NEW YORK -- As police crack down on the Occupy Wall Street movement, journalists covering the story continue facing arrest, harassment, and restrictions on movement during midnight raids.
Such heavy-handed tactics over the past couple months have increased tensions between the police and the press across the country, from New York City's "free speech zones" to Los Angeles' "First Amendment area."
John Ensslin, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, expressed concern this week over the "alarming trend" of arrests and detentions -- one that doesn't appear to be dying down even as many camps are cleared.
Early Wednesday morning, Los Angeles police arrested two journalists covering the eviction of Occupy protesters, bringing the total to 30 since September. Meanwhile, other journalists didn't face the threat of arrest in Los Angeles only because they were part of the LAPD's designated press "pool." This group was permitted to cover the Occupy LA eviction nearby without risk of arrest for unlawful assembly -- a media restriction that rankled some in the press corps.
Later that night and 3,000 miles away, New York City police officers -- who dismantled the original Occupy Wall Street camp two weeks earlier in a coordinated action that led to numerous journalist arrests -- restricted access to journalists who wanted to cover an Occupy protest at a Midtown Manhattan fundraiser for President Obama, according to Capital New York.
But restrictions on media access haven't been limited to New York and L.A. Since September, journalists have been arrested in Boston, Nashville, Rochester, Richmond, Milwaukee, Oakland, Atlanta, and Chapel Hill, according to Josh Stearns, associate program director of Free Press, a non-partisan media reform organization. Journalists have also reported rough treatment at the hands of the cops along with difficulties obtaining press credentials under rigid and often arbitrary rules established by police departments in big cities.
On Thursday, Stearns' organization sent a petition signed by 40,000 people to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the U.S. Conference of Mayors urging them to "drop all charges [against journalists arrested] and publicly commit to protecting press freedoms in their cities."
MEETING WITH KELLY
Mickey Osterreicher, the general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association who's been dealing with cases nationwide, said he’s noticed an uptick in police questioning and even harassment of photographers since the attacks of Sept. 11. The resulting "war on terrorism," he noted, also “morphed into what some people have been calling the war on photography." Osterreicher said that the Occupy Wall Street movement "has only exacerbated" tensions between the police and the press.
The simmering conflict reached a boil Nov. 21, as representatives from 13 news organizations and press advocacy groups wrote to NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly to express their "profound displeasure, disappointment and concern over the recent actions taken against the media during the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations near and around Zuccotti Park." They demanded an immediate meeting. Two days later, Osterreicher and a handful of news executives and media lawyers met with Kelly in his conference room at 1 Police Plaza, joined by deputy commissioner and spokesman Paul Browne.
During an hour-and-a-half lunch, New York Times Co. Vice President and General Counsel George Freeman led the group in a discussion of a July 1999 police memorandum that outlined proper department procedures when dealing with the press. At one point, Osterreicher asked Kelly if he'd consider reiterating that agreement through a "Finest" message, a directive that’s read at 10 consecutive roll calls throughout the city’s precincts. A few hours later, Kelly directed the message, which warned the city's 35,000 officers about possible disciplinary action if they "unreasonably interfere with media access to incidents" or "intentionally prevent or obstruct the photographing or videotaping of news in public places."
Freeman said he viewed Kelly's Nov. 23 directive as a "good first step," as did others in attendance.
"The bottom line is whether the officers on the ground basically implement it and act consistently with the statement the commissioner made, and the 1999 guidelines which is where the message that he put out is from," Freeman said, in an interview conducted before reports of restrictions at the Obama fundraiser.
New York Daily News deputy editor Arthur Browne, who also attended the meeting, explained that when the 1999 guidelines first came into effect, news executives raised media access issues with the NYPD and Giuliani administration. At the time, Browne and Daily News Deputy General Counsel Anne B. Carroll compiled evidence to support journalists' case that they were being unlawfully restricted by police, leading to a complaint prepared by attorney Floyd Abrams, who specializes in First Amendment cases.
The Giuliani administration wasn't looking for a First Amendment fight and the two sides hashed out a "several-page memorandum of understanding about how the police were to deal with the press on the street" that was "very acceptable to us," Browne said. The directive was delivered, similarly, in a "Finest" message from the commissioner. But the Zuccotti Park raid, and subsequent arrests and detention of journalists, showed that the 1999 memorandum was being ignored.
In addition to talking of reiterating the memorandum's guidelines, Browne said he also suggested to Kelly that the NYPD include dealing with the media in their preparatory drills for coordinated movements such as dealing with protesters -- a recommendation he said the department is considering.
A 'KAFKAESQUE' CREDENTIAL PROCESS
But one other major press access issue, which has received significantly more attention in recent weeks, came up during the lunch meeting: the NYPD's press credential system. Kelly raised the issue, but there was little discussion about how to reform the current system. That's because the meeting’s objective, according to Freeman, wasn't to "re-litigate" the credential issue, but to make sure that "credentialed press don’t end up in pens when members of the public have better views of things."
Deciding who receives an NYPD press credential, which allows reporters to cross police lines or attend a mayoral press conference at City Hall, becomes increasingly difficult in a media environment where professional and amateur journalists, each wielding laptops and camera phones, may be competing on the same story. It also takes manpower to deal with the flood of press requests. Arthur Browne said he’s “not sure [the NYPD's] happy doing it.”
Neither are some journalists.
While those working for news organizations represented at the meeting -- such as the Associated Press, The New York Times, New York Post and the Daily News -- likely have less difficulty obtaining press credentials, many other less-venerable outlets do. (The Huffington Post, for one, has encountered difficulties getting credentialed.) Not to mention the long waiting list for press passes; the earliest journalists can even hope for a sit-down with the NYPD to go over their application is currently February 2012.
The Bloomberg administration recently jumped into the fray over journalist arrests and credentials.
On Nov. 17, The Awl listed 26 journalists arrested amid the fallout from the Occupy Wall Street raid. Shortly after, Bloomberg administration spokesman Stu Loeser read the Awl piece and, in a memo to the media, pointed out that just five of the 26 reporters arrested held valid NYPD credentials, presumably suggesting that the police shouldn’t be blamed for scooping up 21 people among demonstrators who weren't credentialed.
New York Observer editor-in-chief Elizabeth Spiers responded the next day to Loeser’s memo by describing the bureaucratic process the NYPD uses to issue credentials as "Kafkaesque."
Spiers, citing the NYPD's application guidelines, pointed out that first-time applicants must submit six articles demonstrating coverage of breaking news or public events "where police, fire lines or other restrictions, limitations, or barriers established by the City of New York have been set up for security or crowd control purposes, within the City of New York; or covers, in person, events sponsored by the City of New York which are open to members of the press."
Considering that an uncredentialed reporter needs to prove he or she has covered events where one needs a credential, Spiers noted the obvious Catch-22: "the only way to comply with the law is to have previously broken the law repeatedly." Moreover, editors like her, who do not generally cover events in the field, would be ineligible under the NYPD's restrictions. (The Los Angeles Police Department also requires six clips, but even successful applicants are made to wait three months to get a press credential because of the city's fingerprinting process).
However, Spiers -- and a larger swath of full-time, professional journalists -- would be eligible in some other U.S. cities. Chicago’s police department issues news media credentials to those “engaged in gathering, reporting, editing, producing or photographing current news events.”
In Chicago, journalists seeking credentials are not required to provide six clips to be assessed by the police department. In addition, Chicago's mayor can appoint an advisory counsel that includes representatives from newspapers, press associations and radio stations to help decide who makes the cut. Other cities, like Philadelphia, leave the task of credentialing journalists to the Mayor’s press office.
It’s unclear exactly why the police department issues credentials in New York except that it’s been that way for as long as anyone can remember. And the NYPD isn’t interested in discussing its process for credentialing the media with the media.
NYPD deputy commissioner Browne, who serves as a spokesman for the department, did not respond to several calls and emails from The Huffington Post. Gina Sarubbi, the NYPD's deputy commissioner for public information and the person who handles press credentials, also did not respond to several calls and emails.
'NOT SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN IN NEW YORK CITY'
Veteran police reporter Leonard Levitt recently wrote that "such police disdain towards the media apparently has its genesis at City Hall."
"Mayor Michael Bloomberg may own a media conglomerate but he has been silent about the police department’s abusive treatment of reporters and photographers during the OWS evictions, as well as the arrests of reporters from established outlets like the Associated Press and the Daily News."
Levitt also took issue with "Loeser inanely tr[ying] to play down the arrests" by mentioning that only five journalists arrested had NYPD-issued press credentials. "Earth to Stu: It is more difficult to obtain press credentials today under Bloomberg than at any time in living memory," he wrote.
It's rare to hear such criticism of the NYPD from reporters, especially since the city's top tabloids' editorial pages are both deferential to the police. When the AP published a deeply reported investigative series on the NYPD's secret spying program aimed at Muslims, both the New York Post and Daily News came out swinging -- against the AP. Both papers praised the Zuccotti Park raid, even as their own reporters ran into problems with the police trying to cover it.
The New York Times, however, voiced its concerns about 10 days after the raid. "In many countries, using a camera or taking notes can get you into trouble," began a Saturday editorial. "That is not supposed to happen in New York City."
AND ON THE OTHER COAST...
Three days later, during the raid in Los Angeles, journalists "using a camera or taking notes" also risked arrest. Others in the press pool, a group of 15 journalists selected through a lottery system by the LAPD to cover the eviction and supply information to other outlets, also expressed frustration. Dakota Smith, a reporter for the Los Angeles Daily News, described having a "disappointing perspective" from the pool and that the "LAPD didn't want us interviewing protesters." Los Angeles Times city editor Shelby Grad told The Huffington Post after the raid that he didn’t think the paper gained a "competitive advantage" from being in the pool, since nearly a dozen other Times reporters covered the eviction from other areas and didn’t get arrested.
Lt. Andy Neiman, in an interview with The Huffington Post, described why the LAPD opted to use a press pool. Since anyone found in the park early Wednesday morning -- when it is closed to the public -- would be risking arrest, including journalists, the LAPD wanted to set up a designated area for the media. Neiman said the department "wanted to make sure the entire world could watch how we went in there." Neiman said that in the course of the raid, police let roughly 20 more journalists into the protected area -– including someone from Occupy LA’s own media team.
"For the most part, I think it worked out well," Neiman said. "Among the pool members, there are some issues they have to work out within the industry."
There are likely some issues for the police and the press to hash out among themselves, too. On Friday, managers from several media outlets will head over to the LAPD for a long-planned meeting. Neiman said he expects Occupy LA will be a topic of discussion.