Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Journalists Under Arrest

According to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and spokesmen for the Bloomberg administration, the reporters arrested at the breakup of Occupied Wall Street and ensuing protests in lower Manhattan were arrested for their own safety. Or because they were trespassing on private property. Or because they had no right to be at the scene of an ongoing police operation. Hogwash. Reporters have been visiting crime scenes and accompanying police officers on dangerous and not so dangerous operations since the nineteenth century. The only conclusion I can come to is that the NYPD preferred to do its work in the dark, without independent observers. And that speaks badly for the NYPD.

The press passes that reporters carry--which are issued by the police department--clearly state that they permit the bearer to cross police lines in pursuit of a story. The idea behind the practice dates to 1836, when the newspaper editor James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald was admitted to a downtown brothel that was the scene of the murder of one Helen Jewett. As Bennett was admitted to the premises while others were kept outside, the story goes, a guard explained, "He is an editor--he is on public duty."

The notion of journalists as the eyes and ears of the public is thus an old one in New York City. It's an ideal worth taking seriously because police officers, like elected officials, act in the name of the public. If we don't have a chance to observe them in action through the eyes of reporters, then we are blinded to what is being done in the name of our city. And a blind democracy is not a healthy democracy.

Zuccotti Park may be spic and span, but something smells when the NYPD insists on arresting journalists who want to watch cops make arrests.



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