NYC mayor’s view on free press should trouble news magnate alter ego

Monday, December 12, 2011

I wonder if news magnate Michael Bloomberg really would agree with alter ego New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg on the nuts and bolts of a free press.

Bloomberg, the mayoral version, was quoted in recent news reports as saying journalists weren’t justified in complaining about being blocked from witnessing the police removal of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators Nov. 15 from an encampment in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park.

“The press made a big deal that they were denied their rights,” the mayor said over the weekend, in a weekly radio appearance, as reported by the Associated Press. “You don’t have a right as a press person, I don’t think, to stand in the way just in the interest of you getting a story. We didn’t keep anybody from reporting. They just had to stand to the side while the police did their job.”

Bloomberg, the version who founded the massive multimedia news operation Bloomberg News, might want to offer a few corrections, clarifications and questions to His Honor’s account of what happened that night. Certainly some New York news colleagues have their own version, involving a lot more than just being asked to “stand to the side.”

A coalition of news groups has sent letters to Bloomberg — the mayor — saying that police forced reporters and photographers so far away that they couldn’t see the park, and that officers roughed up some journalists in the process. The groups also complained that a number of reporters were arrested during the police action, only to see those arrests voided a few hours later, after events at the park were over.

To be sure, nothing in the First Amendment’s provision for a free press empowers anyone to interfere with police duties. But being shoved to spots blocks away or placed in custody when news is occurring? Such tactics are far removed from a very polite phrase like “stand to the side.”

The freedom to report the news without government interference requires the ability to gather the news freely, as well, and in many cases that means the freedom to observe the news firsthand. The alternative is simply to be “free” to report what officials or others say is the news. Without journalists on the scene observing for themselves, New Yorkers were left with reports from the city’s PR department and accounts from demonstrators who were there.

Secondhand sources are one way to report news, and sometimes that’s all there is. But why should citizens in New York or elsewhere have to settle for second best when better is available?

Also see: Role of free press misunderstood as protests roll on

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