they learned I was a writer and planned to write about this incident, they wanted to make sure that I knew that the cop who had arrested me was not one of theirs, but was from another town and had been working on an "reciprocity" arrangement.

I paid a $30 fine to be released and the whole thing took about 45 minutes. I filed a written report with the police explaining that I thought the arresting officer had treated me unfairly, and I do think this was the case, but I now think it was based on a misunderstanding on just where he wanted me to stay and where he wanted me to leave.

In any case, I spoke to CNN and I believe they will correct some of the misimpressions created by their first story. Just to be clear, I did not refuse to leave seven times and I did not, as far as I know, raise my voice, except for that last time.

For the record, I also don't remember anyone reading me my Miranda rights, though I don't know if that is ultimately going to matter. I have a court date in July but I am hoping to be able to clear it up before I leave tomorrow because it strikes me as mostly, a misunderstanding.

PS: the Goffstown cops went a lot easier on me when I told them I was a Met/Sox fan, and a Yankee hater to the core...

[HNN Editor: On June 5, 2007 Mr. Alterman again addressed the question of his arrest. He wrote:]

My mishap in New Hampshire on Sunday night has left me with a couple of problems and a couple of lessons. The first problem, establishing my innocence in court or else paying a fine, is a considerable inconvenience but not in any significant sense a big deal. The second problem, the damage done to my reputation by false reports of what took place is, in fact, a big deal, at least to me, but almost impossible to redress. The way much of the media work now -- driven by tabloid gossip when not by ideology -- combine to blow up CNN's original badly sourced and hastily written report into literally hundreds of equally badly sourced gossip items, all written by people who had no contact whatever with any of the people involved. (There were no witnesses save myself and the police. And aside from CNN, whom I had to track down myself [and The Nation], I've yet to see a single published report yet where the reporter in question actually asked me what happened.)

When I became the fodder for the gossip sites a month or so ago, I went to some lengths to try to correct the record -- again, because I value my reputation. I did not understand at the time most of these places -- including some reporters working at allegedly reputable publications -- do not much care about accuracy and felt no responsibility to correct the false information they disseminate. So all I did was feed the fire and make things worse. Whatever disagreements I have with Mark Halperin and John Harris' renedering of the dynamics of the media/political miasma they describe in The Way to Win, they were right about one thing: It is a"Freak Show," and Matt Drudge is indeed king of this world.

So this time, I see there's no point in running around trying to correct the record beyond explaining as best as I can what took place and leaving it at that as I did here. Trying to keep up with false and malicious allegations in this world is a mug's game."Tit for tat" disminishes the"tatter" no matter how outrageous the original"tit," if I might coin a phrase. So, as much as it offends my nature personally, I have no choice but to let all of this crap wash over me until the mob loses interest and gloms onto something else. I do want to thank those bloggers who offered their sites up for an opportunity to clear up CNN's originally false rendition of events, and also -- this may surprise some people -- Chris Matthews, who gave me the opportunity last night to explain, briefly, how this mess originated. (The video of that is here.)

The two useful impressions it leaves for me are these:

1) I want to reiterate yesterday's point: that every privileged, upper-middle class American ought to get arrested once in his or her life. It's impossible to imagine the feeling of being driven in a squad car, cuffed behind your back, feeling yourself to be innocent but with no idea of what awaits you, until it happens. It's something that I imagine is taken as a given by powerless segments of our population and has to color everything about the way people view civic authority. I know it now does mine.

2) Al Gore's argument in The Assault on Reason regarding the trivialization of traditional definitions of news has a relevant correlary here: When there's no clear demarcation between"news" and"gossip," then not only are discussions of genuinely important issues crowded out by diversionary nonsense (at best), but the quality of all reporting suffers. Ever since the Clinton/Lewinsky scandals, reputable news organizations have felt empowered to go ahead with reports that they, themselves, could not verify. The New York Times' Judy Miller problem demonstrated the danger of this tendency in its most extreme form. But the practice is rampant and its injection into our media's bloodstream has spread the disease almost everywhere. The old system certainly had it flaws -- and the corrective abilities of the blogosphere to fix the mistakes and machinations of the MSM have no greater champion than yours truly -- but this problem of our collective inability to distinguish between good information and bad has the potential to crowd out much of what is most valuable in a free press and the lifeblood of our democracy.

OK, that's all, I'm hoping ...

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