On November 21, CUNY officials excluded a Clarion reporter from the public hearing of the Board of Trustees. A pair of videographers, who were there to record the event for coverage on the PSC website, received the same treatment. In the more than 10 years that I’ve been editor of Clarion, this is the first time that union press have been denied entrance to a CUNY public meeting.
Clarion’s reporter and the video team both showed up 45 minutes early for the 5:00 pm hearing, to make sure they’d have no trouble getting in. To their surprise, they were told by CUNY security officials that press would be allowed in only if they had a Police Department press pass – a new rule that excludes Clarion, CUNY student newspapers, and their associated websites. They said there would be no flexibility on this point.
When our reporter called to tell me he was shut out of the meeting, I immediately phoned CUNY’s communications office to ensure that our reporter and videographers were given the kind of press access that’s been routine for us in the past. I was told that my message would be passed on immediately to the head of the department, who was at the hearing. But that call went unreturned, as did follow-up calls and e-mails.
At 6:15 pm, during one of several phone conversations I had with our reporter, he spotted CUNY Director of Communications & Marketing Michael Arena standing nearby. I asked him to hand the phone directly to Arena, who took the call. Arena assured me he’d arrange for the reporter to get inside soon, adding, “Give me a few minutes, we’ll work it out.”
But our reporter was not admitted to the public hearing until more than two hours later, around 8:25 pm. Only four or five speakers remained and, by that time, the PSC video team had already left.
During our phone conversation, Arena told me that Clarion’s reporter and the PSC videographers had been denied entry because officials felt they would be “duplicative” of Clarion’s still photographer, a freelancer who does have an NYPD press pass and thus had been allowed inside.
I know a picture is supposed to be worth a thousand words, but a photographer is not a writer. Still photos are not video. CUNY’s School of Journalism has rightly emphasized that the future of journalism is bound up with how it develops in all media, on all platforms. Labor journalists, like those of the community and ethnic press, need equal access to newsworthy public events, and we need the ability to cover those events in different media, unimpeded.
BEHIND THE LINES?
The new requirement for an NYPD press pass makes no sense at all – at least, not from the point of view of keeping the CUNY community informed. The Police Department grants its press passes primarily to journalists who can show a regular and frequent need to go behind NYPD lines. It’s a criterion that excludes Clarion, CUNY student newspapers and scores of other working journalists.
While press passes are sometimes granted to journalists who don’t fit that rule, the NYPD’s application of its press pass regulations has been widely faulted as inconsistent and restrictive. Even legendary journalist Leonard Levitt, a police reporter for decades, has had difficulty getting his press pass renewed. This November, the editor of the New York Observer (who was ruled ineligible) described the NYPD’s press pass standards as “Kafkaesque” and “ridiculous.” Certainly the NYPD’s rules are not relevant to whether a CUNY-based reporter or camera operator should be allowed to attend a CUNY public meeting.
The week after our exclusion, I was allowed to attend the Board of Trustees’ November 28 meeting, as were reporters for two
CUNY student papers. But we were denied entrance as press, and gained admission only as part of the general audience. Once again, CUNY officials insisted that an NYPD press pass was required for media access.
Press access for Clarion has been routine at CUNY public meetings in years past, even to sessions that drew an overflow crowd. At the November 28 Trustees’ meeting, I asked CUNY communications staff what had prompted the change. No one could give me an answer.
On November 25, the PSC wrote to CUNY to protest the exclusion of labor press from the trustees’ public hearing. The union proposed that the NYPD press pass requirement be dropped, and that in its place some clear, simple procedures be established for media access to CUNY public events. As Clarion went to press in mid-December, our proposal was still unanswered.