Journalists report government interference with newsgathering

Tuesday, September 18, 2001
United States Park Police Officer Ernest Patrick keeps watch outside White House today, a week after terrorist attacks against U.S.

Tension between police officers and reporters covering last week’s terror attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., doesn’t surprise one free-press advocate, but she says government interference with newsgathering is troublesome.

The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday that police and National Guardsmen had confiscated film from news photographers and tourists near the site of the World Trade Center attacks without explanation. The newspaper quoted one of its reporters, Robert Lee Hotz, as saying that police told him they were trying to “protect the privacy of the families” looking for loved ones.

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said it “is a tricky situation” between reporters and police, with officers having to assure safety and security but at the same time the public still needing to know what is going on.

But Dalglish says she finds the idea of police seizing film offensive. “Police have to know that it’s got to stop,” she told reported Sept. 14 that one of its staff writers in Washington, D.C., had been ordered not to take photographs or record videotape, even though he was on public property in “non-secure areas.” — which is affiliated with the Media Research Center — reported that Jason Pierce had been assigned to take photographs around the Capitol, the White House, National Cathedral and other areas of the city. According to the news service, Pierce asked police officers “if there was a good place to take some pictures of what was going on around the White House.”

“They wanted to know why I wanted to take pictures, and I explained that I was a member of the press and showed them my credentials,” Pierce, was quoted as saying by

Pierce said a Washington, D.C., police officer told him, “‘You’re not allowed to use a camera anywhere near the White House, and if we catch anyone using a camera near the White House, we’re going to be stopping them and questioning them.’ ”

According to, Pierce then went to the opposite side of the White House security perimeter, where an officer he identified as a Park Service officer said he could take a photo. Pierce told that the officer said “‘… but you have to do it from right there, and you better do it fast.’ ” Executive Editor Scott Hogenson told that he was filing a formal complaint with D.C. police department. He said he hoped the complaint would result in reminders from the police department to officers that the news media must have unfettered access to report, as long as they don’t interfere with the security of a scene.

“I don’t want anyone’s head on a platter, I just want my young newsmen and newswomen to able to do their jobs without intimidation from police,” Hogenson said.

“I also understand that this is not ‘the story,’ ” with the terror attacks being the main focus of the American public, he said, “but it is a concern. I’m concerned about the erosion of civil liberties. We can’t let that happen or then the bad guys have won.”

The Los Angeles Times also reported yesterday that New York Police Department officials said that an unspecified number of journalists who had “violated the rules” had had their press credentials removed. According to the newspaper, the journalists had been accused of either entering restricted areas or misrepresenting themselves as rescue workers. One reporter was given a summons for disorderly conduct, the newspaper reported.

Newsday reported Sept.14 that police said WCBS newscaster Vince DeMentri had been arrested the previous night for impersonating a federal agent while covering the attack on the World Trade Center. The newspaper reported that DeMentri’s lawyer later said he had persuaded police to reduce the charge to trespassing, a misdemeanor.

“It was a big misunderstanding and nothing more,” lawyer Joseph Tacopina was quoted by Newsday as saying about the arrest. “He was at the wrong place at the wrong time during all this bedlam.”

Another confrontation between press and government reported by the Los Angeles Times involved CNN and the Coast Guard. The newspaper said the Coast Guard reprimanded CNN on Sept. 16 for broadcasting what the network labeled “exclusive” aerial scenes of the World Trade Center disaster site. The video was shot from a Coast Guard helicopter.

“Coast Guard spokesman James McGranachan said CNN was allowed in the helicopter only as part of a general story the network said it was planning for Sunday night on rescue, patrol and port-safety activities in New York Harbor,” the Los Angeles Times reported. CNN then isolated footage of the devastation and aired it, whereupon other news organizations complained to the Coast Guard for supposedly having shut them out.

The Coast Guard then asked Keith McAllister, CNN senior vice president and national managing editor, to remove the “exclusive” designation and offer the video scenes to other news outlets.

The Times quoted a CNN spokeswoman as saying, “It was never our understanding that the pictures obtained could not be made available immediately.” CNN complied with the Coast Guard’s request.

If the United States takes military action in response to the terror attacks, Dalglish said she expects more clashes between the news media and the government.

“If we go to a war footing, I think the Pentagon will try to shut down media access,” she said. But “I think it will be a different situation than 10 years ago during the Gulf War because technology wasn’t as advanced then and the Pentagon was better able to control” what footage was shot and sent back to the United States.

Citing CNN’s use of a video phone last week in reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan, Dalglish said that information would now be able to get back into the country without going through military censors.

There’s going to be more tension between the military and the media, a tension that is natural, she said.

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