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Journalists confront sporadic restrictions in aftermath of Sept. 11 terrorist attacks

From the Fall 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 11.

From the Fall 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 11.

By Phillip Taylor

In the hours after two commercial jets tore into the World Trade Center towers, Newsweek magazine quickly dispatched dozens of its New York-based writers to scour the streets for reports of destruction and survival.

Grabbing his notepad and pen, Arian Campo-Flores, a Newsweek correspondent, ran toward the towers but was stopped by a New York City police officer. Although told to turn back, Campo-Flores, like dozens of other reporters who reached the devastation shortly after the towers crumbled, managed to reach the wreckage another way.

“The police weren’t organized enough to keep people out,” Campo-Flores said. “It was a bit easier to move around. If you were stopped at one block, you could kind of work your way around the blocks and maze of downtown, find an opening and find your way around. There were much more serious things than keeping reporters away.”

In the days that followed, Campo-Flores and his Newsweek colleagues found it difficult to get access as police cordoned off the blocks around the site of the former towers — an area later dubbed “Ground Zero.” And reports surfaced of reporters and photographers losing their credentials and film and landing in jail.

But such reports in New York City, Washington, D.C., Boston and elsewhere appeared to be spotty and erratic in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Even looking back, press advocates say coverage restrictions on journalists stateside hardly boiled up into a full-fledged trend.

“I’ve heard of some of the things that happened, but ‘sporadic’ is exactly the right word to use,” said Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association and former Washington bureau chief for CBS News. “Anybody who’s wanted to limit access could come up with a national security reason for doing so. If anything, after some of the nervousness in the early days, officials and journalists worked through these issues.”

In the meantime, several journalists reported seeing New York police seize press credentials from other reporters, saying that they had violated the rules by either entering restricted areas or misrepresenting themselves as rescue workers. At least one reporter was cited for disorderly conduct.

Los Angeles Times reporter Robert Lee Hotz told his newspaper that he saw police officers and National Guard members taking film from news photographers, often without explanation. Hotz said police told him they were trying to “protect the privacy of the families” looking for loved ones.

Officials at Boston’s Logan Airport at first ordered television crews to park their satellite trucks several miles away. Eventually, they agreed to allow broadcasters better access to the airport where two of the hijacked planes took off.

In Washington, D.C., Jason Pierce, a staff writer for CNSNews.com, said a police officer ordered him not to snap any shots when he asked for a good spot to photograph events at the White House three days after the attacks. Pierce, a reporter with credentials from the Radio-Television Press Gallery of Congress, said the officer said police would question anyone taking pictures.

Scott Hogenson, executive editor of CNSNews, said he took the situation to police sergeants and came away assured that the incident was an isolated one. There haven’t been similar reports since, he said.

“Which is good news for all journalists,” Hogenson said. “I think what we saw here was one of those occasional incidents when the excitement of the moment and the gravity of the moment clouded judgment temporarily.”

Perhaps surprisingly, journalists didn’t report any interference in covering the attack on the Pentagon building in Arlington, Va.

‘Watch what you say’

Tension about dissent, however, soared in the weeks after the attack even among journalists and commentators.

Several magazine and newspaper columnists, including Ann Coulter of National Review, lost their pulpits after criticizing President Bush’s response to the terrorist attacks. A Missouri lawmaker threatened to cut funding for the Missouri School of Journalism because KOMU, the school’s television station, refused to pin American flags on the lapels of its broadcasters.

Most notably, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer denounced comments from Bill Maher, host of television’s “Politically Incorrect,” who called U.S. military strikes on faraway targets a “cowardly” act.

“We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away,” Maher said. “That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.” Fleischer, in a Sept. 26 press briefing, described the words as “a terrible thing to say.”

He added: “There are reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do, and this is not a time for remarks like that; there never is.”

Amid criticism of Fleischer’s statement, the White House released the transcript of the briefing, eliminating the phrase “watch what they say.” Officials restored the wording later, claiming that it had been omitted accidentally.

Government officials, meanwhile, discouraged news media from airing the Taliban’s viewpoint.

The State Department heavily criticized Voice of America for broadcasting its interview with Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader. The interview aired Sept. 25 and included a review of President Bush’s speech to Congress on Sept. 20, commentary by an academic expert and comments from a representative of the Taliban’s opponents, the Northern Alliance.

Bush also asked news media networks not to air prerecorded messages from terrorist Osama Bin Laden in their entirety, warning that such tapes from Bin Laden and his henchmen could be used to frighten Americans, gain supporters and send messages about future terrorist attacks.

All five major television news organizations — ABC News, CBS News, NBC News and its affiliate MSNBC, Fox News and CNN — agreed not to air unedited, videotaped statements from Bin Laden or his followers and to remove language the government considers inflammatory.

No cameras at Ground Zero

Among the few incidents of impeded coverage, photographers and broadcasters, in particular, bore the brunt of the restrictions, probably because of the immediate and graphic nature of their media.

Television crews lost the use of their helicopters and news planes after the Federal Aviation Administration shut down the entire American airspace for several days after the attacks. Although the restriction served as a precaution for other hijacking attempts, some said the ban on small aircraft flights lasted much too long.

Several photographers spent time in jail on a variety of trespassing charges, including four in New York City who apparently got too close to the World Trade Center wreckage.

Tyler Hicks, a freelance photographer for the New York Times, spent a night in jail before a judge dropped criminal trespassing charges against him. Photographers Stephen Ferry, Emmanuel Dumont and Ian Austin all faced similar charges.

Austin, a freelance photographer for Aurora Quanta Productions in Portland, Maine, said he couldn’t produce the proper credentials when police asked. The police seized his camera equipment and arrested him.

“The atmosphere was ugly,” said Austin, who spent three days in jail. “The police told me they were going to make an example of me. I felt hamstrung. I didn’t know what I could do. It was my word against theirs, and I have no recourse.”

In Pennsylvania, photographer William Wendt and his assistant Daniel Mahoney were arrested for defiant trespass at the scene of the United Airlines crash site. Wendt was working for New York Times Magazine when the two men lost their way to the press tent and were arrested after walking 50 yards away and into a restricted area.

Two weeks after the attack, New York police began enforcing a ban on all amateur photography near the ruins of the World Trade Center. Signs began popping up warning passersby that they risked prosecution if they violated the bans on photography in the area.

City officials stressed that the policy didn’t apply to legitimate newsgathering ventures.

“It doesn’t affect anybody who is authorized,” said Sunny Mindel, a spokesman for Mayor Rudy Giuliani. “What we’ve got is people on the site taking pictures, selling them, using it as a tourist site.”

But some news photographers reported getting harassed, arrested and losing their film.

Police admitted that they removed credentials from some reporters within the first five days of the attack but noted they began reissuing them soon after. More than 1,200 press badges were distributed in the wake of the attacks.

Even then access slowed but not to a halt, said Campo-Flores of Newsweek.

“Now that they have more resources, the situation is more under control, and it’s a more coordinated effort,” he said.

Heather Palmer contributed to this report.