Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Times Editorial Page Quandary: After He’s Dubbed Free Speech Champion Bloomberg’s Police Suppress Press During Occupy Wall Street Eviction

This weekend the Times ran an editorial that must have posed a fascinating challenge to write. It criticized the suppression of the press when the police executed Mayor Bloomberg’s orders to evict the Occupy Wall Street protesters from Zucotti Park. (See: Editorial, Police and the Press, November 25, 2011.)

Off On the Wrong Track: Reporting That Mayor Bloomberg is Backer of Free Speech
How exactly does the New York Times editorial page get out of a bind like this- The Times in writing about Occupy Wall Street had just dubbed Mayor Bloomberg a champion of the First Amendment and backer of free speech, including running an article that conveyed this assessment in its front page headline. Almost immediately thereafter, and this is what the editorial was dealing with, the editorial page was confronted with a letter written by one of its own attorneys, a vice president and assistant general counsel, that said that the police actions in executing Bloomberg’s orders to evict the Occupy Wall Street protesters were “more hostile to the press than any other event in recent memory.” That letter gained a high profile in that it was signed not just by the Times itself but also by almost every news organization of importance in the city that was conceivably available to sign it.

This article follows up from another angle on others I have already posted here about how off course it has been to promulgate the notion that Mayor Bloomberg is a free speech protector . . .

. . . I have previously written about how the Times suddenly christened Bloomberg a champion of the First amendment and defender of free speech in its Occupy Wall Street coverage. (In fact, I noted that part of this strange behavior included an editorial page buy-in to the notion that Bloomberg was defender of free speech.) The Times was apparently succumbing to recent PR management emanating from Bloomberg’s City Hall since, as I documented, the Times prior coverage of Bloomberg’s attitudes about protesters was strictly at odds with such a characterization. (See: Sunday, November 20, 2011, Question of Truth For The Times: The Meme of Bloomberg as Champion of the First Amendment & Free Speech, Firmly Planted Before OWS Eviction.)

. . . I also wrote about how Bloomberg’s biographer, Joyce Purnick, discussing the OWS protesters (before their removal) proclaimed Bloomberg to be “a firm supporter of the First Amendment,” probably having been influenced by the recent stories in the Times; what appears in her biography is directly contrary to that notion. (See: Tuesday, November 22, 2011, Orwellian Purnick Purge: Bloomberg Biographer Rewrites Billionaire Mayor’s Record On First Amendment Free Speech Rights.) The documentary about the New York Times, “Page One: Inside the New York Times” describes something it terms “The Times Effect” which is that the Times can make something virtually true by reporting it, setting the agenda, and then afterwards everyone imitatingly follows suit, reporting similar things. Perhaps this is an example of that effect.

Bloomberg’s “Free Speech Zones”

The previous articles dealt principally with Bloomberg’s attitude and treatment of protesters wanting to exercise their right to free speech and freedom of assembly. As captured in what the Times and Ms. Purnick had historically written, Bloomberg’s attitude was always one of disrespect for-- at best ‘brusque’ impatience with-- the principles of the rights being exercised. Bloomberg was even impatient with those who might merely wander near to such protesters, to him a stupid mistake. His `pragmatic’ preference was to circumscribe and impede the exercise of these rights to the best of his abilities, particularly so when ideas being expressed were in opposition to ideas he was supporting, as in the case of the 2004 Republican National Convention. One Bloombergian tactic standing out prominently as a symbol for how Bloomberg believed he could regulate protesters’ speech so as to minimize its effectiveness was his creation of “free speech zones” set up as far as possible from the object of the demonstrators’ protest. In other words: “You can speak, but if we can set it up that you are far enough away, maybe you just won’t be heard.”

Bloomberg’s “Freedom of the Press Zone”

The Times editorial, although it dealt with the suppression of the press rather than the suppression of the protesters’ speech itself, dealt with something quite analogous. The Times weekend editorial and the letter signed by the press organizations to which it referred both wrote about how with chilling calculation the police set up a freedom of the press zone to keep reporters far enough away from the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators so that the press would not be able to see what happened as the police moved in to evict the protesters. According to the Times editorial, “Before clearing tents and other structures from Zuccotti Park, for example, a police representative asked journalists in the area for press credentials.” Why? The letter describes the next step complained about by the press organizations:
credentialed media were identified, segregated and kept away from viewing, reporting on and photographing vital matters of public concern. A press pen was set up blocks away and those kept there were further prevented from seeing what was occurring by the strategic placement of police buses around the perimeter.
The Times editorial makes the point that this was a violation of the Police Department’s own policy expressed in a “1999 reforms and policy statement”: “under no circumstances should the press be provided less access than that afforded the general public.” There is a good reason why that is the official policy that has to bind the police. It has to be there because of what is in that First Amendment of the Constitution of which Bloomberg is supposedly a champion. The First Amendment, binding upon New York’s mayor and his police department, says that the government shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press. That is why the Times editorial objected to the use of press credentials as a mechanism to regulate and prevent reporters from witnessing what was going on, saying: “Reporters and photographers do not need credentials to be in a public area. The passes are supposed to give them better access. .”

Suppression of the Press During the OWS Eviction: A Litany

A Gothmist blog headline addressed the gist of what was going on, and the penning in of the credentialed reporters blocks away from the scene of the eviction was only part of a bigger picture: “The NYPD Didn’t Want You To See Occupy Wall Street Get Evicted.”

Other ways the police prevented the press from being witness to the events:
• As noted in the Gothamist article, “Airspace in Lower Manhattan was closed to CBS and NBC news choppers by the NYPD”. Really? Was this done for any other reason except to block images of police routing the demonstrators? Did the police believe that Occupy Wall Street protesters were going to call in air support they had at the ready to resist eviction?

• Credentials were peremptorily and illegally seized from credentialed reporters.

• Police did not want reporters admitted to the interior private space of nearby office buildings to watch the eviction from behind the glass of those buildings from where other members of the public could witness events.

• Reporters were ordered off the streets and kept as far as three blocks away.

• When a photographer close to Zucotti Park raised his camera to photograph police carrying a protester covered with blood two police officers shoved a barricade into the photographer, “screaming” (according to the Times editorial) “that he was not permitted to take pictures even though he was on the sidewalk.”

• Journalists who were clearly journalists were “roughed up” by the police, held in choke-holds, thrown to the ground, pushed to the ground, sent to the hospital for injuries from being thrown and dragged around, and reporters (and in at least on case also that reporter’s camera) were struck with police batons. One chief police spokesman, Paul J. Browne, dismissed what was reported, officially denying that he had personally witnessed any of the multiple incidents of roughing up reported.

• Over 25 Journalists were arrested though never formally charged and many more were threatened with arrest for being in public places.
“Free Speech Zones” and “Free Press Zones” - Never The Twain Should Meet?

The evident Bloomberg philosophy is to suppress the protest and to suppress the coverage of the protest. The cumulative effect is a monumental suppression of free speech. There is undoubtedly a reason the First Amendment nestles its protection for freedom of the press in between its protection of “freedom of speech” and “the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” If you have the other two freedoms but the press can’t report it, it’s like the proverbial tree falling in the forest with no one to hear. In fact, a large part of what the Occupy Wall Street protesters are attempting to communicate in their protests is about exactly what the police actions were attempting to suppress, the response by the “Government” [and those like Bloomberg representing Wall Street and the 1%] to their request via protest “for a redress of grievances” (to employ yet one more phrase in that First Amendment).

There may be times when the protesters’ absolute right to engage in specific demonstration tactics may be questionable: Remember that one judge (Lucy Billings) issued a court order that said the protesters had a right to remain in Zucotti Park, a court order which the Bloomberg administration blatantly defied for the half day it was in effect, and then a more administration-friendly judge, Michael D. Stallman, was pulled into the fracas to rule the other way. But even when the protesters are with careful calculation choosing civil disobedience such as setting up the preplanned November 17th arrest of a symbolic 99 volunteers to be arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge (in a prearranged and orderly staging) to commemorate the Saturday, October 1st arrest of 700 Occupy Wall Street protesters as they crossed the Brooklyn Bridge with police in the lead, they are doing so as a free speech communication to be noticed and reported upon. Among other things, intentional civil disobedience is a comment that not all laws are good laws. Sometimes it is the way that all those laws converge in their affect that makes them unjust. The press needs to be able to cover such events as part of our public dialogue.

Reconciling Bloomberg Administration Suppression of Press With Characterization of Bloomberg as First Amendment Champion

How did the New York Times editorial page manage to reconcile its complaint about the “numerous inappropriate, if not unconstitutional actions” by police officers during the eviction with the Times’ recent proclamations that Mayor Bloomberg is a defender of free speech and champion of the First Amendment? It concluded with the stern admonition:
It is time that Commissioner Kelly made a serious effort to enforce the department’s own code.
In other words, as serious as the subject was, the editorial never mentioned Bloomberg once, directly or by implication.

Does this mean that despite how the police actions reflected Bloomberg’s trademark traditions Bloomberg might not have been involved? That seems unlikely: The Times reported on the day that Bloomberg evicted the Occupy Wall Street protesters that the police raid was planned in advance, carefully, minutely and in secrecy at the very highest levels with the intention that it be a surprise. (See: After an Earlier Misstep, a Minutely Planned Raid/Operation to Clear Zucotti Park, Carefully Planned, Unfolded Without Warning- the second headline is the Times print edition’s, by Al Baker and Joseph Goldstein, Published: November 15, 2011.)

In fact, there seemed to be coordination between New York City and other similarly timed Occupy Wall Street evictions elsewhere in the country. Then there is the fact that Diana Taylor, Bloomberg’s live-in girlfriend and companion, is on the board of Brookfield Office properties, the company that technically owns the public Zucotti Park space and whose security guards were involved in the police actions the day of the evictions.

If Bloomberg was going for plausible deniablity with respect to the actions taken by his police the question is how could he be doing so and still maintain that he was doing his job, especially after so many years of receiving criticism, including from the New York Times, for the way that he has dealt with protesters in years prior. In 2005, the Times editorial page addressed itself directly to Bloomberg as mayor, in criticizing his administration’s use of agent provocateurs in a “a deliberate effort to incite violence that would in turn justify a tough police response” when dealing with protesters.

LinkBloomberg’s Endorsement of Keeping the Press Away

That being the record how could it be appropriate for the mayor to refrain from the involvement necessary to ensure that similar things not happen again. And that being the record you can see how important it was for the press to be there and observe if similar things were, indeed, happening again.

What most damns the Times editorial’s failure to admonish Bloomberg alongside of his admonished police commissioner is that Bloomberg has already connected himself with the police tactics and endorsed their intent to keep the media away. In essence the Times editorial page was either ignoring or disavowing coverage in two of the paper’s own stories, the first covering the media blackout that day and the other covering the subsequent press complaints about it, each of which ran practically identical versions of the paragraph below:
At a news conference after the park was cleared that day, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg defended the police behavior, saying that the media were kept away “to prevent a situation from getting worse and to protect members of the press.”
(See: November 15, 2011, Reporters Say Police Denied Access to Protest Site, by Brian Stelter and Al Baker and November 21, 2011, News Organizations Complain About Treatment During Protests, by Brian Stelter.)

New York Magazine reported the mayor’s endorsement of the police tactics, following up with a terse comment) this way:
Mayor Bloomberg previously defended the NYPD's actions. "The police department routinely keeps members of the press off to the side when they're in the middle of a police action," he said last week. "It's to prevent the situation from getting worse, and it's to protect the members of the press."

That's all nice and good, but there's a difference between keeping people "off to the side" and launching them into pavement.
(See: 11/21/11, Journalists Protest Police Treatment During Occupy Wall Street Eviction, By Brett Smiley.)

Addressing Unaddressed Complaints

The letter of complaint signed by the news media was addressed to Bloomberg’s Police Department (its full text is here: New York media organizations demand meeting with Kelly, Browne about Zuccotti Park 'abuses' of the press, by Joe Pompeo, Nov. 21, 2011- I can't find the full letter on the Times’ own web site). A second similar letter sent by the New York Civil Liberties Union was addressed first to “Honorable Michael R. Bloomberg, Mayor” and secondly to Raymond Kelly as commissioner of the Police Department. That letter expresses concern about the “media backout” imposed by the NYPD effectively blocking first-hand reporting, details physical abuses and mentions the closing of the airspace over Zucotti Park to prevent news helicopters from documenting the police actions. It goes on to say that it is:
clear to us that the NYPD is aggressively blocking journalists from doing their constitutionally protected work and in some instances is even targeting journalists for mistreatment. That this has happened during a nationally important protest is all the more disturbing.
A copy of that letter is available here.

Who Signed News Organization Complaint Letter? And One Organization That Didn’t

The letter of complaint by the news organizations that the Times addressed in its editorial this weekend was signed, in addition to the Times, by more than a dozen of the most important news organizations and associations in New York, a veritably complete BINGO of everyone conceivably of importance available to sign. It includes the following:
1. The Associated Press
2. The New York Post
3. The Daily News
4. Thomson Reuters
5. Dow Jones & Company
6. The Associated Press,
9. WNBC (NBC Universal and WNBC-TV)
10. National Press Photographers Association
11. New York Press Photographers Association
12. Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
13. New York Press Club
14. Deadline Club
Although it includes one organization, Rupert Murdoch’s Dow Jones & Company, owner of the Wall Street Journal, that famously reports on Wall Street, it does not include another major company reporting on Wall Street, Bloomberg, L.P. whose “Bloomberg TV” was given a prominent spot on the NYC Time Warner dial by City Hall (Bloomberg) and which publishes BusinessWeek. It seems that if you own the press you might no longer need to worry that it will criticize you.

Owning One’s Journalistic Principles

The Times editorial this weekend doesn’t say so but you should probably infer from it that a press that is free to go where it wants and report what stories it wants is important and a good thing. That, however, is something that the Bloomberg administration and apparently Mayor Michael Bloomberg himself doesn’t want. But if you fight for these rights in principle, what difference does it make to win them if, in the end, you are only going to report things as the administration would like them reported? Isn't that what the Times has done by compliantly passing along the administration’s recent PR that Mayor Bloomberg is defender of free speech and a champion of the first amendment. And it furthers that misguided notion by failing to chastise the mayor for the blatant suppression of the press when the Occupy Wall Street protesters were evicted. Michael Bloomberg may own Bloomberg, L.P. and that may be one of the many ways that he, with various forms of paid speech, ensures that messages he wants promulgated get out (or, alternatively are ignored), but what hold does Michael Bloomberg have on the editorial page of the New York Times that it should be guilty of such a gross lapse in not holding Bloomberg himself accountable?

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