Under the cover of early-morning darkness, an army of New York police officers, over 1,000 strong, moved into Zuccotti Park on November 15, 2011 to clear out Occupy Wall Street protesters.
The event became big news, fueling widespread complaints about heavy-handed policing.
But almost lost in the headlines was another incident that raised hackles among those worried about the future of the press.
After the park was emptied of protesters around 4 am, and NY sanitation workers were tossing the left-over garbage into the back of their trucks, 26 journalists were in holding cells—arrested for “disorderly conduct and trespassing”
According to David Diaz, distinguished lecturer at City College of New York and former WCBS TV News anchor, the journalists had just been doing their jobs—reporting on the event. Unlike the reporters who were corralled blocks away, the ones arrested were reporting from inside the park when the police moved in.
Diaz told a panel hosted by the New York Press Club at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism last week that this incident was only the latest example of the NYPD's systematic “suppression” of the New York press corps.
He claimed that, following the Sept.11, 2001 terror attacks, then-Mayor Rudolf Giuliani inaugurated a policy of limiting press coverage on the grounds of security.
But, he added, the police actions last November 15 suggested a dangerous escalation of that strategy—by directly trying to impose a “media blackout” on Occupy and other related events.
Strategies such as corralling the media and banning news helicopters in the airspace above Zuccotti Park have “changed the equation” in the treatment of the press by the NYPD, said Diaz.
'Protecting the Press'
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg defended the police strategy at a press conference shortly after the event, saying the media were kept away “to prevent the situation from getting worse and to protect members of the press.”
But panelists suggested the harassment of journalists had little to do with their protection—and everything to do with the arbitrary use of police power.
Carla Murphy, a freelance journalist, was covering a small Occupy the Bronx rally to bring attention to the bulldozing of a community garden, and was arrested for not complying with an officer's order to move off the sidewalk.
After spending three hours in a prisoner pen, she told the panel, she was issued a summons for disorderly conduct and released.
A video of her arrest that day, shown to the audience, does not corroborate police accusations that she was blocking pedestrian traffic.
Ironically, the Murphy incident came three weeks after Police Commissioner Ray Kelly issued a special order to all ranks, instructing them not to interfere with journalists who were legitimately doing their job—in response to a letter of complaint from 13 news organizations.
But a little over two weeks after Kelly's internal message, Robert Stolarik, a New York Times photographer, found himself in similar straits with the NYPD.
Recounting an incident that occurred December 12, Stolarik told the panel he was photographing the arrest of protesters at the World Financial Center when an NYPD uniformed officer moved back and forth in front of his camera— preventing him from taking photos.
“It was very frustrating,” Stolarik told the audience. “I was pushed down the steps and told to move along.”
Stolarik's press credentials were later taken and he was ejected from the building.
“They said I was antagonizing the cop,” he said.
But even before the Kelly non-interference memo, the NYPD has had on its books specific procedural guidelines covering interaction with the press.
NYPD Patrol Guide Procedure 212-49 states: “to cooperate with the media representatives by not interfering…with media personnel acting in their news gathering capacity.”
The procedure says that the right of reporters holding a “working press card” to cross police and fire lines or other restrictions, limitations or barriers, “will not be denied.”
Moreover, the instructions go on to say that “the media will be given access as close to the activity as possible, with a clear line of site and within hearing range of the incident,” with the only exceptions being preserving either public safety or the ability of police to perform their duties.
The NYPD's failure to follow its own rules governing press access at events has had a dampening effect, reporters complained.
Murphy told the panel that the prospect of arrest was at the back of her mind when she covered another protest taking place in the same Bronx precinct where she was arrested.
“The possibility of getting arrested for doing a story that pays $250,” she said, “definitely gave me pause.”
Many press members trace the source of their mistreatment to bias on the part of the cops towards the “Occupy movement.”
But Don Mathisen, a reporter for City Limits magazine, got a dose of the same treatment while covering a story on New York public schools.
While interviewing students in front of a Brooklyn school, Mathisen was approached by police and asked to move on. They told him they had received a complaint from the school principal, and told him he had to move.
“I told them it was a public sidewalk and the kids were volunteering (to speak).” he recalled, adding that his protests did him no good.
Murray Weiss, an investigative reporter who spent most of his career covering the NYPD from police headquarters for the NY Daily News and NY Post told the audience that the friction between cops and media starts at the top.
Police Commissioner Kelly is a “closed book” whose only concern is mission success, and he “no longer has sensitivity” to the needs of journalists, he charged.
Over the past decade, Weiss complained, the NYPD has waged a “war on openness.”
No police representatives were invited to last week's panel.
Peter O.E. Bekker, consulting director for the NY Press Club, told The Crime Report that the meeting “was informal, aimed at journalists.”
“It was not intended as a debate on the merits of suppression,” he said. “However, the event was open to all, including anyone from the NYPD who wanted to come.”
NYPD's Kelly Responds
The souring relationship between police and the media appears to be a surprise to Mr. Kelly, who commented on the situation two days after the panel.
The friction, Kelly said, is often a result of competing priorities.
“I think the nature of what we do, sometimes out in the street, there's going to be some pushing and shoving,” he said. “That's just the world in which you live and the police live.”
As for working with the media, he added: “We want to facilitate what [they] do, that's what we're supposed to do; we understand that.”
Reporters at the panel discussion suggested that easing the process for acquiring NYPD press credentials, which many find arbitrary and unduly restrictive, would be one way of “facilitating” journalists' work.
Of the 26 journalist arrested during the Occupy Wall Street Protest, only five had valid NYPD-issued press credentials, according to Bloomberg spokesman Stu Loeser.
“You don't have a press pass; that's your option,” he wrote. “But why should some random NYPD take your word that you're press?”
Loeser also defended the arrests in a note sent out November 17 regarding the arrest during the eviction, “Of the five reporters with valid press credentials who were arrested,” Loeser noted, “three were arrested for trespassing and had their arrest voided.”
“There's no question that protesters sliced open a chain link fence and tried to take over private property” Loeser added in the note.
“Reporter Karen Matthews and photographer Seth Wenig of The Associated Press in New York were taken into custody along with about eight other people after they followed protesters through an opening in a chain-link fence into a park.”
New York is not the only city where police and the media are locking horns.
Baltimore and Los Angeles have also seen the heads of their police departments issue similar mandates to their officers in regards to the treatment of the press.
Reporters are often reluctant to take action against police over interference because they risk losing the sources they need to do their job.
But Karen Kaiser, an attorney for the Associated Press, said journalists (and their newsroom bosses) should not be shy of litigation when they face mistreatment.
She suggested the first step towards fixing the problem is by reacting the same way Carla Murphy has: by pleading “not guilty” on her charge and requesting a trial.
So far, a trial date has not been set.
Some audience and panel members also suggested that ultimately politics would determine whether the NYPD relaxed its tough stance against journalists.
With a mayoral race looming in New York, some candidates could put the issue on their election platforms.
Although no names were specifically mentioned, some felt a new city administration could also create a better relationship with the press corps.
But that would add to an already crowded list of police issues.
Over the past several weeks, the NYPD has come under fire from community groups, the state of New Jersey, and even the Department of Justice, on issues ranging from stop-and-frisk policies to intelligence-profiling of Muslim students.
John Sodaro is the Spring News Intern for The Crime Report. A former NYPD officer, he is currently a student at John Jay College. He welcomes comments from readers.