Sunday, February 22, 2009

Free the New York Three!

I must protest – even at the risk of having my press credential arbitrarily and summarily revoked – the latest undemocratic decision by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Fresh on the heels of having abrogated the decision of the people at the ballot box regarding the matter of term limits, Hizzoner’s current controversy revolves around a boneheaded decision by his Police Department to deny official ‘working press’ passes to three men, Rafael Martínez Alequin, Ralph E. Smith and David Wallis, all of whom work for online or nontraditional news outlets — such as this one!

One of them – David Wallis – is well known to me as the founder of, a professional syndication service that provides news coverage to 1,500 publications worldwide. (Disclosure: Wallis and featurewell have syndicated many of my blog posts and articles in the past.) There is NO question that Wallis — who had a valid press identification card for many years, beginning in 1994 — is a legitimate and noted journalist. His articles, for example, have appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and numerous other prominent publications, and he is also the editor of two acclaimed collections of censored articles and cartoons. Nonetheless, as of last year, he has been deemed illegitimate by the NYPD and denied credentials — without explanation. As a direct result, his ability to engage in professional journalistic activities has been hampered, and he says he eventually “ceased to pursue opportunities to report on newsworthy events.”

Mr. Smith, a public information officer for the city’s Correction Department, is also publisher of The Guardian Chronicle, a Web site for black law enforcement workers. He had a press credential from 1996 until 2007, when his application to renew was also denied without a written explanation. And Mr. Martínez Alequin, identified by the Times as “a longtime City Hall gadfly” who had become “persona non grata in City Hall,” has already had his troubles with the powers-that-wannabe. (For example Rudolph Giuliani, that paragon of politesse, once called him a “jerk” and an “embarrassment.”)

For nearly twenty years Martínez Alequin published The Brooklyn Free Press, after which he began the online New York City Free Press, and then the blog Your Free Press. He too was credentialed as a journalist for years — from 1986 to 2000 and again in 2005 and 2006. But in the apparently fateful year of 2007, his application to renew his press pass was denied, and as a result, he was barred for a time from Mayor Bloomberg’s news conferences.

It is unclear whether the fact that Martínez Alequin often criticized Mayor Bloomberg — just as he did with Bloomie’s City Hall predecessors like rude Rudy G — had anything to do with the refusal to grant him credentials. But even if that is not the case, the decision to hold back official recognition of his role as a journalist is blatantly stupid – if only because that inference can and will be made as a result. Why is the Mayor opening himself up to charges that police permits are denied to journalists who may have viewpoints considered controversial? Is the problem perhaps that Martinez Alequin has been insufficiently reverential of powerful politicians? (He once angered Giuliani by noting that the NYPD was “trigger-happy when it comes to blacks and Latinos,” and was later publicly chastised by the current mayor for referring to his autobiography “Bloomberg by Bloomberg” as “Bloomberg on Bloomberg.” Whatever!) In any event, Martinez Alequin has it right when he says, “There are many questions that have to be asked to the mayor or to any elected official that I think the mainstream media very seldom asks.”

After exhausting other means of appeal, the New York Three have now filed a federal lawsuit asserting that the Police Department violated their constitutional rights. The suit contends –- rightly, to my mind — that the city’s regulations governing press credentialing are “unconstitutionally vague,” and the plaintiffs are seeking both compensatory and punitive damages.

Norman Siegel, the attorney representing the three men, told the Times in a phone interview that, “The system of granting press credentials in New York City has run amok and needs to be changed immediately.” Siegel is correct – but why does it require literally making a federal case out of this for the city to begin “investigating the plaintiff’s concerns thoroughly?”

The Times report on the matter by Sewell Chan framed the conflict as one of determining, “In the ever-shifting media landscape of 2008, who, exactly, is a journalist?” Wrong in its entirety! There can be no doubt that people like David Wallis, Rafael Martínez Alequin, and Ralph E. Smith are practicing journalism. That makes them, de facto, practicing journalists.

The City of New York should promptly get this entire matter out of federal court, issue credentials to the three journalists –- along with an official apology -– and then get busy rationalizing their ridiculous credentialing process, or else just get out of the press pass business entirely.

Come on, Mayor Bloomberg -— you’re better than that… Free the New York Three!

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