Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Bloggers Beat Mayor Bloomberg

Little Bits of a Big City

By Arun Venugopal

March 2, 2010

It may seem a bit behind the times to say that independent bloggers are just as legit as their peers in the mainstream media, but in the real world of covering crime, or disasters, or the mayor of New York, that’s not the case. Independent bloggers can’t get press credentials, nor the special access those credentials bring, such as crossing police lines or a seat at certain mayoral events. That gives reporters with traditional media outlets a disproportionate amount of influence when it comes to covering local politics and city affairs. And it means that City Hall can manage a limited set of reporters as it tries to shape the news.

No longer.

Rafael Martinez

Rafael Martinez Alequín

Under a newly proposed set of rules, brought on by a lawsuit from bloggers, the NYPD will start giving members of the electronic media some of its 5000-odd press credentials. From the city’s law department:

Under the proposed new rules published today, to obtain a press credential, an applicant must show that he or she has covered, in person, six news events where the City has restricted access, within the two-year period preceding the application. In addition to employees of traditional news gathering organizations, the new rules cover self-employed newspersons and other individuals who gather and report the news. The new press card will be issued every two years.

At the center of the lawsuit was Rafael Martínez Alequín, an old-school leftie who moved here from Puerto Rico in the early 50s and proudly talks of his links to the labor movement, Vietnam war protests, and assorted radicals. Rafi, as he’s known to those of us who regularly cover City Hall, has always had a habit of asking (or shouting) antagonistic questions of the mayor. Some of them were less questions than statements, eg., “Mayor when are you going to realize it’s the people who voted for you, not the corporations?”

At times, however, his questions were legitimate and provocative, and the answers he elicited were newsworthy.

But in 2007, his application for a press ID renewal – along with applications of two others – were turned down by the NYPD. That meant they couldn’t get in to many press conferences and other events, even as their peers at mainstream outlets could. The three sued the next year, arguing that the city’s system of deciding who got press passes was arbitrary. They eventually won, but they kept pushing to change the overall system.

Martínez and his fellow plaintiffs are also hoping for a cash settlement – amount unknown. At the age of 77, he still sees himself as an outsider, someone who’s been shut out not just by the city, but by his fellow City Hall reporters as well. For now though, he’s feeling redeemed.

But will he keep covering the mayor? He’s vague on that point. And he points out that despite the new rules, the mayor may still not call on him, whenever he raises his hand.

“That’s his First Amendment right, too,” he says.

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