A move to give the Mayor’s office responsibility for press passes that have long been handled by the New York Police Department is generating controversy from all sides.
The Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment is on track to take over the issuance, suspension and revocation of press credentials to working journalists, including photographers, thanks to a new City Council bill passed in March.
Advocates of the move cite the NYPD’s handling of police protests last summer, including clashes with journalists, while critics fear it gives notoriously thin-skinned mayors too much control over how they are covered.
Press trade groups, meanwhile, say the new bill caught them by surprise at a time when they were working to resolve thorny issues about the NYPD’s handling of the the protests directly with that agency.
And now they are concerned that a press pass from a city agency responsible for coordinating citywide film and television production and nightlife won’t be held in the same esteem when it comes to covering emergencies as one issued by the NYPD.
“We’re a little skeptical of the change,” said Colin DeVries, president of the Deadline Club, a local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. A big question, DeVries said, is “will the MOME-issued badges create access issues,” including with the NYPD, which is usually in charge of the kinds of breaking news events that require press credentials to get in.
A Working Press pass enables credentialed reporters and photographers to cross police and fire lines during protests and emergency situations, but is also accepted as press ID at many city-sponsored events from parades to City Hall press conferences.
“There is a concern whether a badge from MOME is going to be recognized and have the same authority as an NYPD issued badge,” he said, noting that most other big cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and Boston still have police departments issuing their cities’ press passes.
In addition to issuing permits to TV shows and movie studios filming on city streets, MOME also runs the city’s various film festivals and also acts as a central contact for the city’s nightlife industry.
The bill to transfer control of press passes to MOME passed the city council at the end of March and currently awaits Mayor de Blasio’s signature. It will become operational 270 days after he signs it, according to city councilman Keith Powers, the main sponsor of the bill.
“It started forming as an issue last summer at the height of the protests,” Powers explained in an interview. The NYPD, going back the days when Ray Kelly was commissioner, has been looking to shed the responsibility.
“I realized that the NYPD really doesn’t want to do this, they should be focused on law enforcement issues,” Powers said.
NYC public advocate Jumaane Williams has endorsed Powers’ bill, citing the police’s handling of the press last summer at the height of protests tied to George Floyd’s death under the knee of now ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
“During those demonstrations in 2020, there were several incidents of journalists also being threatened, detained, or arrested, Williams said, citing a reporter who was pushed by officers for filming an arrest despite showing an NYPD-issued press badge, and another who was “hit and tackled to the ground while wearing a jacket with the word ‘PRESS.’”
“I can go on,” Williams said, “but the point is clear: An NYPD-press badge meant nothing for officers who can decide to assault or arrest reporters for doing their job.”
But other First Amendment advocates fear that handing the responsibility to an office so closely associated with Mayor de Blasio, who has shown disdain for the media — or to any mayor for that matter — risks creating a whole new set of conflicts and possible retaliation over unfavorable coverage.
“Can that office be truly independent?,” famed civil rights attorney Norm Siegel asked of MOME. “All mayor’s are thin-skinned,” added Siegel. “My experience with numerous mayors going back to Ed Koch and Giuliani is they don’t like it when journalists are critical of them.”
Siegel says he pushed for the credentials to be issued instead by the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection because it’s already in the business of handing out licenses for city businesses, like street vending and horse-drawn carriages, and he believes they have proven themselves “independent.”
In fact, the original version of the bill would have assigned the credential responsibility to the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, but Siegel says de Blasio pushed to assign the responsibility to MOME and the bill was changed after it was introduced.
A spokeswoman for Powers added: “No matter which city agency handles it, that agency would have a commissioner appointed by the mayor.”
Major press associations say the new bill caught them by surprise when it was introduced earlier this year.
“It would have been nice if they consulted more with the press,” said Mickey Osterreicher, an attorney representing the National Press Photographers Association and its local chapter, the New York Press Photographers.
While groups like the Deadline Club, the New York Press Club and the New York Press Photographers Association were pushing for NYPD reforms, they weren’t pushing it to be stripped of its press responsibility.
Critics also point out that MOME has proven unfriendly to photographers in the way it’s handled film shoots or sponsored events like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade or Dick Clark Productions’ New Year’s Eve celebration.
Photographers who make their living photographing celebrities, meanwhile, say MOME has been known to use police to block them from getting anywhere near one of their events or productions.
“It turns police into security guards for big media companies,” complained one freelance photographer of MOME. “There’s no public safety reason to prevent photographers from shooting at these events,” added the photographer, who said he was frequently blocked from shooting from a public sidewalk.
Added Osterricher of MOME: “In some cases, wearing a press badge gave you even less rights than the general public. The public was allowed to walk down a sidewalk, while the photographers were forced to stand in a press pen a few blocks away.”
Press groups are, however, applauding new provisions that allow for a hearing process if press credentials are denied or revoked.
Under the old arrangement, the NYPD was “accuser, judge and executioner,” said Siegel, who has tangled with the NYPD on press issues for years. Added Osterreicher: “Any police officer could revoke your press credential or threaten to revoke it.”
The new bill would have disputes over credentials sent to the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings (OATH).
“That is a great change,” said DeVries.
When told of the photographers’ concerns about being blocked from MOME events, Powers said that before any changeover is enacted sometime next year there will be rule-making sessions to seek input from press groups and iron out details.
No date has yet been set for deBlasio to sign the bill, but it is on his desk awaiting a signature, Powers said.
“We’re going to be watching carefully to make sure the rules are appropriate and fair,” said DeVries. Added, Osterreicher: “There is no perfect solution, but the credentialing process is still important.”