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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 04:41 PM ET, 11/15/2011

Zuccotti Park eviction: Dumb media policy


The good old days, when media were allowed on OWS turf. (Spencer Platt - GETTY IMAGES)
Circumstances forced Mother Jones reporter Josh Harkinson to be a little sneaky last night. Harkinson was at a Tribeca apartment when he got news that the NYPD was going to be rolling into the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park. He “immediately got dressed,” got on the subway and was approaching the protest site before 2 a.m.

At that point, Harkinson tried to get into the park the “conventional way.” “I got turned away everywhere I went,” he recalls.

So he scouted around a bit. He found a spot where a car was blocking the authorities’ sightlines, allowing him to crouch down and slip under a barricade and into sensitive turf. “That got me catty-corner to the park and from there I just brazenly stepped into the street, and this officer told me I couldn’t go into the park,” he recalls.

Time to chill — stand on the curb for a while. Harkinson waited until the authorities weren’t looking. Then he just sauntered in as if he belonged there, as you do when you’re crashing a party.

He got close enough to the bigwigs on site to capture some dialogue:

Next to me, an officer was telling an important-looking guy named Eddie about “the intel we’ve had over the past couple of months” about “the severely mentally retarded, the ones that . . . have been violent in the past.” He went on: “They are a little off kilter. They’re off their meds. They haven’t had meds in 30 days.”

It’s unclear how many other journalists were in the park at that time. Police tried to sweep them out, but at least one report indicates that some other reporters managed to stay behind. And soon enough, Harkinson himself was flushed from his post, dragged by a cop to the media pen. He pleaded that he just wanted to witness the final arrests at the park.

“You can witness it with the rest of the press,” he said. Which, of course, meant not witnessing it.

Harkinson managed just the right balance between street savvy and luck to avoid arrest, a combo that eluded other reporters. DNAinfo.com, a Manhattan online news site, jumped on the story fast, but wound up thwarted when its reporter got arrested; a freelance photographer on assignment for the site was later arrested as well. Two AP staffers were arrested, though spokesman Paul Colford insists that the wire service blanketed the area. “We were pretty well covered,” says Colford.

Michael Ventura, managing editor of DNAinfo.com, wants to avoid value judgments on the city’s actions. The reporters “were doing their jobs, and they ended up under arrest. That kind of speaks for itself,” he says. “They were out there covering a major news event happening in our city and that our readers not only here in New York but also in the country want to know what’s going on, and that happens.” Both reporters had their NYPD press credentials on hand, items designed to protect them from arbitrary police actions, but on this night they appeared to subject them to arbitrary police actions.

Arresting reporters who, by all accounts, were doing nothing provocative is boneheaded on far too many levels to count, though we’ll give it a try:

1) Media arrests are an easy story. You have on-the-record sources right on your staff! That’s why the AP, DNAInfo, the Daily News and others are producing accounts of the arrests of reporters. Churnalism was never so easy and will surely generate several rounds of stories, all of them cementing the perceptions of the Bloomberg administration as over the top.

2) If you’re NYPD, why mess with a New York Post reporter? Brian Stelter of the New York Times tweeted this morning: “I’m w/ a NY Post reporter who says he was roughed up by riot police as Zuccotti was cleared. He thinks violence was ‘completely deliberate.’” (An inquiry on the treatment of New York Post reporters is pending with the New York Post’s flack. )

New York governing establishment, what are you thinking? The New York Post has been way out in front of you in terms of abhorring this movement. The paper this morning cheered on the eviction — it said “Good riddance” — despite this alleged roughing up of a New York Post reporter.

For more evidence along these lines, just check out this New York Post hit job on OWS from a little while back. It resulted from a sleepover that reporter Candice M. Giove did at the encampment. Herewith a sample of the unsubstantiated and hysterical glop in the piece:

This spirit of generosity and the naivete of the original OWS protesters is devolving into a state of distrust and paranoia, however.
They speak of theft, about government infiltrators and tales of Rikers Island castoffs being dropped off to roam and ravage the site.
From underneath my blanket, I hear allegations of financial corruption and intimidation over sexual orientation.

Not only did that nonsense make it into the New York Post but also onto Fox News. That’s what you call corporate synergy in service of the Mike Bloomberg way. Even if you’re going to censor the press on OWS, make sure that the New York Posties get VIP treatment.

3) Why leave the journalism in the hands of the protesters? By pushing out the media and going tete-à-tete with the protesters, the authorities marginalized those who would give them the fairest shake. “In describing events and how they fit together, the protesters have a perspective and it’s not going to be one that’s partial to the police,” says Harkinson, conceding that there are some protesters who do have a more charitable view of the cops. “Some of the things I overheard the police saying are things that reflect well on them. Others were not, but I report both in the story.”

4) Earnest imperatives. The public has a right to know. Freedom of the press is protected in the Constitution. And all those other lofty considerations that a New York mayor doesn’t care about.

By  |  04:41 PM ET, 11/15/2011

 
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