Cops To New York Times Photog: You're Not Special (Update)
Long-time New York Times freelance photographer Robert Stolarik found out what it's like to be treated like the riff-raff.
Mr. Stolarik was taking photographs of the arrest of a teenage girl about 10:30 p.m., when a police officer instructed him to stop doing so. Mr. Stolarik said he identified himself as a journalist for The Times and continued taking pictures. A second officer appeared, grabbed his camera and “slammed” it into his face, he said.
Mr. Stolarik said he asked for the officers’ badge numbers, and the officers then took his cameras and dragged him to the ground; he said that he was kicked in the back and that he received scrapes and bruises to his arms, legs and face.
The police, of course, fall back on their generic excuse, that Stolarik was given a "lawful order" and disobeyed. The lily was then gilded:
The Police Department said in a statement that officers had been trying to disperse the crowd and had given “numerous lawful orders” for both the crowd and Mr. Stolarik to move back, but that he tried to push forward, “inadvertently” striking an officer in the face with his camera.
The police said that Mr. Stolarik then “violently resisted being handcuffed” and that, in the process, a second officer was cut on the hand.A video of the episode taken by one of the reporters who was with Mr. Stolarik shows Mr. Stolarik face down on the sidewalk, beneath a huddle of about six officers.
After all, photographers seem to be a very violent bunch, always doing something with justifies a pile of officers throwing them to the ground and piling on, the requisite knee to the small of the back so that it's clear that someone will suffer pain, and it won't be the cops. Why six officers? The others didn't notice the take down in time to join the pile?
Naturally, charges were levied against Stolarik (note that I do not call him "Mr." as does the Times, just as they don't call other folks "Mr." when it's not one of their own) for obstructing governmental administration and resisting arrest. He was apparently given a DAT with a return date in November, thus distinguishing him from the norm of a night in a holding cell at Central Booking. Somebody had the good sense not to push the envelope that far, and no doubt by the time Stolarik returns to court to answer the charges, everyone will forget this ever happened.
But what will the New York Times do about this? This time, it's not some local yokel photographer in some backwater getting his camera seized and head bashed. If there is any newspaper with the ability to bring this issue to a head, it's the New York Times. So, gray lady, what do you plan to do about it?
George Freeman, a lawyer for The Times, said the episode was “especially distressing” because the newspaper had been working with the Police Department since the Occupy Wall Street protests last fall, in which some journalists were denied access to certain areas or were arrested, to find ways to prevent the police from interfering with journalists in the course of their work.
Compromise the First Amendment. Cooperate with the police. Beg for their indulgence.
There has long been a concern about the media's gutless embrace of law enforcement in order to smooth their way when "doing their job." They need cops to talk to them, giving them some "inside scoop" so they have more to write about then the official statement. They need access to crime scenes, disaster scenes, newsworthy events, that are under the control of the police. Without this access, how are they supposed to write stories, take pictures, report the news?
There are two ways to accomplish access. The first is to come to an agreement with the guys with guns, where they won't step on too many toes, make too many waves, annoy the men in blue. After all, compromise is always the easiest, smoothest path.
The downside, of course, is that compromising access means they compromise their objectivity, their right to unearth the news and report it. They report what they're allowed to report. They report only as much as the cops permit.
The other way is to assert freedom of the press and make the biggest stink possible about this outrageous police abuse. This way involves being tough. It means they could make some enemies. It means they would have to fight for their rights. It all sounds so hard and unpleasant. Compromise is such a beloved concept anyway.
Where will compromise take the New York Times after the arrest of Robert Stolarik? Maybe they will agree to allow their photographers to be thrown to the ground, but agree to only four cops on his back? Maybe the cops can smash his face on the pavement but not put a knee in his back?
Or maybe the Times will agree that its photographers will only take pictures approved by the NYPD, and the cops agree not to arrest their people any more. Will both the cops and the Times be happy with this compromise?
And maybe Stolarik will get an ACD come November, with a promise to behave himself by complying with police commands, just as they expect of every photographer.
Update: To the extent that some see this as a potential "turning point" in the revolution, with dreams of the New York Times fighting the good fight to finally put an end to police abuse of photographers, it should be noted that this story did not appear in the dead tree paper on page one, above the fold. In fact, it appears on page A18, the last page of the section, below the fold.
While the message may be subtle, it's nonetheless clear. The Times isn't going to war over this. No matter how many barrels of ink they have stashed away, it will not be spilled on behalf of Stolarik.