Notes on the NYPD Press Credentialing Process, from the (Ineligible) Editor-in-Chief of the New York Observer

In a note responding to an earlier post from TheAwl detailing the various media organization associations of 26 reporters arrested during the Occupy Wall Street protests, Bloomberg spokesperson Stu Loeser tried to dismiss any accusations that the arrests were improper by noting that only five of the reporters arrested had valid NYPD press credentials. He then went on to Tweet at Observer News Editor Megan McCarthy:

@megan, you don’t have a press pass; that’s your option. But why should some random NYPD take your word that you’re press?

Aside from the question of whether credentialing by law enforcement is appropriate in the first place (inasmuch as it can potentially conflict with first amendment protections), the NYPD’s processes for acquiring credentials are, to put it nicely, Kafkaesque. To put it bluntly: they’re ridiculous.

Visit the “press eligibility” page of New York Finest and you’ll find the following requirements:

First-time applicants should contact the Press Credentials office (above) before completing their application.

Applicants must be a member of the media who covers, in person, emergency, spot or breaking news events and/or public events of a non-emergency nature, where police, fire lines or other restrictions, limitations, or barriers established by the City of New York have been set up for security or crowd control purposes, within the City of New York; or covers, in person, events sponsored by the City of New York which are open to members of the press.

Applicants also must submit one or more articles, commentaries, books, photographs, videos, films or audios published or broadcast within the twenty–four (24) months immediately preceding the Press Card application, sufficient to show that the applicant covered in person six (6) or more events occurring on separate days .

According to the last paragraph, you have to demonstrate coverage as an uncredentialed reporter in order to get credentialed. So the only way to comply with the law is to have previously broken the law repeatedly.

It should be noted here that there are tiered layers of press passes. The lowest is fairly easy to get if you’re persistent. And by persistent, I mean willing to spend weeks getting in touch with the NYPD press office, eventually reaching a live person, and making an appointment months away, and hoping (in order to be within the letter of the law) that nothing tantalizingly newsy and earth-shattering happens in the intervening period.

The “real” press pass, the one that allows you to cross yellow police tape, is only attainable if you’ve covered the kind of story that necessitated crossing the yellow line–without credentials. (Thus, rookie reporters often sub in their bylines for breaking news stories and submit falsified copy to the NYPD.)

There’s also a more subtle problem, one that’s more likely to affect a smaller news org like the Observer than a larger one with more resources. Consider this line:

The applicant covered in person six (6) or more events occurring on separate days.

That rules out anyone at a legitimate news organization who’s working in a legitimate journalistic capacity who happens to be … an editor. Despite the fact that I can demonstrate to the NYPD in a myriad of different ways that I’m “press” by any reasonable definition–with plenty of documentation–I need to have covered six events myself (again, uncredentialed) and published reports about the same. It’s rare that I send editors to do field reporting and rare that I can do it myself (which is a shame, because I love it), but the fact that I can’t do that if we need the additional reporting is patently absurd.

But let’s face it, it may not even matter. Five of the reporters on TheAwl list were credentialed.

They were arrested anyway.